6

I am currently occupied with the all-too-familiar pursuit of banging my head against a brick wall. In this case, I am attempting to make my novel original. Here's why:

I've been developing the theory that originality is one of the main things that can turn a book into a bestseller in the short term. Harry Potter combined magic with contemporary school systems in something that had never been seen before. The Hunger Games hit upon the Dystopian setting, which spawned such things as Divergent and The Maze Runner. The Twilight books threw romance and vampires together.

Harry Potter obviously has excellent writing, but the writing of The Hunger Games went downhill, particularly in the last book. Twilight has been denounced as having terrible writing. If the writing was so bad, why did these books sell the way they did? To me, the answer is that they were original.

Is this a plausible theory? Can originality sell a book?

Note: I am speaking in the short term here. I highly doubt that originality could create a classic; only good writing can do that.

  • 11
    Hunger Games wasn't the first dystopian setting. At their core, successful books speak to the emotional needs of their readers. The most original book in the universe won't sell if it doesn't create emotional engagement. – Eric J. Sep 24 '16 at 19:43
  • 1
    I think at least the beginning of the first volume of The Hunger Games is exceedingly well written. I have read and reread that beginning multiple times while working on the beginning of my own novel, and with every reading I love and admire it more. – user5645 Sep 24 '16 at 21:18
  • 8
    As a long time science fiction and fantasy fan, I didn't find any of the examples you gave to be original. I read some of The Worst Witch series as a child in the 70s and they are set in a boarding school for witches. I also watched the TV series Logan's Run, where the lead couple escaped from the "city of domes" where everyone was killed when they reached the age of 30. Vampires and romance have been associated since the original gothic romances of the 19th century. – Lostinfrance Sep 24 '16 at 21:19
  • 3
    Sure it can, but you seem to forget that "originality can sell a book" and "if a book is original, it will sell" are two different things. So, are you sure you are asking the right question? – rumtscho Sep 24 '16 at 22:15
  • 4
    We forget how original Tolkien's world as described in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings etc.was, because so many authors have been influenced by his work since. At the time the idea of a modern writer taking elves and dwarves seriously was very original. But, crucially, this was not because Tolkien sought originality. It was because he'd been living in that world inside his own head and building its languages and lore for decades. What came out could hardly help being original: it was uniquely the product of one person's mind. – Lostinfrance Sep 25 '16 at 15:47
12

Harry Potter wasn't particularly original -- see Anthony Horowitz Groosham Grange for a school to teach witchcraft in an otherwise ordinary world. The Hunger Games had precedents like Battle Royale. Romance and vampires have often been put together. Originality was not the secret to the success of these books. Appealing to the market with characters that people had sympathy for seems to me to be much more important in the cases you cite. People loved Bella and whatever his name was. Harry, Hermione and Ron are still adored. I was speaking to a colleague the other day who admires Katniss Everdeen.

As well, the books spoke to the things readers were absorbed by: heartbreak and divided loyalties in the Twilight series, for example. In Harry Potter, what mother didn't grieve with Mrs Wesley when her son died?

I have often had teenagers tell me that they loved, for example, the Twilight series, but when they read it a few years later they didn't think it was that good. The books weren't any worse; the readers had just grown up.

Of course, aim to be original, but focus on plots that excite and entertain, characters that you care about, and issues that interest your reader.

  • 8
    "People loved Bella and whatever his name was"...too good... – user96551 Sep 24 '16 at 20:09
  • But Battle Royale is a Japanese book/movie/game, and as such not very attractive to a mainstream American public. Also, distribution in the US started in 2011, on DVD in 2012, which is 3 and 4 years after publication of the Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins may have seen the movie, but the Hunger Games was still original for a wider American public. – user5645 Sep 25 '16 at 9:12
  • 2
    Groosham Grange was originally published in 1988. – S. Mitchell Sep 25 '16 at 10:55
  • @S.Mitchell Yes, sorry, my bad. Cannot undo the downvote unless you edit. – user5645 Sep 25 '16 at 11:53
  • 1
    Don't worry about it. – S. Mitchell Sep 25 '16 at 16:23
11

Harry Potter was not original. Anyone who grew up reading English Children's books would recognize that it is a pastiche of virtually the whole canon of 20th century English Kid Lit, in which trains and boarding schools and magic all play a role. Everything I read growing up is in there.

