Uniqueness of the Story

My family likes to stroll along the beach of Lake Huron which is just a short drive from where we live. The first time we went, we spotted thousands of tiny shells in the sand.

As we gathered them, we were amazed by their exquisite complexity. Home to snails, the narrow shells spiral to a pin point tip and are not more than half an inch long. Hues of brown swirl together forming intricate patterns.

What struck me most about these delicate shells is that we never found two that were completely identical. While they were all shaped the same, each was unique in some way.

Writer's stories are like those shells. Whether we're writing fiction or non-fiction, the basic structure remains the same. We need hooks, engaging dialogue, characters who struggle and overcome adversity, and much more. The craft elements of story-telling are the same for all of us. We must study and learn them.

But the stories themselves? Our stories must swirl together in complex patterns that are like none other. The passions that color them, the experiences that make them shine, the life we breathe into them--all come together in a way that makes our story different than any other ever written.

And yet one of the writer's greatest struggles is discovering a story that is completely unique to ourselves. With so many other shells on the shore--stories already written, how can we possibly make ours different?

James Scott Bell, in his book, Plot & Structure, outlines some questions that can help us push beyond the ordinary to find unique ideas:

1. Has this type of story been done before? He says that almost always the answer is yes. But that we should brainstorm a list of possibilities until we find something no one has seen before.

2. Is the setting ordinary? If yes, then search for a place that has not been used as frequently.

3. Are the characters you're thinking of made of old stock? How can we make them more interesting? Can we find a fresh perspective? Again he suggests brainstorming and not throwing out ideas until we have a long list.

4. Is this story "big enough" to grab a substantial number of readers? What can we do to make it bigger? How can we raise the stakes? He says that death (either physical or psychological) must almost always be a threat.

5. Is there some other element that you can add that is fascinating? He encourages us to think about our idea from every angle and to find a twist or two that will enliven the story.

Bell says: You need to come up with hundreds of ideas, then choose the best ones to develop. . . By going deep within your own heart and soul, you will find a wellspring of ideas to write about.

Each of us has a unique story to tell. Have you struggled, really struggled, to push beyond the ordinary? Is your story swirling with the complexity of your ideas? Or are your stories too much like everyone else's? What are some ways you've dug deep inside and found your unique ideas?

Join in Friday when we'll discuss the uniqueness of the writer's voice.


  1. Oh, Friday's post looks good too!

    I always cringe when I hear that first suggestion. Really, I read a lot, but can't possibly read everything that's been published to know if mine is original or not. Guess they really mean from the best of the best out there that everyone's heard of.

    As for how I attempt to get uniqueness into my stories. I hunt for a tear cord in myself. Dig for something specific that makes me stretch and pray lots to figure out, and then I turn it into a story. If it only works for me, at least I'm growing through all this work.

    How do you do it, Jody? I'm looking forward to reading all the responses--bet they're each unique. :)

  2. Good morning Jody! I just wanted to stop by and say hi. Hope you're doing well!

    Have a great day!

  3. Ohhh, I actually mentioned this a wee bit in part of my blog for today... but a part that I deleted LOL.

    My mother helped me brainstorm the other day, and all her suggestions frustrated me. I'm at a part where I'm struggling just a wee bit, but her ideas 1.) seemed really cliche and 2.) demanded a COMPLETE almost rewrite of my whole book so far, which I'm almost half way done.

    I think part of it is because she's read so much, like I have. I think it's easy for non-writers to say, "Just have them be _______, that seems reasonable" but their reasonable is probably because they've seen it done.

    This particular suggestion was to take my antagonist, and instead of making her a "homebody" who is trashy, to be from Chicago and a big business woman. Immediately I thought of Parent Trap. Remember, where the two are engaged but the woman is some snob from the city?? So, uh, yeah. No. BUT, that is to say, I don't think that particular aspect can't be used in a story and done well, if coupled with other very unique story ideas.

    So now I'm just working on my trashy homebody to give her a proper motivation, and seeing where it leads me.

  4. Great questions. I know in some ways my stories are not original at all. But there's always something unique to play up on, and that's what I try to do. I really think the hook should be unique too, or the characters. I haven't tried brainstorming but when I finish revisions and start a new book, I will because I want to come up with something really hooky but saleable. :-)
    Hope you guys had fun!

  5. I'm analyzing the treat of death this week!! My husband says one of my characters must die, and I've been hesitant. It will cause my main character to die a little psychologically. Hard choice!

    Looking forward to Friday!

  6. I try to get inside my character and find a unique twist, unexpected quality or fault that will drive a story line that's been written before. My favorite question is, "What if...."

  7. Oh dear. This is a toughie.
    My stories are unique, since I write mostly about my zany experiences and what God has taught me through them.

    The experiences themselves are probably common to most people.
    But, hopefully, I tell them in compelling ways that draw the reader in and the lesson out.

    Thanks for making me think, Jody!

  8. I've heard there are only a few plots and everyone just takes those and makes them unique in the details. I suppose that is true.

    As for the death issue...I think I've taken that too far!! My hero gets wounded 3 times, though never bad enough to keep him down. :) Yeah, probably over the top. lol

  9. This doesn't answer your question, but your analogy made me think of it. Our AVP at work just got back from a vacation and yesterday in staff devotions, he showed us some beautiful shells he'd found on the beach. Then he uncovered a piece of driftwood that was infused with hundreds of shells and fragments of them. It was a stunning piece. Probably on their own, each of the shells wouldn't have been anything to look at, but all grafted into that piece of wood...they were an amazing sight. He related it to life, but I think it can relate to writing too. Sometimes you do write a beautiful polished piece, and sometimes it takes little seemingly broken bits from everywhere, working together to make a beautiful (and certainly unique) piece of writing.

