“Desperate for original story, the world is.” Yoda was original for his height and alien heritage, but he was very much the Mentor seen in stories dating back to the beginning of storytelling. His structure of speech made him more unique, as did the subject matter of his teachings to Luke: had we ever heard of The Force before? Well yeah, we’d seen telekinesis and good/evil forces, but not in the way The Force was presented in the context of the space-faring Jedi and Empire. It was central to an epic struggle between the two – and to Luke’s evolution. Yoda was unique – and so was his teachings in the world of Star Wars.
So originality tends to borrow from base concepts (necessarily), but these days authentic originality is harder to find, it seems. If human storytelling is a wildfire, it feels like we’re leaving the forest and approaching the desert. What inspiration, what fuel remains? In cinema we see a turning around and re-burning of blackened trees with all the remakes and sequels.
Sequels at least are an attempt to extend a good, original thing – to revisit a world that caught our imaginations and probably our hearts. But even a sequel requires originality. In fact, a sequel’s bar is raised simply because it must top the originality of the first work. This is why so often sequels fall short – they lack the sense of newness and originality, though they generally succeed if the original work is honored and recaptured well. Remakes are just, well, the epitome of a dry creative well. The need for original story is ever present and appears to be harder to come by, at least in mainstream cinema.
The place originality in story is most often found is, as ever, in novels. In written stories, there is no budget beyond word count. Scenes of grand and epic scale don’t require expensive computer graphics or set builders. Deeply interesting characters don’t require multi-million dollar paychecks. Memorable scenes don’t require three days of on-site shooting and a week of post production editing. Well-written novels deliver straight to the mind, without dependence on visual interpretation. A reader is the ultimate set builder, mood setter, and visual effects and lighting expert. All the hard work of cinema is handled by the reader – with proper cues from the writer. But the reader’s capability to imagine a story to life often comes with the same tendency to critique as seen with film critics.
A reader knows when something just works, and when it doesn’t. A poorly written sentence can be the same as seeing a microphone boom behind the main character or spotting the distant golden arches of a McDonald’s in a Western movie. The reader is knocked out of the story – the movie is interrupted; lights up! Did you see that sentence? What was he/she thinking? The writing must be to par, must meet basic standards of readability and structure, or else the production fails.
Given good writing, though, a written story has so much potential for originality. One could even rewrite Star Wars, removing nothing of “what happens” and still imbue so much more depth to the characters’ experience that it would almost read as an original work. Such is the power of words. The writer has access to characters’ thoughts, imaginations, feelings… all of which expand story beyond what dialogue and action alone convey. Writing provides depth, period. A well-formed, well-paced novel is cinematic in its experience to the reader, and is more apt to deliver original story than cinema today. (Of course, I’m a writer so I’m biased.)
As a writer, I tend to be bound to a need for purposeful writing – stories that reflect something in our real world and send a message. Can a story be original if it has reality as a basis? I’ll say absolutely yes. Fiction comes with a hefty creative license. Reality comes with a massive selection of drama and topics. We live in reality – so we know its pains and its pleasures. Being drawn into an alternate reality can provide not just original story, but illumination and inspiration as well as good ol’ escapism. The trick there is to not overdue the message. The deliverance a story offers must carry the reader from page one to the last page and leave them satisfied yet still wanting more. Anything beyond that in the way of insight and real-world inspiration should be the reader’s to discern.
So where do I think the fields of originality lie? Mostly in reality, I’d say. Where we live and breathe. Within the obstacles we face on an individual basis, all the way up to the challenges facing humanity in general. The range in between is vast, ripe with stories waiting to be harvested and crafted. By plucking from reality, we guarantee a familiarity, a relatedness which serves as a foundation. Dress the rest as you like, full creative license in effect, and originality will follow. Like any dressing, be wary of clashing colors (concepts) – there is still an art to storytelling (like in fashion) and the basics must be respected, even if tweaked hard.
The reason we want escapism in our stories is because of the hardships we face in reality. If we, the creatives, can present hope, strategies, and inspiration in our original work, then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to influence the world instead of just adding distraction to it. And creatives want nothing more than to have touched the world with their work in a meaningful way.