A huge challenge every fiction writer must face at one point or another is conjuring a unique idea to write about. It seems like everything under the sun has been written about, especially when it comes to the supernatural genre. Vampires and zombies have been plaguing the publishing and entertainment industry for several years now, and though tales about them have been floating about for hundreds of years, many readers beg for some new material, something that will set those books apart from the overused ideas that haunt modern-day writers.
So what is a writer to do? Well, Mark Twain would argue that the problem isn’t new ideas but rather the need for a new perspective.
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
With that in mind, I’d like to propose to you that there are three elements you’ll need to craft a bestselling idea: unique perspective, a killer voice, and twists and turns.
Developing a Unique Perspective
Of the three, perspective is perhaps the hardest to master. Not only does it take some critical thinking to procure, but it takes time. Some of the best ideas are ones that people let sit and stew for ages before landing on just the right angle to play. With my most recent series, for example, I came up with the idea for the first part years ago. But it took months and months of tweaking and revamping it before it was finally ready for its debut.
Perspectives are usually shaped by our own life experiences and viewpoints. For some of us, writing is an outlet for our fears, wishes, frustration, and anything else that we’d otherwise keep bottled up. For others, it’s a way of sharing pieces of ourselves with others. Though, for many of us, it’s usually some wild combination of the two that comes into play. But the two things that must be considered when approaching a topic are audience and purpose. Who are you writing for, and what do you want to tell them? Even in fiction, you should think about your purpose for writing, whether it’s for entertainment's sake or for relaying a specific message to the readers. Once you have figured out those two things, you’re ready to hone in on your voice.
Crafting a Killer Voice
A voice, in writing, is a fancy way of saying style. It’s your unique approach to the narrative and how you want to tell the story. Many of our favorite authors have a place in our hearts simply because we connect so deeply with their voice. Without that strong voice, neither their characters nor their stories would be all that memorable. Take one of my favorite authors and biggest influences for example: Edgar Allan Poe. I think just about every person on the planet can recite at least part of "The Raven" from memory. But what is it about his poem that makes it so quotable? Is it the characters? The subject? The storyline? While all those things do play a role, I’d argue that the key factor in it—and in most of his writing—is his wonderful and unique voice.
Poe has a way of drawing us in, even from the very first stanza:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door;
Only this and nothing more."
—Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven"
Each line has a musical and soothing, if not a somewhat dreary, quality to it, an echo of precisely the story unfolding within it. As the poem progresses, we see sharp intervals of “Nevermore!” interrupting that solemn mood, and the pacing picks up as well. It’s a fantastic example of how you can blend music with writing, using cadence to enhance the mood.
This unique blend of cadence and melancholy is the driving factor behind a lot of Poe’s pieces, which has established the incredibly memorable and captivating voice that most of us have come to know, one that makes it easy to distinguish his work from that of others.
Incorporating Twists and Turns
Another component writers can weave into their supernatural writing (and that of other genres) is the element of surprise, usually in the form of some unexpected twist that leaves readers on the edge of their seat. In the previous post for this series, I covered different approaches for foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is, in fact, the key element for creating such stellar twists and turns. Though this will work for many genres, I’m going to focus on horror for a moment since it, along with the thriller genre, is particularly known for surprises. There are also some striking similarities between the two. If you do a search on Amazon for horror books, for example, you’ll come up with a multitude of stories ranging in everything from paranormal events to serial killers and everything else that goes bump in the night. So how do you create a story that is unique enough to stand out from all the others…especially if there are no “new” ideas to be had?
One possibility for approaching this is to switch up the perspective, as I’ve already mentioned. Say you have a story from the viewpoint of the killer rather than the victim. Take the series Dexter, for instance, which has received high acclaim both as a book series and as a television show. Each story is told from the perspective of a serial killer while honing in on the events revolving around his victims. This approach has gone over quite well with readers and viewers alike, earning both the books and the show an outstanding amount of praise.
But there is another option, and this is a personal favorite of mine. You can take a story whose outcome is largely already known by the readers and still make it quite enjoyable. This goes along the lines of the direct foreshadowing mentioned in my previous blog post. What’s the secret to making this method a success? It’s all about the twists and turns you include. For most readers, reading thrillers and horror stories isn’t just about discovering the outcome, though that is part of the experience; the main reason they read is for the journey it takes to get there. I’d even go so far as to say that’s the primary reason that most readers read: we want to get lost in the world that’s presented to us, to experience what the characters do, whether that’s triumph, loss, terror, devastation, hope, or any mix of those things. By expertly infusing dynamic scenes that leave you hooked up until the very end, you’ll have created a roller coaster of emotions, one that readers can’t wait to ride on again and again.
So to heck with new ideas. Take some old ideas and put your own spin on it! Look at what happened with the YA genre. It had just about worn out its welcome until the last decade or so, and now an astounding amount of bestsellers fall under that category. Living proof that old ideas can make be used to create awesome new books!
What books do you recommend that incorporate old ideas? Were they successful at their endeavors? Why or why not? I'd love to hear from you! Submit an ask to me on Tumblr with your feedback, and I'll feature you in my next newsletter. :)
For those who are curious, you can check out my take on an old idea with a fresh spin in my Porcelain Souls series, the first part of which is currently available (for free) on Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble. Part two is in the final editing stage and is scheduled to be available for preorder within the next couple of weeks.