How to avoid trying to be "original" and "perfect"?

When I come up with a story idea and then try to flesh it out, I keep getting stuck because I’ll say “I saw or read this a thousand times”. I want to write a story that doesn’t have any cliches or situations that readers / audiences experienced a million times. But I fear this is impossible. Is it? Should I just aim to tell a story without worrying about if it’s cliched?

I am not the world’s expert on this, but I do have thoughts about these things, so here is my two cents:

Fiction depends crucially on recognizable types and situations. It is the reader’s expectations based on these that enables you as a writer to communicate what is happening in so few words. So, types/stereotypes/tropes/experience-with-other narratives, and just plain old everyday expectations are a tool for you as an author and there can be no question of outright avoiding them.

That said, it is often the frustration or endangering of those expectations that drive a reader forward, and it is often the unexpected that delights them in the end. Some stories aren’t like this, of course, some have a very canonical shape, but manage to be delightful enough “along the way” that we might not care – adventure stories are often like this. But if you are just starting out, I would not rely on your writer-foo like that to carry you through. You should build in some interesting turns in the shape of your stories.

So, I think it will pay to think about what kind of twist or new spin you could put on that otherwise familiar-sounding storyline. And if your story is going to seem to follow a familiar path for a time, be sure to include some unusual element early on that will indicate to the reader that they should not think they know where your story goes.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to have a unique spin on something. I am reminded of a line from a well-known director (whose name is totally slipping my mind) about regular episodic television series. He said the reason they work is because as viewers we basically really want to see the same show every week – but different.


Pangur has just muttered in my ear, reading over my shoulder, “Seems like the only flaw in gr’s offering, that I can see.”

Take care,

Thanks GR, definitely food for thought.

The only point I could add to this wonderful advice is that often, discovering that tweak or spin can be the result of a process. I know that I personally struggle with getting words down in my initial draft because I want to jump to the end where my polished prose is stunning and I am at a major award ceremony in the middle of my acceptance speech. :slight_smile:

Go ahead and give yourself permission to put the cliches in your draft. Get it written. Get it done. Then set it aside and work on something else, and then come back and revise. When you see a cliche, that’s an opportunity to ask yourself:

  1. Do I mean to use this cliche, or did it creep in unintentionally?
  2. If I meant to do it, how can I modify it so it’s both familiar and fresh?
  3. If I didn’t mean to do it, what is my brain trying to tell me? How can I use this? Does this somehow connect with another character or plot?

With this revision mindset, you’re not trying to prevent “bad” writing from occuring, you’re encouraging mindful writing where you have taken what you wrote earlier and are now consciously sculpting it. It takes more time and patience, and writing mindfully like this is hard, but it is the only way I am aware of to build the real-time awareness and muscle memory of letting your “mistakes” be the veins of originality in your story.

First, no one can be perfect. No writing, no novel, no screenplay, is perfect. My favorite authors, my favorite books, my favorite musicians, none are really perfect. it’s not possible.

Chasing perfection, even if never captured, is still a good idea, as long as what you are doing is making things as perfect as you can within reason.

Originality, or ‘purely original’, is also not possible. There is nothing new under the sun. Many ‘experts’ will tell you that there are really only 7 stories, all have been told thousands of times, and every story is a version of one of them. Some believe there are only two stories, as far as ‘form’ goes. Director Ron Howard, with a dozen award-winning blockbusters under his belt, claims there is only one story.

Of course no one should try so feebly that they end up being a hack, or a copycat, or a plagiarist. Shawn Coyne says the goal is to be surprising yet inevitable, regarding what your story brings. Make it as original as you can, but not so original that no one can even begin to relate to it. It has to have aspects of what has gone before to be relatable.

Originality has a point of diminishing returns. For instance, if I named my MC something unpronounceable, no one could identify with them. If I tell a story where gravity doesn’t even exist? Good luck with that. Originality done simply for the sake of being different is not clever or smart. Or laudable. It’s actually the opposite of that.

The reason the teachers say ‘read’ is so you can learn form. Not so you can rip it off, but so that you can innovate. If I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, get a concept or two from that, then write a love story, does that mean I’m ripping off Jane Austen? If I read all of Raymond Chandler and write a detective story? Would he cry foul? (He’s dead, so, probably no).

We all stand on the shoulders of giants. That’s the way it all works. Be as original as you can be. Be as perfect as you can be. You won’t be either of those things, but that doesn’t matter at all. Just do your best. That’s what is important.

So I’d advise not overthinking this, and not worrying too much about it. Avoid paralysis from over-analysis.

Authors are struggling to sound “new” and “original” all the time, it’s natural, and I know this feeling. But the problem is that there are basic plot patterns which we, writers, cannot avoid. The system is rather complicated, if you look at it in the article 1,462 Basic Plot Types (some notes about the scientific quest for universal plot types).

Basically, there’s more than one categorization of universal plot types. While some researchers say there are only 6 of them, others argue about 20, 36 or even more.