How to Write a Unique Novel

Updated: Feb 26



Deciding to write a unique novel is like deciding to write a better one. You must ask yourself, “Unique in what way?”


Stephen King’s “Dolores Claiborne,” the best-selling novel in 1992 in the United States, is written entirely in first person without quotation marks. Every word of the novel is dialogue, consisting of verbal answers given by the defendant. You never read the police chief’s questions. The entire novel is one continuous chapter with no breaks.


In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright published a 50,000-word novel that doesn't contain the letter "e."


If you’re reading this, you’re probably a new author. My advice is don’t do what King and Wright did because you're not yet an expert. Try the exotic after you’ve learned your craft. You can break literary rules only after you’ve mastered them.


Make your story stand out by creating captivating characters. Employ unique and exciting plot twists that make your readers lose sleep and put off eating meals. Help them get skinny!


Writing proficiently is your goal. Fancy comes later.


I found this site that provides fifty excellent plot twist ideas.


Your unique voice

Every author has his or her unique writing voice. Your personal style will emerge on its own over time. You cannot hurry it along. Worrying about it will only get you wrinkles. Instead, practice your writing and seek feedback from anyone willing to give you their opinion.


You're writing will be sufficiently unique on its own without employing any fancy gimmicks.


Genre

What about genre? There seems to be an endless supply of fiction genres. To give you some ideas, see this site for a good list.


My problem with genres is many stories aren’t just of one genre. If you write a tale about a funny, romantic detective who has a dangerous and mysterious case, what will be its genre?


If this isn’t complex enough, genres can also be divided by form (memoir, biography), and age group (young adult, children).


I recently wrote a short story that wasn’t quite science fiction. While working on it I kept thinking, how can I turn this into a sci-fi story? No! No! That would only have turned the story into a formula. You can’t force your story’s genre.


If you want to write a unique story, I suggest you forget about genre and just write your story. After it’s written, some pompous, literary elitist can tell you its genre. Then you can say, “Oh, really? That’s so interesting.”


Plot Type

Another way to differentiate between stories is by plot type. A popular list of plot types has been published by Christopher Booker in his book, “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories” (2004). Mr. Booker offers the following categories:

  1. Overcoming the monster

  2. Rags to riches

  3. The quest

  4. Voyage and return

  5. Rebirth (including “coming of age”)

  6. Comedy

  7. Tragedy

I personally believe there are only two plot types:

  1. Overcoming

  2. Tragedy

They're reduced to one with clever use of punctuation:

  1. Overcoming?

Every story ever written is about an individual or a group of people trying to overcome something. Can you think of one exception? Email me at: jeff@jjrlore.com.


If your story’s characters are not trying to prevail over something, you’d better consider adjusting your story.


Swirling Torment

If every story is about overcoming something, how can you write an original story? The answer is by varying the “how” and “when” and “by whom” the victory is achieved or not-achieved. This is the entire job of the author.


Originality is achieved by mixing things up in the right order and magnitude.

Here are some of many ways to mix up a story:

  1. The problem to be overcome changes to another problem mid-story.

  2. The characters are unable to understand what the real problem is. As tormenting as it is to have a problem, it’s even more tormenting not knowing what it is.

  3. The characters get in worse shape after each attempt to resolve the problem.

  4. The main character is killed or removed from the story early on.

Whatever the changes are, they must get the reader increasingly glued to the story. As with genre (see previous section), I suggest you forget about plot type and just write your story.


Unique motive

What about writing a unique motive for your protagonist? I've challenged myself for more than a month now to come up with a fresh motive--or driving force--for a protagonist, one that has never been written about before.


I had great confidence in my exceptional creativity. But alas, it appears that protagonists want only a small list of items. Here are all I've come up with so far:

  • Trying to win something.

  • Trying to overcome something.

  • Trying to gain a love or friendship.

  • Trying to find (or avoid) something or someone.

  • Trying to free (or capture) someone, something, or an entire people.

This isn't a very long list, is it? I'm disappointed that I cannot think of anything new. Can you think of any other great need? If so, send me an email at jeff@jjrlore.com or comment below.


Limited number of variations?

However, it's amazing how many fictional variations can be generated from only a few available variables. To help you appreciate the possibilities, consider the following:



There are only twelve musical tones in western music (the top note is a repeat of the bottom note, but an octave higher). Every western musical composition since Guillaume Du Fay (AD 1397-1474) uses these twelve tones. This includes every piece of music written in Europe, Russia, and the United States to the present day. That is a lot of music! iTunes alone has a library of twenty-six million musical pieces.


All from only twelves tones!


Childhood memories

Your childhood memories are rich source material for your stories. This is because your childhood memories,

  1. Have likely been sensationalized over time

  2. Were experienced through fresh eyes.

  3. Are infused with primal emotions such as fear, hunger, security, and abandonment.

But, they come with a warning: Don't let your readers catch on that your stories are about you. Your readers want to believe you’re a creative genius! Fulfill that expectation for them.


Dreams

Night dreams are a rich source of ideas, and for the same reasons as childhood memories. They often have intense storylines, themes, and atmospheres. But don’t let on that you’re using your dreams. Wait to reveal that secret just before you retire.


Keep a dream journal. When you have an interesting or poignant dream, write it down immediately upon awaking. You will have only a few minutes before it fades from your consciousness forever.


