It’s every writer’s secret nightmare. Your stories all seem to have been done before, somewhere, somehow. Done to death, in fact. How will you distinguish yourself if nothing seems very unique?
Here’s a premise for a story: two guys meet, and after getting through the ususal chit chat they realise each has someone in his life he wishes were just … well, gone. One of them overcomes the obvious moral discomfort to bring up the solution. As strangers with no other connection beyond their chance meeting, each will kill the other’s nemesis. During the evil deed the other will be sure to have a concrete alibi so no suspicion will fall on him. No motive, no suspect, no jail time. Beautiful. Criss cro –
What? Been done? You’re sure about that?
Oh, right. Throw Momma From The Train. Right, right. Now I remember. And Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, and this year’s Horrible Bosses, apparently. Also, Modern Family’s Strangers on a Treadmill. Oh, and Once You Kiss A Stranger – not to be confused with Once You Meet A Stranger. Probably a dozen others if I delved into satire and parody, like The Simpsons.
The point I’m trying to make is that a premise is just a premise. Someone using the same idea can end up with a completely different story. Nothing illustrates this better than Throw Momma From The Train where the Billy Crystal character nearly loses his mind when he finds out Owen has used his story idea and been published – successfully. Except that Owen’s is a children’s pop-up book (this scenario has also been done before in the hilarious Chevy Chase movie, Funny Farm).
Ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re duplicated ad nauseum everywhere all the time. Most are just biblical or mythological derivatives.
Soap operas are famous for making storylines virtually interchangeable without missing a beat. What differentiates them is style and content. Many a soaked and exhausted character has washed up on shore somewhere, their clothing shredded in all the right places, only to find love in the sand for the entire duration of February Sweeps. Ever since Luke and Laura teens all over the broadcast world have run away together and danced in an empty department store at night. Or something like that.
Don’t even get me started on that Sonny Corinthos. He makes me so mad.
Never mind. I digress.
What nobody can duplicate is your writing voice and creative mind.
Think about this. Scholars in the Jesus Seminar project studying the Gospels have discovered that each is a cut-and-paste job that points to one central document, which they’ve called Q. The texts have been pulled apart, analysed, diagnosed and compared. The dead giveaway is subtle changes in syntactic, linguistic, and semiotic components that distinguish section from section as voice shifts and alters throughout the texts.
Each writer writes themselves as uniquely as a fingerprint. It’s also how scholars have discovered that the John believed to have written the Book of Revelations is not the apostle John, but a Greek Mystic. The voice, writing style, and content in the Book of Revelations is a match to the voice, writing style, and content in the mystic John’s writings, not to John the Apostle.
Even when John Lennon sang one of The Beatles’ songs, anyone who knows The Beatles knows who wrote the song. Each Beatle was as different as earth, wind, fire, and water. That’s the power of voice. In contrast, much of the disposable music produced today lacks staying power because there is no distinguishable voice. In storytelling, voice is everything.
Selfhood and identity are so inextricably linked to writing that we can now act as detectives on matters of cheating all the way back to Year Zero and beyond. Yet even when stories are suspiciously similar it’s hard to prove anything in court. Recently Moacyr Scliar accused Yann Martel of pilfering his premise and storyline in Life of Pi. While the basic plots are similar, so are Moby Dick and The Old Man And The Sea, which all have elements in common with each other. The writing and voice, however, are distinct. Despite the eery similarities of the two books no lawsuit ever materialised. The resulting products were too different. It would be a little like George Lucas suing Disney for stealing his Star Wars plot in The Lion King.
As the old saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. Unoriginal stories are made original through voice. Your voice.
To be good at writing you need two things: practice and audience. Practice is what gets you where you want to go, but audience is what tells you if you got there. This is how you develop your unique voice.
So share your writing and find your voice. Get good at hearing criticism without falling apart and taking it personally. It’s what will make you strong enough to really know who you are and how your writing must evolve. Use feedback to build strength and confidence. Get good at being rejected. Build up such a tolerance that your bottom lip no longer quivers when the letter says, “We read your manuscript but at this time we don’t …”.
As a writer you’ll need a cast iron spine, gut, and will.
Then go back to what you’ve written and keep working until you find the rhythms and tone and style that make you unique no matter how used-up the story may be.
That’s what’s going to get you published.