Being Original Is Overrated

This came up in the OSC workshop a bit and I’ve been thinking about it with respect to my first novel and using clichés and…all sorts of things.

Buckle your seat belts.  I’m about to ramble a bit.

What triggered me to write this today was a discussion on one of the forums I follow.  Someone had asked a basic grammar question about using “in” vs. “with” in a sentence.  What they got back (instead of an answer) were a lot of comments about using a cliché and never describing an emotion.

It got me thinking.

I struggle with this a lot.  In my opinion, a certain amount of cliché or accepted phraseology is kind of a necessity.  It’s shorthand.  A way to set mood or tone without taking up too much page space.

When I read someone’s writing and they’re struggling too hard to be original it really throws me out of the story.

Sometimes a tree is just a tree.  You don’t have to always find a new and unique way of describing it.  (Especially if it doesn’t matter to the story.  If it’s THE tree, well, then, yes.  Make that sucker stand out.  But just a tree a character leans against for a minute or two?  No.)

I think writers tell each other that you have to be unique and original ALL THE TIME.  And that’s just not true.

I could probably pick up any book on my shelf and find boring, standard descriptions in it.  The uniqueness of how an author described light on a windshield is not what draws me to a book.  It’s the story being told.  And if the story is good enough, I don’t really care that the writer said that a character pursed their lips in frustration.

Won’t even register with me.

(Keep in mind, I’m not much of a literary reader.  Tolstoy, GGM, and the like–sure.  But your normal, standard, modern literary novel?  Not so much.)

Which reminded me of something really interesting that OSC said at that workshop.

He said that most of us write out of our own personal cliché self.

(And I might add that sometimes that’s why a foreign writer can seem so interesting.  They’re not writing something amazingly original to them, but their cliché shelf is so very different from ours that it feels original.)

OSC said that 3% original is a lot for a story and that if you get to 10% original you probably won’t have many readers.

I find that a really interesting idea.  It implies that there’s a point where people tip over from fresh and unique into incomprehensible or inaccessible.

The key is to stay on the fresh and unique side of things.

I think this is why my first novel will ultimately not sell.  I wrote it out of frustration with the way certain stories always seem to be told.

You know.  The bad guy and good guy are destined to have a confrontation.  If a character sees a problem they’ll do whatever it takes to fix it, no matter the personal cost.  The young orphan boy is the chosen one.  People can see and identify the enemy.  Etc.

Problem is.  I think I took the novel past the 10% line.  You can’t ruin every reader expectation in one book.

(Or maybe you can?  Someday we may see…)


Summing it up: Be original, but don’t be so original that no one can connect with you.  And don’t sacrifice story for originality.


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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2 Responses to Being Original Is Overrated

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    Interesting insight.

    Hopefully this will mean my blend of English public school, legal practice, and reading all the words will create an accessible yet charmingly alien cliche shelf; perhaps filled with semi-colons and long sentences : )

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