Here’s the thing about book concepts: originality is (somewhat) overrated.
There have been millions of books written in the course of human history. Before there were books there were plays, and before the were plays there were stories told around the campfire, and before there were stories around the campfire there were aliens who implanted DNA in our cave men ancestors that made us tell the same stories again and again. (It’s true, I read it on Wikipedia).
About once a generation a Mary Shelley or H.G. Wells or Tolkien or S.E. Hinton comes along to invent a new genre basically from scratch. Odds are you’re not that person (although if you are, I want to meet you).
All the rest of the mortals on the planet, even our best writers, are working within fairly established genres and tropes.
There were detective novels before George Pelecanos, there were dragon and boy stories before Christopher Paolini, there were wizard school books before J.K. Rowling, there were mistaken guilt stories before Ian Mcwan’s Atonement. What sets these writers apart is a unique take on an established trope. And ultimately that comes down to execution.
What is a unique take on an established trope? It varies from book to book. Sometimes it’s been done before, but never with such beautiful writing. Or maybe it’s been done before, but never for kids. Or maybe it’s been done before, but never funny. Or maybe it’s been done before, but never in combination with something else.
The shorthand for a unique take is that it’s like this, but also like this. It’s X meets X. It’s different, but not too different.
This isn’t because the publishing industry just wants what’s already popular. (Ok, fine, partly it’s because the publishing industry wants what’s already popular — you can “blame” that on readers who finish a book, love it, and want to read something else like it.)
But it’s also because it’s very nearly impossible to be wholly original. Even when new genres are invented they tend to use classic story arcs that have been around for millennia — the coming of age story, the great man with a fatal flaw, the hubris tragedy, the celebrity memoir. When new genres are invented they just place these stories in a new world.
Unless it is truly out there, pretty much everything is a fresh take on an existing trope. It really does need to feel fresh, but that’s not the same as being completely original. The originality is all about how it’s done, not what it’s about.
But wait, there’s more!
• Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
• For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
• And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: The Dream by Henri Rousseau