There’s a dilemma lots of writers face when researching ideas for a novel. We can easily see what’s successful and it’s tempting to follow the trend. Then again, a novel needs a unique concept in order to catch the attention of an agent or publisher.
So is there a middle way? It’s true that the publishing industry is ever-searching for something new. As more and more fiction is published, it’s difficult to come up with a new idea that’s both believable and will sell. While the lure of doing something completely different is strong, and at the beginning of your journey, may seem like something you should guard with you life in case someone steals it, there may be a very good reason why it hasn’t already been done.
While your story shouldn’t be directly copied from someone else’s story, it’s easy to see that there are similarities between novel plots and characters, and the deeper into the genre the more similarities there are. For example, crime fiction is expected to include a detective, or police, and a victim. Chick-lit will have lovers, conflict and perhaps a marriage. In fact, when writing about people, there are only a certain combination of situations your characters can be in and most of these have been written about in one plot or another.
Stories are ingrained in our psyche. We know that a story will have a beginning, middle and an end. They will have certain characteristics such as conflict and, preferably, a resolution. Then there is the anti-story whose Wiki definition is as follows:
‘A work of fiction in which the author breaks in some way the conventional rules of story telling, usually with some feature (for example, a lack of plot or characters, unusual punctuation, odd subject or presentation, etc.) which strongly challenges the reader’s expectations.’
In this definition, it is the challenging of the reader’s expectations that points to what needs to be present in storytelling. In order for stories to live up to the readers’ expectation they must fulfil a certain shape. Its shape on the pages need to mirror the shape that it’s audience holds in memory, the shapes of stories told throughout childhood and reflected in the classics taught at school and then revisited later in life through our own situations and dialogue.
There are many different opinions on exactly what the conventional rules of storytelling are, but taking care to understand the structure of stories will help to resonate with the familiar shape of stories that have permeated our lives not only on books but throughout our own lives and life stories. In short, we need to recognise the story as an old friend who we come back to visit time and time again.
So, within this familiar shape it is necessary to inject a new idea. A new setting, an unusual and appealing character. Many people choose a historical event to wrap around their story shape, something unique and exciting. Others develop a plot which is extraordinary and complex, but sits easily in Aristotle’s three-act structure.
One of the most difficult aspects of starting a new novel is choosing the USP. Unique Selling Point. This is because it can’t be completely outrageous, it needs to speak to people on a broad and recognisable level, it can’t be already done and it has to meet a trend that you can’t possibly know – one that is present in the market in the future when you novel is written and is ready to sell.
So good luck, short of a crystal ball I have no real advice on unique idea except think hard about the shape of the story as this is half the battle. Combining the ancient shape of stories with something new and snappy will set you on the right path.