If Rowling has a virtue in this regard it is not that she is original but that she successfully repackaged that whole canon for today's child.

And that, I would suggest, is where the real secret of literary success lies, not in originality but in repackaging old stories and old tropes for a new generation. Stories have a very specific emotional structure that you really can't mess with much and still expect to engage the reader. The world keeps changing, but the emotional core of story does not. The task of the writer, therefore, it not to reinvent stories but to retell them for an every changing world.

  • Harry Potter is an original combination of the history of English children's literature. It is the essence of it. And that essence has never before been published undiluted. All great works are points in history where the threads of what came before converge to suddenly and unexpectedly form a synthesis of the previous separate and unrelated strands. – user5645 Sep 25 '16 at 21:21
5

This is not a complete answer, only a loose collection of some first, unordered thoughts.

0.

Many of the authors of current best-selling fiction are script writers. Examples are George R. R. Martin (before he wrote A Song of Ice and Fire he worked as a script writer for Twilight Zone), Anthony Horowitz, Michael Crichton (Universal bought the movie rights to Jurassic Park before the book was published), and many others.

You can take this to mean that they are so good and talented they can word in both worlds. You can also take this to mean that they write their novels to be turned into film or tv shows, and that they have the connections to make this happen.

1.

I'm not sure any of the three books you mention were immediate mega sellers. I believe they slowly accumulated notoriety and have become the huge successes they are only because they have "added up".

For example, Wikipedia says the first volume of the Hunger Games appeared in 2008 but became a number two (sic) bestseller only in the summer of 2012 – that was when the trailers for the movie adaptation began running, so the movie and the novel were sort of marketing each other. Later, the second and third part of both movie and novel where advertising for the first, second, and third part of movie and novel – six products on the market that made each other popular: when there is some hype around volume two of a movie series, many people go check out volume one of the book. Another factor that keeps adding sales to the Hunger Games is all the latter rip-offs that are marketed as being like the Hunger Games. Go to the YA section of a bookstore or library and read the front and back cover. Half of them will say that fans of the Hunger Games will enjoy that book, or that the book is "Hunger Games + something". So if you are new in that section of the bookstore or new to YA, you'll hear Hunger Games here, Hunger Games there, and eventually you will buy and read it. Finally, after a certain level of fame, people will read it just because everybody is talking about it. Look at the reviews on Amazon. Sure, its only about 3% one-star reviews, but 3% of 55,000 reviews means that 1650 disliked that book, and many of those reviews begin with something like "everyone said this is a good book, so I picked it up and was disappointed". And that is only those that wrote a review. The Hunger Games sold more than 20 million copies (all three volumes combined, I think), so maybe 600,000 people picked it up because "someone said it was good" and then where disappointed. That is more disappointed booksales that most books sell ever. So just the hype added hundreds of thousands of sales to people who don't like that kind of book.

The more books you sell the more books you sell.

2.

I think for a book to become a bestseller, that is, to start selling outside the core genre readership who read everything in their niche, it has to have something that speaks to the people of that time.

The Hunger Games were published at a time when reality tv shows has begun to send people into survival camps and prince-of-persia-like action-riddle camps. Before 2000-something, reality tv was about people doing stuff in their normal lives, or people trying to become media stars, but a few years before the Hunger Games there was a wave of young, halfnaked people being sent to tropical islands or former prison islands or the jungle and having to fight to stay alive or fight an opposing group. So that was in the air, the "hunger games" of the Hunger Games.

Also there had been a decade of high school shootings, that is teenagers engaged in mass murders of teenagers. There had been a decade of heated discussion about violent video games. Virtual reality (World of Warcraft, Second Life) had happened in those ten years. That was the media debate the target audience had spent their puberty in. They grew from kids to adults in a world where everyone was concerned about adolescents and violence in the media turning into violence in real life.

A book about teens sent to a game to kill each other was just hitting the right nerve.

Not least, because to many teens experience adolescence as a kind of battle zone.

3.

Reading how-to-write books, the Hunger Games does everything right. I have been accused of always and only using the Hunger Games as an example whenever I answer questions, but (the first volume) is so perfectly done that I find it hard to find a better example.

