Therese here to officially introduce you to our newest regular contributor: Cathy Yardley! Cathy is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin’s and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She’s also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Please join me in welcoming her to WU!
“Everything’s been done already. Why am I even bothering?”
I hear this from writers all the time. This seems especially true for genre novelists, who worry that their story idea isn’t original, or worse, that nothing is original these days.
Does the world really need another swords-and-sorcery Tolkien knock-off? Why in the world would they want yet another billionaire’s secret baby? And haven’t we seen the hard-boiled P.I. or cheerfully dotty amateur sleuth more than enough?
They’re asking the wrong question.
They’re examining the “problem” as writers — not as readers.
The better question is: why are these genres, tropes and archetypes still popular?
Fairy tales. Fables. Myths. Archetypes. They’ve been twisted, tweaked, and tailored to fit audiences for centuries, right up to today.
Writers don’t need to write something so unique it’s unrecognizable. Instead, we can address the emotional needs served by these so-called “unoriginal” tales — and create something that serves those needs in a new way.
And now for something completely different.
To understand why “nothing new under the sun” is not a death knell, we’re going to examine…
Specifically, The Superbowl.
(If you’re not a huge American football fan, neither am I. Please bear with me.)
The Superbowl first started in 1967. In all that time, the rules have remained fairly static.
The outcome is also predictable: one team will win, one team will lose. It cannot end in a tie.
Nor will it end unexpectedly with the teams breaking into interpretive dance around a painted yak in the third quarter. “Originality” is not the point here.
It’s the same game every year. Only the players are different. So why do so many people tune in every year?
When I was a child, the only football game I watched was the Superbowl, and I cheered like a madwoman.
Why? Because my brother and I would bet one nickel on opposing teams.
Suddenly, it went from “this is a boring game I don’t really understand” to “if the guys with the silver helmets get the ball to the end, I get to crow victory over my big brother.”
It gave me emotional engagement. I knew what the outcome needed to be, and I was clearly rooting for someone. It changed how I viewed everything.
How this applies to genre: get readers emotionally engaged with your protagonist.
There are two basic ways to do this. First, give them a fully fleshed character. One of the biggest dangers in writing genre is getting lazy because you’re relying on audience familiarity. A stereotype is as bad as a statistic when it comes to emotional involvement.[pullquote]One of the biggest dangers in writing genre is getting lazy because you’re relying on audience familiarity. A stereotype is as bad as a statistic when it comes to emotional involvement.[/pullquote]
Next, give them something clear to root for. If I bet a nickel that the guys in silver were “better” than the guys in red, say, and they just milled around the field, I would get disengaged quickly, because there was no quantitative way to achieve the goal. The reader needs a clear definition of victory here, as well.
The Superbowl is the culmination of a season’s worth of battles. You might not care about the smaller skirmishes, but there is no question: the stakes in this game, for these players, are high. That’s why the winning team is shown shouting and hugging while the losing team has the despondent, shell-shocked look of soldiers being carried off a battle field.
Your story needs to have a similar sense of stakes. Even “small” stories have personal significance for their characters, and consequently for their readers.
The best test for this: ask “if my protagonist fails, what is the tragedy?”
It doesn’t always have to be global, but if the only consequence is “the protagonist will be somewhat miffed” then you don’t have stakes.
Suspense and surprise.
Many felt the last Superbowl was boring, even if they were fans of the winning team. Why? Because it was lopsided: a total rout. It was obvious fairly quickly who the winner would be. Even people who were truly passionate about the sport — actually, especially people truly passionate about the sport — were disappointed by the game itself.
Think about that response in terms of genre readers. Despite the fact that they adore everything about the genre, they are often disappointed because the characters are too predictable, the ending is too obvious, the path too mundane. They know what’s going to happen before they get to the first plot point. (As a result, many don’t bother reading further.)
In football, a “close game” is the key. You want evenly matched teams, really putting their all into it. You want to see surprise fumbles and stunning reversals. You want your team to win, yes, but there’s something about holding your breath, sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting to see how in the world they’ll be able to pull off the impossible.
You want the suspense, and you want the surprise.
Genre is no different. Yes, in a love story, you want to see the lovers meet, woo, and live happily ever after. But you want to see genuine conflict and growth. You want to feel the struggle against infatuation, the depth of emotion, hope warring with uncertainty. You want to feel invested in these specific lovers, and then wonder how in the world they’ll overcome their difficulties and get to their happy ending, because right now you truly believe that all hope is lost.
When you give true fans a solution that surprises them, one they didn’t see coming yet is still utterly believable, then you’re satisfying their emotional needs.
You can’t have a close game suddenly turn over because a wide receiver brings a gun on the field and no one is willing to tackle him. Yes, it’s a victory, but it breaks the rules.
To win via a technicality or a gross violation is not a win, it’s a disappointment, for fans of both teams.
In a genre story, you need to generate suspense and provide surprise while leading toward a satisfying conclusion that plays fair. No Deus ex machina. In a romance, no “big misunderstanding, whoops” and in a mystery, no “he wasn’t dead, he was just hiding, no mystery here” endings.[pullquote]The rules must be followed. The conventions must be met. And the ending must surprise and satisfy, despite that.[/pullquote]
The rules must be followed. The conventions must be met. And the ending must surprise and satisfy, despite that.
Creativity flourishes in constraint.
Some of the most creative and amazing stories are re-imaginings, because you have parameters that force you to look at common stories in an uncommon way.
If you can create fully fleshed characters that readers engage with, give them clear goals that readers root for, high stakes and evenly-matched obstacles, and then run them through the gauntlet of the story with true suspense and surprise, following the rules of the trope — then, my friend, you’ll have created something even better than a forced “something new.”
You’ll have written something spell binding and wonderful, and that’s what readers are truly looking for.
Now, your turn. Do you feel like there’s nothing new under the sun? How do you bridge the gap between coming up with something unique and fulfilling reader expectations?