Tuesday, August 26, 2008

We're all in Twaining

By Joe Moore

“Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before him.” –Mark Twain

twain (Small) I read a comment on an online forum recently that said all stories have been told; that when it comes to writing novels, there’s nothing new under the sun. I must admit that I’ve stood at the new books table in Borders, scanned the cover blurb of a dozen books and felt there may be some truth to that belief. Certainly in some genres, the majority of stories tend to blur after awhile.

So are there any original stories being told ? Absolutely. But you have to hunt for them, Unless you’re a reader that just wants to have the same tale told to you repeatedly, you must weed through a lot of clones to get an original.

One of the things leading to the feeling that there are no original stories left is something I’ve believed true for a long time—that all stories are based on only two motivators: love and hate. Every other emotion is a subset of those. I find that the more I think about it, the more it starts to make sense. If someone is motivated by revenge, for instance, their actions are probably based on a love lost or the hatred of the person who took away the love. If a character is motivated by jealousy, that could be caused by loving something that they cannot have or hating the person that stands in their way of getting it. So if there are only two motivators, how can someone write an original story?

Maybe it takes a great plot.

But I’ve also heard that there are only two plots in story telling: (1) A stranger comes to town. (2) An ordinary person leaves on an extraordinary journey (quest). Again, if you think about it long enough, there's a great deal of truth to this theory.

So if there are only two motivators and only two plots, how can there be any original stories?

Answer: Unique characters.

That’s all that’s left in the equation, and that’s what I believe separates originality from routine fiction. Some could argue that it's style or voice. But a great writing style can't save two-dimensional characters or a been-there-done-that plot. When I think back on my favorite books, what is it that made them so memorable? The plots? No. I don’t even remember most of the plots. The motivators? No. Those all boiled down to someone loved or hated someone else. What made them memorable was the originality of the characters. Jack Ryan. Dirk Pitt. Jason Bourne. Sean Dillon. James Bond. Dexter Morgan. Hannibal Lecter. These characters and others like them will live forever. It doesn’t matter if we remember the plot to their stories. And their motivators are shared by a million other stories all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

I find that’s why so many books have a 2-week shelf life while others have a permanent place on our shelves. They contain original, unique, captivating characters that live in our imagination long after we’ve finished the last page and closed the book. In our minds, the characters existed before the book began and went on after it was finished.

The importance of developing unique characters is something that many new writers usually don’t understand and veteran authors struggle with everyday. So whether our characters are riding into town or setting out on a quest, searching for love or bent on hate, there has to be something about them that is original and memorable. They must live on in the mind of the reader long after the book is finished.

So was Mark Twain right? Was Adam the only original author in history?


Kathryn Lilley said...

I think human culture shares a basic set of stories, but there are new and unique ways of telling that story that present memorable characters who take root in our imaginations. Think Cinderella versus Pretty Woman. Same story, different characters!

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Plot foundations and motivations may be limited, but you're right, Joe. It's characters and the paths they take to resolve the plot that makes the journey unique.

And I love the Mark Twain remark. Don't you wish you said that first?

Joe Moore said...

Good high concept premise, Kathryn. And yes, Sue Ann, I definately wish I'd said that first.

G.M. Malliet said...

I recently saw Rebecca compared with Jane Eyre, a connection I'd never made before. [This was in a NYT article about how Daphne du Maurier never got any respect from the critics.]

Same story, two unforgettable characters. And if I could only re-read one of these books, if all other books on the planet were destroyed, I think I'd pick Rebecca, written by that "hack" du Maurier.