The stakes are high (death; later: save everyone). But the abstract (save everyone) and selfish (save herself) stakes have been made concrete and selfless through a stakes character: save Primrose, then save Peeta, then her family, and the family of Rue, and in that way the stakes slowly expande to saving the world, instead of starting with that rather preposterous goal, so that it appear natural and unassuming. The protagonist has greath strength and a fundamental flaw she has to overcome (she cannot love or trust, except her sister). Overcoming that flaw (and loving Peeta) is the solution to her quest. That her love is faked is a nice twist, although we all know it isn't (a double twist). That she loves both Peeta and Gale (or rather, both loves and doesn't love both) is the perfect triangle, and by the third volume both Peeta and Gale have turned into the wrong boy, another nice twist. Katniss has been hurt: death of father, alcoholic mother, poverty, opression – there is something for everyone to identify with, but it never lays on too heavy, because Katniss doesn't let it get her down (her strength). Katniss also goes the proverbial hero's journey. She even litterally goes through the underworld (the game) and has to die (the berries). There is the refusal of the call (Katniss goes hunting on the morning of the reaping), the mentor (Haymitch), the supernatural aid (the flying presents), and so on.

But most of all the Hunger Games is written like a movie script: mostly show-don't-tell, little interiority, focussed on character interaction and action. It must have been easy to sell that book to Hollywood.

4.

I do think that the Hunger Games is original. Nothing in the book is new, but when you compare it to the YA dystopia that came before it (The Giver, Mortal Engines, Uglies) they are all very tame and slow so that the violence of the Hunger Games (the book, much of it is missing from the movie) hits you like a hammer. The Hunger Games is the first YA for adults, or adult fiction for teens. It brings together something from both categories and creates something new. To me (and I may be mistaken, because I haven't read every book out there) the Hunger Games was the first book in a new subgenre that the Maze Runner, Divergent, and others then have followed into. I would call that genre "YA dystopian action adventure romance", or some such.

5.

Twilight isn't badly written either. It employs simple language and simple thoughts, which makes is accessible to all those millions whose IQ isn't 125+. You have to remember that the majority of people are, to be blunt, too stupid to understand what is going on in the world or in their own lives. Ride a bus and listen to people talk and you will realize that if you want to sell a large number of books you must write in simple English. Why do tabloid papers and idiot tv shows sell like crazy? Because they are stupid enough for stupid people to get them.

A bestseller must not be too intelligent or eloquent.

At the same time, Twilight isn't actually stupid either. It is simple, but not idiotic. Twilight is like the not so bright, but very warmhearted and friendly girl that is its protagonist. The whole book, despite dealing with vampires, leaves you with a warm glow. Edward's vampire family are very nice to Bella. I mean, think about it. Can you imagine Dracula's family being nice to Jonathan Harker? Twilight isn't about vampires, but about the shy outsider girl and the bad boy. It is an old story, but not in the vampire tradition at all. And when you come from reading teen romance, making the school's bad boy a vampire is acutally pretty original. I'm not such a teen romance reader that I would know if it has been done before, but if you look at the book from the eyes of the target audience (teen girls) instead of the history of horror literature, then you get an idea of how it might have been a fresh take on an old (love) story.

A bestseller must be original for its intended audience.

6.

Do not underestimate marketing. While there are viral bestsellers that grow from word of mouth, it is simply not true that no one knows what makes a bestseller. A bestseller is made through marketing.

Paolini's Eragon became the huge success it is by being recommended by Oprah Winfrey on her show. His young age played a major part in how the book was received, the "wunderkind" always sells well.


I haven't read Harry Potter and can say nothing on it.

  • 1
    I'm on the fence about Eragon because I just see so much other fantasy influence in his writing it just seems like another copy of what I've read before, done not as well. – user21642 Sep 25 '16 at 13:53
  • 2
    @stanri I agree. It is one of the most derivative works ever. Eragon is a teenager's daydreams in print. – user5645 Sep 25 '16 at 13:58
  • 2
    "A bestseller must not be too intelligent or eloquent." I beg to differ. Have you read Lord of the Rings? They were popular way before the movies. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 25 '16 at 19:57
  • 1
    @LaurenIpsum The Lord of the Rings is a good example of popularity accumulating over time. It wasn't a mega bestseller right from its first publication. In fact it became most popular about 20 years after it was published, in the 1960s, when the hippies picked it up. I first encountered it in the 1980s in a one volume bootleg reprint! It remained a seller mostly outside the mainstream and was unknown to the majority of the population until Jackson's movies made it unavoidable. Like the Bible, which no one would read if it was first published today. – user5645 Sep 25 '16 at 21:12
  • 2
    @what - "It remained a seller mostly outside the mainstream and was unknown to the majority of the population until Jackson's movies made it unavoidable." The Lord of the Rings books had sold over 100 million copies before the movies were made. That is to say, they were already the best selling trilogy of all time and there were few enough individual books that had sold more copies that you could plausibly read them all in a year while holding down a full-time job. – Periata Breatta Sep 27 '16 at 7:41
4

