Having a fresh story concept, and fresh ideas on just about every level of the story, is so important to having agents, editors, and readers notice your book. It's hard, because there are so many books out there. But it's part of memorable writing and memorable stories. My main method for making sure my ideas aren't the same ones we've all seen before is actually surprisingly fun-- and surprisingly difficult.
When I’m stuck, or brainstorming, or just want to boost the originality of an element, I use what I call “the rule of ten.”
List ten things that could happen on a piece of scratch paper. Don’t
think through them- just list. Don’t get bogged down trying to figure
out if you’d actually want that thing to happen- just list ten things.
So let’s try that. Pick an issue you have with your story right now- a
character who needs a stronger motivation to do something, a twist or
complication that needs ironed out, options for resolving the
conflict-anything works. Try it with me. Yes, I’m serious.
Got your paper and pen? Let’s do it.
For mine, I’m going to say I have a contemporary YA where the girl is
in conflict with her parents over a guy (I know, how original). What
sort of conflicts could this be? I’ll be honest and draft this the same
way I would all my other lists.
1) he’s a “bad boy”/has a record so they think he’s a bad influence
2) he’s a poor kid from across the tracks. Their princess deserves “better”
3) It’s a racial/cultural thing
4) He’s much older
5) they know a secret about his family that she doesn’t
6) They want her to go to college and are afraid local commitments will hold her back
7) She’s pregnant and they don’t think it’s appropriate for her to be dating right now
8) She’s been in abusive past relationships and they simply don’t
trust her judgment; if she likes him, he has to be the wrong guy
9) The guy previously dated her older sister and broke her heart
10) They’ve been cursed to not like their daughter’s boyfriend, no matter who he is.
Ooh, look- that last one isn’t really contemporary. Interesting. Of
course, some of these are silly, but that’s okay, because it’s
brainstorming. Don’t let your inner critic get in the way at this point. It might shut down an idea that has potential.
So here’s what happens with the rule of ten:
The first 3 things will probably be the same things everyone thinks
of. Since they’re what your mind immediately went to, they are probably
also what everyone else thought of. Unless you’re certain one of them
is genius, cross them off right away. The mid-list items might be more
unique, so look from there down for something that has genuine
Chances are you will have a much harder time than you think coming up
with the items for 7, 8, 9, and 10. You’ll probably have to do quite a
bit of thinking about how complex people are and how strange life can be
just to finish out the 10. Even though some of these have problems with
them, several of these really catch my interest. This is a great way to
get inspiration and cross off the story ideas that have been overused. I don't let myself settle on something until I have listed at least 10
What surprised me was just how hard it was for me to come up with items 8-10 for that list. This isn't even for a book I'm writing, and it stumped me. And you know what? Sorting through queries shows a similar issue. So many of the concepts I see aren't going to stand out from the crowd. Even if it's a great idea for a story by itself, if it's too similar to something else, it's going to have a hard time making it. I see a lot of good writing with a tired concept, and I wonder how much of that is because we have a hard time getting past what immediately comes to mind. (Reading widely and knowing what's out there, what tired concepts to avoid, also plays a big part here.)
I had to really stop and think to get those final items in the list. I spend all day every day working with books, and my brain spit out the first few things and stalled. If I had really been writing that book, I would have been tempted to stop and just pick something from the 7 I already listed. And maybe it would have worked out great. But writers are creators, and we have to go deeper than what immediately comes to mind. I make these lists of 10 all the time, and almost every single time, I want to wimp out before I hit 10. But the more I push myself and the more I try to think outside the box, the easier it is.
So here's the take-away point: push yourself to come up with more unique ideas. The list of 10 is good way for me to do it. However works for you, make sure you push past those immediate ideas and go deeper to find fresh material.
What do you do to make sure your concepts, characters, twists, etc., are unique? Let us know!