I have written down many dreams for future use. Consequently, I have more ideas than time to write them into stories. This is a problem I want to have!


Recently I had the following dream:

  • I'm somewhere inside a large building with many hallways and rooms. Officers distributed through the building stand in authority over regular citizens. I, along with the other citizens, must say and do and think whatever a glowing, yellowish-white entity tells us to do or say or think. It is always cradled in some kind of cart or vehicle when it passes us, accompanied by its human guards. It hums and clicks and emits ominous sounds. If anyone has any thought in their mind in conflict with the entity, the entity sends everyone in the immediate area back in time a few hours, and everyone gets to try again at being more devoted to it. *** Somehow, when hiding in a vacant room in a hallway, I watch as the entity passes by. I am terrified that it will detect me. Suddenly I notice that the entity--when it catches someone doing or thinking something wrong--does not actually send people back in time, but just knocks everyone out except for the officers, who position everyone where they were a few hours before and then set the clocks backwards a few hours. When the people awake they think they have been sent to the past. The “time travel” part of the entity is a farce, a trick to make everyone more afraid of it.

A dream such as this is not a story, but only a scene or even an idea. A story would have to be written around it.


Never in a story have a character wake up after having a traumatic event, only to discover it was a dream. Such has become a hardened cliché. I still often see the cheap, annoying manipulation in movies and TV shows.


Throw out the outline

Let’s say you’ve come up with an idea: a crack in a sidewalk gets larger every time someone steps on it. Boom. The beginning of a story. You then write page after page, having no idea where the story is going. Do not decide in advance the story's genre, theme, atmosphere, or any other aspect.


This is how you allow a meaningful and original work to come from you.


There are many authors who write stories with no outline. Stephen King has said that if the author knows where the story is going, the readers might also. This would be bad for the readers and the author.


Character-driven plot twists

If you are writing your story correctly, your characters will resist you and will want to do things their own way.


“How can fictional characters resist the author?” you ask. "They're not even real."


Human beings are largely driven by their subconscious. Most of your thoughts, preferences, and actions are driven by conditions within your mind of which you’re not aware. This is good because the management of our bodies and minds requires thousands of decisions every second. You have more than 650 muscles in your body. Try controlling all of those consciously the next time you go on a walk. Good luck!


Many overlapping and conflicting issues are analyzed continually in our minds. You can’t manage all of them. If you don’t believe me, research “human subconscious.”


This doesn't mean you’re not responsible for your actions. You cannot justifiably say, “My subconscious made me do it.” This is because YOU decided what to put in there. Remember the adage: “You’re free to make choices. You’re not free to choose the consequences of your choices.” The subconscious is like a large yard full of weeds. They’re difficult to manage—but they’re your weeds, and you’re responsible for them.


What does this have to do with writing?


The act of good writing is mostly introspective—it comes from within. Most people don’t understand their "within." As you sit and watch the words appear on the paper or the computer monitor, you’re in a mild state of trance. Your subconscious becomes dominant while your conscious state, to a degree, becomes inhibited.


Welcome to your real self!


When your characters or storyline turns in a direction you don’t want or expect, what is happening is your outer façade has slipped away and how you really think and feel has become manifest. Don’t blame your characters!


Protect no one and nothing

“All’s fair in love and war” is only partially true. The full true statement is, “All’s fair in love and war and in fiction.” You must be prepared to let go of everything, including your ideas, your storyline, and your precious characters. I know you believe your characters are real people because they are so masterfully crafted. But it’s like being a parent: At some point you must let them go.


It's only after you’re willing to let anything happen, when your story can become unique.


Take away all hope

My uncle Randy gave me some good advice:

  1. Think of the worst thing that can happen to your character.

  2. Do that to him/her.

What if whatever your character is involved in goes completely bad? This may very well be where you need to take your story.


My favorite type of plot twist

The following kind of plot twist is so rare I cannot seem to find an example of this occurring in either print or on the screen.


It is where a subplot takes over the plot to create an entirely different story. I’m not referring to the big plot twist at the end of the story. I mean one early on that dramatically branches the story away from its original path.


The closest example to this I can think of is from one of my favorite movies (which movie everyone else hates) called, The Village (2004). The movie has at least three major plot twists that change the course of the movie.


Plot twists must make some sense and be believable

Do not write a story about kittens which are—later in the story—murdered by a Nazi zombies.


The second full-length novel I ever read was Android at Arms (Andre Norton, 1971). Two-thirds through the novel the story takes a dramatic turn from which it never returns. I’m not criticizing the plot twist. But as a youth in sixth grade, I had difficulty handling the transition. Consequently, the last third of the book seemed unsatisfying to me.


This would be like Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star half way through the first Star Wars movie, whereupon he returns to Tatooine to farm radishes. Yes, a possible resolution to the story, but not one that is very satisfying.


Final thoughts: Genuinely unique

The better you can think clearly and deeply while writing, the more unique and genuine your stories will be. Your true self is unique, therefore letting it out while you write will enable you to create legitimately unique stories.


I Googled the phrase, “most unique novels.” I did not recognize any of the titles, which only made me feel illiterate. But I believe the message is clear: If you write a unique novel based on literary gimmicks, many people may not want to read it. Save your cosmetic “out there” ideas until after you're an established writer.

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