Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How To Write Original Stories If 'There's Nothing New Under The Sun'

It’s an age-old enigma — three thousand years ago, Solomon himself wrote “there’s nothing new under the sun.” How then can modern writers keep their stories fresh when it’s all been done many, many times before? It's actually pretty easy. I’m going to combine a post by Nancy Kress about a talk given by Connie Willis to illustrate a great point about how writers of our age can find new angles on subjects and plots that have already been thoroughly mined.

One thing she said about writing especially caught my interest. The book she is currently working on is about Area 51. Connie said that every time a new book comes out on the subject she catches her breath, wondering if it will cover her territory before she can finish the novel (she is a famously slow writer). Upon reflection, however, she said she realizes that is not going to happen, and for a specific reason. Most subjects and plots have already been written about many times (certainly in SF, UFOs have!), and so when writers do them again, the trick is to combine the subject with other subjects. What is new is the combination. Connie said that her particular combination is "probably" new: UFOs, romantic comedy, and the Liberace Museum.

I don't think there can be any doubt.

But the point is intriguing. My Nebula winner "Fountain of Age" was about the quest for immortality and a single person who already has it -- a very old SF theme. But I combined it with the Romany people, a protagonist in his 90's, and romantic obsession -- possibly a combination not before attempted. As I thought about other successful stories, mine and those of other writers, I realized that they, too, often feature unusual combinations of elements. Two examples: China Mieville's THE CITY AND THE CITY combines the noir police procedural with the concept of cultural willful blindness. Mary Robinette Kowal's SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY combines Jane Austen's Regency world with delicate minor witchcraft.

Nancy finishes with the caveat that these combinations must be plausible and all good fiction depends on interesting characters, but by now, that should go without saying. The combination tactic is effective. As Kevin W. noted in the comments on Nancy’s blog, George Alec Effinger wrote an instant classic in the 80s when he mashed-up Noir and Middle Eastern culture with his Budayeen mysteries, When Gravity Fails (1987), A Fire In The Sun (1989), and Exile’s KissM (1991).

Effinger's series builds a rich picture of a place (the Budayeen, the red-light ghetto in a Middle Eastern city that remains nameless ), a time (the late 22nd century), and a context (the political map is largely composed of the fragments of earlier superpowers, while it seems only the Islamic world has any coherency). The driving forces in the Budayeen are the same as the driving forces in any such place: money, sex, drugs, and power. An added fillip: the use of "moddies," modules that plug into the brain and allow users to change personalities, and "daddies," plug-in databases that make specialized knowledge immediately available, is widespread and wide-open.
As a genre fan, my own personal favorite combination is from even earlier. When I was growing up, I found a series by Arthur H. Landis in my dad’s amazing paperback library. The novels were A World Called Camelot (1965), Camelot In Orbit (1978), and The Magick of Camelot (1981). The series was a combination of Arthurian legend, the dragons and magic of Lord of The Rings, the pragmatic adventure of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and the classic science fiction underpinnings of Star Trek. By themselves, each of those subjects have already been done to death, however, combining these disparate subjects in this configuration led to one of my favorite SF/F adventure series of all time.

If you have a favorite novel or series that combined subjects to form something fresh and exciting, less us know in the comments.
Add to Technorati Favorites
Bookmark and Share


  1. Great post. Originality is one of those things that flows (relatively) effortlessly from each one of us, so long as we're really digging down and sharing what's uniquely us.

  2. I second the "great post"! This kind of originality can take a little work, but the payoff is, well, fantastic!

  3. Even *Cinderella* and *Beauty and the Beast* stories live on because someone comes up with an unusual twist. Good post, Johne!

  4. I think there's a trick, here, and that trick is to be aware (to some lesser or greater extent) to what has come before, but at some point to have enough faith in yourself to forge ahead and combine elements you find interesting or intriguing or disturbing to come up with something new.

    My favorite SF novel of all time is The Automatic Detective from A. Lee Martinez, combining Noir, SF, killer robots, and elements of the ugly duckling fairy tale. It's fast, funny, thought-provoking, and utterly unique, even while drawing from a great many easily indentifiable sources.

  5. WOW, Mr.Johne, your post helped me a lot! I'm an aspiring author and I'm looking for something new, "something new under the sun". Thinking about your post's subject, it's a fact: new histories are combinations of old-school-stories. I just hope I can finish my book (my history, it's not a book because it isn't published) without this kind of problem (worry about making something new). Sorry about grammar mistakes, I'm a brazilian studant, so I'm still terrible in English.
    Thanks for the help!