Originality tends to be judged retrospectively, it is at the best of times debatable and most people would agree that it its not something you can manufacture on demand.

Similarly it is entirely possible for an author to have a very distinctive style without necessarily being highly original in terms of the concepts underlying a book.

Indeed many commercially successful works, in any field, are often not truly original in concept. Often what successful work do is to bring together various elements which are appropriate for their time.

The Harry Potter series was a long way from being original, the magic is a bit vague and underdeveloped by the standards of serious fantasy and the school setting is a very, very well trodden path in English literature. In fact the idealised English public school setting is nostalgic rather than contemporary. However what JK Rowling did was to write very well, although the technical mechanics of the books don't necessarily hold up to very careful scrutiny and there are plenty of plot holes the actual writing in the books is very engaging and compelling.

The key to this is that her writing style allows the reader to forget that they are reading the book and get absorbed in the immediate events and she creates a world which readers want to inhabit.

I would suggest that the real enduring appeal of the Harry Potter book for readers is that they can actually imagine being in the Griffindor common room sitting in front of the fire, watching a quidditch match buying exotic sweets or potion ingredients in Hogsmead or Diagon Alley.

We can perhaps guess that part of the reason that this worked well is that she really cared about the settings and characters. This is a very different thing to trying to work out what the market wants or constructing an high concept based on academic ideas.

Trying had to be original is a fools errand, if you create something that you personally cares about and are invested in then you will automatically want to try to make it as good as it can be to the best of your ability and there is a fair chance that there will other people who feel the same way about it.

Originality comes from putting your own individual personality into something, not from an active effort to be different from what has gone before.

'Ideas' are cheap, everybody has them and you can just pick worlds out of a hat to construct something 'original', the value is in refining, developing and communicating your ideas and having the self-critical faculties to determine what works and what doesn't...this is also related to being able to see your ideas from another persons point of view.

  • 1
    Your point about the incompatibility between really believing in your setting and characters and going for originality for its own sake struck home for me. Originality is a great quality for short stories, but the writer of a novel moves their characters round like chess pieces and alters the setting just to make it more original, they can't really have been living in that story. – Lostinfrance Sep 25 '16 at 15:37
  • 1
    Your comment about the Harry Potter common room is spot on. Everyone wants that to have been them, yet mixed common rooms with log fires are the stuff of dreams, not reality. – S. Mitchell Sep 25 '16 at 17:16
2

Originality is almost impossible to achieve. All modern works of fiction have predecessors who have worked in similar settings, showing similar themes. Rowling may be the best-known example of the magic-in-a-boarding-school setting, but there are many well-known (and perhaps not-so-well-known but still worthy) predecessors. Hunger Games may be the most popular example of its kind, but there were certainly predecessors of that too (e.g. Among the Hidden and its sequels). And as pointed out in the comments, have been a thing just about forever, and the romance between Buffy and Angel in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series was arguably even more popular than Twilight was (at least in terms of sales of the book before the movie was released -- movies are great marketing).

The important thing is to do what you do well, which all of these books did, and to be original enough for the reader -- but possibly not too original as the conventions of a comfortable, familiar genre often provide the best marketing of all (and is probably at least part of why genres with strong conventions -- romance and crime fiction, for example -- sell particularly well).

1

Originality won't sell a book, it's a nice pretty buzzword that helps sell a book. Engaging the reader, crafting a wonderful tale, finding that emotional connection, these are what help sell a book. I would suggest forgetting about writing something original.

the Hunger Games is far from original. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gladiators_(film) And, Vampires and romance have been married before Twilight inception. Urban fantasy has been a thing since the 90s, I think. Sexy, brooding, male vampires are a staple in the genre.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.