I’ve been thinking a lot recently about differentiation—how we can make our stories stand out from all the others. Customers are being more careful with their money, which means they’re very likely buying fewer books. With the estimated 1,000,000+ books being published each year, ours need something to set them apart, something that will jump off the shelf and grab a potential buyer’s attention.
But how do we elevate our ideas? I took a good look at some books that grabbed me straight off and continue to stand out in my mind as incredibly memorable. Here are some methods those authors used to originalize their story ideas and turn them into something truly groundbreaking and never-before-seen.
This is where we take the rules of our specific genre and either tweak them or rewrite them altogether. A good example of this, love it or hate it, is the Twilight series. Meyers threw the old vampire rules out the window and invented her own: undead creatures that can live in daylight and have sparkly skin, for crying out loud. One of the reasons this series did so well was because she took a popular genre that had gotten a little tired and rejuvenated the whole concept.
Ilsa Bick did a similar something with her Ashes trilogy. Her zombies weren’t created by a biological weapon or an accident in the lab; they were the result of an EMP attack that scrambled the brains of everyone between the age of puberty and roughly 30 years old. And if you got bit by a zombie, you didn’t turn into one. You just got eaten. Still terrifying. These changes created an interesting post-apocalyptic dynamic.
So if you write in a genre where certain rules apply, start over. See which ones you can revamp (remembering to explore the new rules from every angle and plan them out for consistency) to switch things up for your story.
Sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the genre; instead, you can combine more than one of them to create something new. One of my favorite reads of all time is Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, which is part futuristic time travel and part historical fiction during the Black Plague. Another is a book called Berserker, which takes place in the 1880s American West but features a family of Viking descendants with supernatural powers granted by the Norse gods.
When these authors were done writing their stories, I bet they felt like the chef who first combined strawberries and chocolate or mac and cheese. Eureka! Something new and amazing.
Upside-Down Preconceived Ideas
I find this in stories based on ideas that go against cultural norms. In Neal Shusterman’s Scythe books, technological advancement has virtually eliminated death, leading to an overpopulation problem. So certain individuals called scythes are tasked with culling the herd. This practice—abhorrent in the real world—is unilaterally viewed as necessary in Shusterman’s society.
Minority Report does the same thing with the notion of people being innocent until proven guilty. The author turns that idea around in his created world, making it a good idea (in the beginning, at least) to arrest people before they can commit a crime.
These stories are compelling simply because they make readers think. They get them seeing things from a different perspective. Keep in mind that it doesn’t always have to be a good idea that’s villainized. You can also take something historically considered to be unethical and turn it into something good. Robin Hood’s philosophy of robbing the rich to give to the poor is an example of this.
This is by no means a new idea, but it’s so important that it bears repeating. Characters are the heart of any story, and they’re primarily responsible for pulling readers in. So we want them to be relatable and well-rounded. But it also helps if they’re a little unexpected.
Stephen King does this masterfully (along with pretty much everything else) with his Holly Gibney character. She suffers from OCD, a sensory processing disorder, and is somewhere on the autism spectrum—not the kind of person you’d expect to find doing detective work and running a private investigation firm. But some of the qualities stemming from her disabilities make her really good at what she does. And we love her because of the idiosyncrasies that make her unique.
When you’re creating your characters, please make them interesting. Delve into their pasts to understand why they are the way they are. The Character Builder at One Stop for Writers is a great tool for simplifying this process.
One specific way to make your characters stand out is through their voice. It’s easy to get drawn into a story when the protagonist or narrator has an intriguing way about them. Take the first few lines from Franny Billingsley’s Chime:
I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now, if you please.
I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story. I can’t relive those memories—the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp…
This character’s voice doesn’t sound like others I’ve read. It’s not just the word choice and style that are pleasing to the ear. It’s what her words say about her as a person. For one thing, she starts off with a confession. What kind of person does that? And secondly, she says she can’t bear to tell her story, but you know that’s exactly what she’s going to do for the next few hundred pages. This is a person I’d like to spend some time getting to know, and it’s largely because of her unique and interesting voice. This can be hard to get right, but it’s worth the time and energy to really get to know your character and figure out how they should sound so you can write them consistently from page one.
