Believe it or not, one of the best ways to make an original, creative story is to use a unoriginal premise. Sound crazy? It’s not as weird as it seems, and here’s why.
Readers use their knowledge of other stories to form expectations about yours as they read. If these expectations are met with no surprises, they’ll come away viewing your story as bland and uncreative. If you subvert (that is, challenge) their expectations, readers will think your story is unique. Simple, isn’t it?
How to Subvert Reader Expectations:
The only way to subvert your readers’ expectations is to understand what your readers expect. This is where genre comes into the equation. Your story’s genre – your story’s basic premise – is your most important tool to subverting reader expectations. This is because readers use their experience of other novels in your genre to form subconscious guesses about your story’s direction. Therefore you must know your genre’s conventions – because you can’t re-invent something if you don’t know how the original thing works.
Let’s take Alan Moore’s Watchmen – the genre-reinventing superhero graphic novel – as an example. Its basic premise isn’t that original: a crew of superheros must re-form to discover who’s killing masked vigilantes.
Pre-Watchmen, most superheros were idealised, shining beacons of justice. Moore subverted this genre expectation by having realistically flawed and damaged main characters. [Spoilers] Pre-Watchmen, superheros always won. In Watchmen, the villain wins [/Spoilers].
Moore’s superb understanding of the superhero genre meant he knew how to subvert reader expectations. In the process he made an ultra-original story within an unoriginal framework.
(And this, I think, is the novelist’s key role. All stories are essentially the same. They introduce us to a compelling protagonist who encounters conflict with others, overcomes/submits to the antagonist and changes as a result of his or her experiences. But within this universal narrative format is endless opportunity to tell new, emotionally resonant stories that surprise and delight readers.)
Moore couldn’t have achieved such dazzling originality if his premise was too creative. Imagine if his story didn’t have a clear genre and was about graffiti-artist talking plants in a futuristic New York (which actually sounds like an awesome idea. If anyone steals this, I will hunt you down with a spoon). Because readers can’t easily identify this story’s genre, they can’t form subconscious expectations. They’d become too open minded to be surprised, and there’d be no way for the author to go against their expectations. Clearly, a little unoriginality is okay.
The Case for Genre:
I hate ‘Literary Fiction.’ Not because I don’t like literature, but because it’s ridiculous to think that ‘literary’ stories are somehow in a category of their own, seperate from genre. Name a famous piece of literature and I will tell you what genre it belongs to. The Great Gatsby is a (tragic) love story. Frankenstein is a horror story. 1984 is a dystopian story. The whole argument about literary vs genre fiction is idiotic because literary fiction is grounded in genre and isn’t a separate entity.
My views on literary fiction aside, my point is that genre is crucial to every writer. It may seem counterintuitive to have to slot your novel into a certain niche on the bookshelf that is genre, but it’s the only way to make your story surprising, entertaining and creative.
Have I triggered the inner literary professor within you? What are your thoughts on genre? Do you have different ways to deal with your readers’ expectations? I’d love to hear your thoughts!