  10. Hi, Jody.

    Thanks for this post. Very thought provoking. It's true: most of the ideas have been done before, but we should not let that dissuade us. We should look for a story that we believe in, that's begging to be written. Even if the plot elements or the base of the story sounds familiar, we must put our own spin on it. We must make it unique, told in a way that only we can tell it. That's not to say to jump on band wagons and try our hand at everything that "sells". We still need to be true to ourselves. But just because our ideas seem a bit similar to what's been done before doesn't mean we can't give them a unique and beautiful perspective that's never been done before.


  11. Great suggestions! That James Scott Bell really knows his stuff, doesn't he? :)

  12. A while ago someone on another blogging site was accusing other bloggers of stealing "blog ideas." I pointed out that you can't copyright an IDEA. Because, really, when you think about it, there are no new ideas. Everything's been done at least a dozen times. It's the unique spin WE put on that idea that makes it our own...and that's something you can't quite define. Sure, there might be a million romance novels about a cowboy marrying a pregnant woman for her convenience, but how do you do that story in a unique way that compels the reader to keep turning the page?

  13. Strong list of things to think of. I'm still thinking on #2 for my stories, specifically ways to reveal the uniqueness of the settings. Thanks for shared wisdom.
    ~ Wendy

  14. i love that book, jody. bell's got so many good ideas. great post...i love trying to make my book the most original ever. it takes lots of editing and tweaking to do so.

  15. Plot and Structure is a great book! In my writing I tend to just write, cliches and all. Then when I go back through I try to see where I can raise the stakes and increase the tension. I'll also try to see if I can go in the opposite direction from what is usual. Then I might brainstorm with my husband (a non-writer) and my son(a writer). While I may not be able to use all their suggestions, sometimes I am able to pull out some nuggets, especially if I keep an open mind where my rewriting is concerned. Great post, Jody!

  16. Really great bullet points, Jody! And I've noted the book and author. Will be really helpful, I'm certain.

    Looking forward to Friday's post!

  17. That last quote is perfect for me. I've been at such a stand still with my new MS because what I have thought up doesn't work. MAYBE I just haven't thought up enough possibilities....

    To the drawing board I say!

  18. With my WIP (almost DONE, yay!) I worry much more about the idea of "fascinating."

    The first novel sort of fell out of me. All tied up. This one I have to create and sometimes I worry I am putting in too many things. Trying too hard. I hit delete a lot.

  19. I think the challenge for me is always to make sure the story is big enough while taking the time to go deep enough.

    It has to be a combination, not an either or.

  20. Hey, Jody! Great post!

    Hmm... My biggest problem is being patient and being ready to do the preparation work in the meantime. I've never had a story not come to me. But some of them took quite a while to develop. In the meantime, I had to be willing to wait, to trust that the rest was coming, to explore all possibilities, and to work on whatever else was in front of me.

    Now, if only my new protagonist would tell me her name...

  21. I think I struggle most with the characters. Many of my characters resemble each other too much. I'm working on it, though.

  22. Another great post, Jody. Although there are similarities between stories, how we develop our characters, bring out the setting and determine which situations to throw into the mix make ours unique.

    I've found the best way to enhance each of these aspects is to brainstorm with others. My hubby, who is my favorite plotting partner, has given me some awesome ideas I wouldn't have come up with on my own, which have added a great deal to my stories. Since he doesn't have my preconceived plot to constrain him, he often comes up with fresh, outside the box ideas.

  23. Just like the shells, (great metaphor), our stories are all unique because we are. Unique doesn't always translate into entertaining or engaging though. Some authors can write about eating a pear and that alone is beautiful enough to bring tears to our eyes, (Hemingway), and others can write a tale chock full of crazy characters and goings on and bore us to tears. In the end it's all about finding your voice and hoping that voice is eloquent enough.

  24. I think it has taken me awhile with fiction to be comforable enough with allowing my story to take on its own life. I am comforted by the thought that there are only so many plots. I always worry there will be one like mine but I think and hope our own uniqueness will give it a special spin.

  25. When I was little my family used to go to the beach my Lake Erie and my sisters and I one summer brought home hundreds of those tiny shells. I think my mom still has them in a decorative bowl or something somewhere.

    As for originality, I think with the market being as competitive as it is, we do have to stretch ourselves to make our stories really stand out. This was the problem with my first novel, I think, it just wasn't unique enough to capture the kind of attention it needed. With my latest novel I really stretched myself and moved further outside of my comfort zone, and hopefully that is reflected in the story.

  26. love this analogy. it's so true...I could have the same premise as you and would come up with a completely different novel. that's the beauty of writing -- and the reason we can be so helpful and supportive of our peers. in the end, there is no competiton because we will each craft our own beautiful creation :)

  27. While I don't always know whether I have succeeded in crafting my ideas into a unique story, I always know when I've read one!

  28. What a great post. It always creeps in the back of my mind that I'm going to write something identical to someone else but that would be impossible, right? Or on those late nights where I'm sure I just ripped off a novel I read once upon a time and I stress over the fact...did I just make that up or was I having a memory? LOL.

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  30. I think the main point here, which you eloquently made, is that we've all had similar experiences (which is why we can relate to the story of another), but how do we transform our experiences to others and through story in a unique way? I think once we truly grasp this uniqueness, a lot of our fears will fade away, and we'll be freed to write what we're alone meant to write. Staying in our own sphere, writing from our own core, is the best way to go about it, but of course, we must reach out to read others' writings, filling up our minds and hearts with words and ideas, so that we can bring our stories to life in that way that is unique to us. Easy to say, perhaps much harder to do. Writing a memoir has helped me discover my core, however.

  31. Some days, I just feel like I'm working with a short shovel. . .


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