Some settings are so unusual and vivid that readers are all too eager to fall into them. The best example I’ve seen of this is Tad William’s Otherland series. It’s set in the future when people can plug into the Net and live, work, blow off steam—do anything, really—through virtual reality. Any world that could be imagined can be created there, such as a warped version of Oz, a magical ancient Egypt, Xanadu, a cartoon kitchen with angry salad tongs and a frozen queen in the ice box… As the characters are swept from one strange and beautifully imagined world to another, readers are taken along for the ride.
Another example is The Graveyard Book, about an orphaned boy who is raised by ghosts. Most of the story takes place in (you guessed it) a graveyard.
Unique locations won’t work for every story because the settings will often be connected to the overall plot. But we always have options. Don’t settle for ho-hum places; if you have the choice between a dining room table and an outdoor café on a windy day, go with the latter. And know how to write your settings well, because no matter how interesting they are, if the description falls flat, readers are going to skim right past it. Figure out which settings have the right kind of emotional impact (e.g., conflict) and haven’t been seen a million times. Write them well, and you’re on your way to bringing them to life.
Sometimes, we get sucked into a story because the stakes are so high, we’re not sure how the characters could emerge unscathed. One of the best ways to ensure high stakes is with a terrifying villain—preferably one we haven’t seen a bajillion times. Some of the most daunting antagonists in literature weren’t megalomaniac bad guys or power-hungry organizations. Consider, instead, a xenomorph that bleeds acid and lays its eggs in its victim’s stomachs (Alien series), a mentally unstable fan (Misery), spores from an asteroid belt that fall from the sky like rain and devour organic material (Dragonriders of Pern series), or a psycho with serious mommy issues (Psycho).
Like settings, villains are highly plot-driven. Your character’s overall goal will help determine who your antagonist is, because who’s going to keep him or her from getting what they want? The villain. But, again, you have choices. Don’t settle for simple or cardboard antagonists. They should be as nuanced as the rest of the cast, with motivations, wounding events, fears, and missing human needs that drive them to do what they do.
Some stories are memorable because of the surprising way in which the main conflict is resolved. The movie World War Z, in many ways, is just another zombie tale. From start to finish, viewers are asking themselves the age-old zombie-genre question: how will the good guys survive? But the solution in this story is an unexpected one: “vaccinate” the healthy population with pathogens that the enemy can sense, making the humans undesirable hosts for the zombie virus. Instead of destroying the undead or avoiding them, humankind learns to live among them in plain sight.
This method works best if you’ve got a story with seemingly insurmountable stakes, so keep that in mind if you want to employ it.
This one, imo, is the most interesting method because it’s so hard to pull off. It’s similar to the Surprise Resolution in that it has a twist at the end, but the twist doesn’t resolve the conflict. Instead, it explains, with remarkable clarity, something foundational about the entire story.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a book that’s just made of awesomeness, about a teenage girl in Prague being raised by demons. Karou eventually falls in love with an angel, which is problematic, as you can guess. But it becomes more complicated when we learn that in her past life, Karou was a demon. She was killed because of her forbidden romance with the same angel, but her soul was saved and reincarnated as a human by her demon guardians. With that revelation, everything about the story clicks into place. Multiple questions are answered simultaneously in the most satisfying way possible.
This method is all about the twist reveal. But as with any element of writing, it can become overused. The Sixth Sense rocked everyone’s world, but it triggered an avalanche of stories where the main character turns out to be dead. So your big reveal should not only be sufficiently twisty, it needs to be specific to your story so as not to become clichéd. In any case, if the surprise is used as a gimmick rather than one that ties naturally into the overall story, it’s not going to work. Use this method with caution, and plan it carefully.
Any of these methods can be used to freshen up a blasé story idea. Use them in tandem or focus on just one, but don’t sacrifice your plot line or characters in the process. The story has to come first. Use the methods to enhance your idea, and you just might end up with something no one has ever seen before.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.