Writers often complain that it’s hard to be original. Here’s how to write something that’s never been written before.
Video transcript follows below:
Writers often complain that it’s hard to be original. In a sense, it is. You’ve probably heard there are only a dozen plots, or only seven plots, or only six plots. Nobody can agree exactly how many plots there are, but everyone agrees there aren’t very many, and we’ve been telling the same ones for thousands of years.
So if you’re waiting for that great idea that nobody’s thought of before, you could be waiting for a while. Luckily, that’s not necessarily a problem; as Vladimir Nabokov said, ‘Style and structure are the essence of a book – great ideas are hogwash.’
In fact, it’s not as hard to be original as you might think. And the secret is to do with finding interesting noun phrases.
First, confession time: sometimes when I’m reading fantasy stories, I play fantasy bingo. See, most fantasy stories use the same restricted pool of noun phrases. You expect to find a dagger, a leather pouch, a horse, maybe an amulet or a tankard of ale. Let’s take just the top row of our bingo card and try to make a sentence out of it.
Em… He was holding his dagger when he emerged from the forest. He knocked the wooden door. Inside the tower was lit by candles.
Now if we take those three sentences and stick them into Google, it takes it less than a second to find a staggering 10,700,000 matches, which might cause an aspiring fantasy author to conclude that it’s impossible to be original.
But it’s not. The secret is to find interesting noun phrases – to explore the unique vocabulary of the situation you’re writing about.
If you look at most good fiction you’ll find that the prose is built around unusual, situation-relevant noun phrases. For instance, in Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie writes, ‘On election day, 1957, the All-India Congress was badly shocked. Although it won the election, twelve million votes made the Communists the largest single opposition party; and in Bombay, despite the efforts of Boss Patil, large numbers of electors failed to place their crosses against the Congress symbol of sacred-cow-and-suckling-calf.’
In The Commitments, Roddy Doyle writes ‘You’d never see Jimmy coming home from town without a new album or a 12-inch or at least a 7-inch single. Jimmy ate Melody Maker and the NME every week and Hot Press every two weeks. He listened to Dave Fanning and John Peel. He even read his sisters’ Jackie when there was no one looking. So Jimmy knew his stuff.’
And if you take a few nouns from a strong piece of writing and repeat the Google test, you’ll see how easy it is to be original. Take the opening of Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines. Let’s pick out ‘Alice Springs’, ‘Ostarbeiter’, ‘cattle-car’, and ‘sunflowers’. When we stick them into Google we get six results and all of them are quoting Chatwin. It’s probable that in the whole, long history of writing, nobody has ever used those four noun phrases in any combination before.
We can do the same thing with most books. From Louis de Bernier’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, let’s pick divaratiko, tratoloi, tavernas, olives, and pretza… We get seven results, and all of them are quoting de Bernier’s novel.
This is what I call the Google test. From any page you write, you should be able to pick out a few interesting nouns, stick them into a search engine, and discover that nobody’s ever used them together before. Have a go, and let us know how you get on in the comments section.
Not all good writing will pass the test – there are few unusual context-relevant nouns in Kafka or José Saramago. But then, few of us are Kafka or Saramago. For most of us, finding and using the unique vocabulary of the world we’re writing about is the secret to being original.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
(The thumbnail for this video uses a photograph by Gideon Davidson. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pefectfutures/)