Are you the kind of writer who wants to create something original? Something that reflects your unique personality? A story that isn’t an imitation of any best-selling author? And one that doesn’t fit neatly into any established genre?
If so, you may be frustrated. Everything you write seems to have elements that echo authors you’ve read and movies you’ve seen. And you’ve probably been advised to pick a popular genre, learn all its tropes, and crank out three or four novels per year in that genre. That way, you can develop a tribe of readers hungry for everything you write. Readers will know what to expect from your books. Then, you can have a successful writing career. You might even earn a living from it.
But that’s not the way all writers want to write. I have ideas percolating in my mind for epic fantasy tales–and for a historical novel set in Jane Austen’s time. And forcing your writing to fit a pattern it doesn’t fit will leave you unsatisfied. We have stories we need to tell–and we won’t be satisfied unless we tell them. Moreover, if you write something that you can’t put your heart into because it looks commercially viable, you won’t be as good at as people who can put their hearts into that type of writing.
Fresh and Familiar Stories
If you pick up a new book by an author you haven’t read before, do you expect it to be wholly original? You likely want some originality–the story should reflect the author’s personality and viewpoints. However, you likely want some familiarity, like the same heart-pounding suspense before the bad guy is finally caught. You’ve experienced it in many novels and movies. But you’re hoping to experience it again. You haven’t read this story, and you’re eager to know how things could possibly work out.
You’re looking for a novel that’s fresh take on a familiar pattern.
A Story Should be Novel
A good story feels fresh–not like a cheap imitation of something that’s been done before. It challenges the reader in new and unexpected ways. It show the author’s personal style. The writer’s personality, perspective, and convictions show through.
The characters, at least the main ones, should be interesting people. You don’t want them to feel like the author cut them out with cookie cutters. However, the main characters need to be relatable. Even if the main character is someone who lived centuries ago in a very different culture, or an imaginary creature in a fantasy novel, this character should be relatable on some level. He or she should be fresh, yet familiar.
A story should also be surprising. Readers should find it hard to imagine how things could come out right, and they should be surprised and relived if they do. It shouldn’t feel as if the author wrote it by plugging characters and events into a story formula app. The climax must provide a satisfying ending–but the way it does so should surprise readers.
A Good Story is Timeless
A truly good story is also timeless. It’s set in a specific time and space (which might never have existed in reality). However, it appeals to aspects of human nature, which means it can appeal to people outside that time and space (which is fortunate for authors of fantasy and science fiction).
Defeat of Evil
Many readers long to see good defeat evil. It can happen in an epic fantasy saga, a historical novel, or a contemporary story. The defeat of evil can happen on a grand scale involving the fate of a fantasy world. Or it can happen on a small scale involving only a few character. The evil defeated may be a terrifying archvillian, or it may be a seemingly minor flaw in the main character.
Themes and Patterns
The same themes appear and reappear in many stories. People have noted various patterns, such as the heroic quest, the romance, the mystery story. Different writers have different names for these themes and pattern. In a sense, each new story retells a basic story that has been told numerous times before, only in a different way.
However, different stories with the same themes can be very different. They can be set in different time periods and cultures, and they can have very different characters. Each theme has endless possibilities for variation.
Readers like to see these patterns repeated in stories. These patterns are popular because they appeal to aspects of human nature. But they also like seeing the patterns used in new and fresh ways. They like new variations of the same themes.
That’s why a story should be novel and timeless (besides, I like the pun). A really good story takes up age-old themes and uses them in fresh and surprising ways. By doing so, it has a chance to appeal to readers beyond the time and place of its setting.
The Craft of Writing
We have no way of knowing what stories from our era might survive the “test of time.” Some stories that were celebrated in the past are now forgotten. And others that were obscure in their day are now regarded as classics. Even if a contemporary book seems to us to be a great work with universal and transcendent themes, we don’t know if that’s how future generations will see it.
While writers may hope to write a timeless story, all they can do is write the best stories they can. Focus on your craft and don’t get blown about by fads. Be skeptical of anyone who claims to be an expert who can make you a bestseller. Just do your best to master your craft and write the best you can.
How to Become a Better Writer
Become the kind of person who can write well. Work hard at your craft and pay attention to the small details–while keeping the big themes in sight. Don’t sacrifice art to promote some agenda or to make some quick money selling work you’re ashamed of.
Take Note of Real Life
Care about life enough to write about it. Notice how human relationships and societies actually work. Notice how the atmosphere of a fall morning or a crowded room actually feels.
Learn Your Craft
Learn the craft of writing. Learn to flesh out your vision in a story with compelling characters and a structure that gives readers the suspense and the great climax they’re looking for.
Develop Your Own Style
As you write, your style will develop. You’ll learn whether you prefer to be short and to the point, or prefer a more lush and indirect style. You might find you like writing short stories or long novels–or both. You’ll learn what types of stories are your favorites to tell.
If you focus too much on style, you’ll risk writing in an affected and stilted style trying to sound “literary” or trying to imitate some bestseller. But if you focus on your craft, your style will develop on it’s own.
You might not always write in the same style. Your work in one genre might be very different than your work in another. If you write both kids books and adult books, there probably will be some stylistic differences. However, everything you write can be a reflection of some aspect of your unique personality.
Be True to Your Calling
Be true to your calling and craft. Don’t let the market and cultural forces keep you from writing the story you’re meant to write. If you keep at your craft enough, you just might write something that’s both “Novel and Timeless.”