Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Story is King - Originality

The net is full of writers who want to be the next best seller, whether or not they have been through the route of traditional publishing.

I was interested to read a review of one self-published novel which said it had many typos, errors of grammar and other textual flaws, but that this did not mar the reviewer's experience because the story was so good. The book has sold a lot of copies and is flying high in the e-book charts. I think the flaws might have irritated me more because to me spelling, grammar, and generally 'good' english is part of being a writer. I was brought up to think that way through my old-fashioned education.

But more and more I see that these "good english" skills have been replaced by machines that do the job of checking spelling, grammar, repetition, past participle searching and so forth. So in the current world of writing (at least as far as one reviewer is concerned) Story is King.

There are millions of stories out there all clamouring for an audience. If we are to believe Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots, all of us are replaying ancient myths whether we know it or not, so originality is hard to achieve. What makes an idea original and how can one go about finding something original? And not just to one reader, but to many?

I'm sure it must be partly about voice. The readers must trust the storyteller. On this journey the initial premise of the story must transport them so that the readers lose their own reality and join with the writers vision, but at the same time feel that they are on this journey alone.

Often people say, "It caught my imagination" as if somehow the author has managed to trap it like a butterfly in a net. So, how to catch an imagination? The writer has to make the reader work hard so that they are engaged in creating the scenes in their head, but not so hard that they tire of it and put the book down. This is a hard tightrope to walk, the juxtaposition of the familiar to draw the reader in easily, and the unfamiliar to make it interesting.

Everyone thinks their story is unique, so I cannot claim to have done anything startlingly original, but thinking about this I realise that my best and most surprising ideas come from the following practices:

A lightness of touch. Trying to be original somehow provokes the very opposite.

A sustained attention on the minutiae of the character I am working with.

Researching real events. Truth is often more original than my mind seems to want to invent.

Giving the characters room not to reply to each other in words but to do something physical instead. Allowing them freedom of movement.

"Originality lives at the crossroads, at the point where world and self open to each other in transparence in the night rain."
Jane Hirshfield


  1. Hi Deborah, thanks for this really interesting article. I agree with what you say about the story being important, absolutely - Story is always King for me! And it would be great to think that one day typos and spelling mistakes will not matter because apart from anything a good proof reader is expensive (though usually worth it!). However, like you, I too find mistakes in the writing of others irritating ( I wish I didn't!), they distract me from the 'dream world' of the story. Too many mistakes and I give up. But one thing is for sure, as you rightly seem to suggest, if we writers try too hard with our writing to affect a style, we are in danger of our writing becoming 'affected', and that's a far worse crime in my book than any spelling mistake or typo. Thanks again :)

  2. Hi Marianne, nice of you to drop by. Yes, "affected" writing where the author is trying too hard to be literary - ugh! I wonder if eventually our e-readers will correct typos as we read?!