On Writing: Originality

For the record, I have only seen one episode of Lost.  Didn’t care for it.  Shows like this just aren’t my bag.  Maybe I just get bored too easily.   Maybe it’s not very good.  Or, most probably, shows like Lost thrive upon becoming a cultural phenomenon and I’ve never been very good at being swept away in cultural phenomena.  I’m a loner, a rebel.  I walk the mean streets alone, with only my righteous fists and keen wits to see me through the dark.

I have nothing against cultural phenomena.  Be it pogs, hula hoops, Lost, or any number of fads, these things are usually harmless, often fun, and worthy of enjoyment.  I know when I say Lost is a fad, it’ll probably strike some people as dismissive, but fads are just fine.  Fads are good.  Fads give cultures something to obsess over and to share.  When you think about it, in the long term, everything is a fad because everything is transitory.  Yeah, I went there.  Metaphysics.  ‘Cause I’m smart like that.

I’m not really here to discuss Lost specifically.  Although, SPOILER ALERT, I might accidentally give away some of the show’s surprises, so if you haven’t watched the ending episode, you might want to stop reading now.

Lost demonstrates a fundamental rule of writing stories.  Nobody gives a crap about the idea.  And nobody gives a damn about the originality of your story.

In the end, Lost appears to be just another Everybody Goes to Purgatory story.  Not having seen the show, I am sure that there is more to this.  But the basic premise has been done before, and in fact, if you were going to tell me what happens in the first episode of Lost, I would’ve put Everybody’s Dead But Hasn’t Figured That Out Yet on the top of my personal list of possibilities.  And, really, as the show stacked bizarre incident upon bizarre incident, strangeness upon strangeness, was there truly any surprise in the answer?  Aside from It Was All A Dream what other reasonable choices were there?

Lost isn’t the first story to explore the purgatory premise.  It won’t be the last.

Now, I know that fans of the show will probably say that there’s more to it than that.  There might be.  I’m not interested in debating that.  Instead, I’m using the show as the perfect example of how concentrating on ideas is a waste of time.  Originality is unimportant (and probably impossible).  What matters are the characters, the presentation, the style, and the ability to draw the audience in, however you manage it.

A great idea is worthless if you don’t do that.  An unoriginal idea is great if you can.

I’ve noticed, perusing the internet, that there seem to be two responses to the Lost finale.  The first group enjoyed it.  They couldn’t care less about surprises or twists.  They just are there to take the journey.  Some saw the ending coming.  Others didn’t.  But the ending, while part of the journey, is just a technicality.  It was the trip that made it worthwhile.

The second group felt profound disappointment at the conclusion.  Because they were invested in the story itself.  They wanted to know the answers, and they wanted a payoff.  The Everybody’s Dead ending feels like a cheat to them.  And I can’t honestly blame them for that.  My assumption that Lost would end like that was one of the reasons I never watched the show in the first place.

While I can sympathize with this group, I wonder why they bothered watching.  Of course, I have my own theory.  They were most likely swept up in the cultural phenomenon.  But those who watch these types of shows for a satisfying conclusion really are coming in with the wrong expectations.  Lost isn’t about impressing you with its “mysteries” (I put that in quotation marks because anyone can write myseries without answers).  Answers are secondary.

Ideas are worthless, unnecessary.  Ideas might help you launch your story, but to work too hard on them is usually a waste of time.  Lost and Avatar became huge hits built on ideas that would have been eviscerated if they were shown in a Syfy original movie.  And I don’t mean that in a negative way.  It only illustrates that the execution of the idea is more important than the originality.

I know this won’t stop people from asking writers where do we get our ideas, but it does show just how unimportant ideas and originality are.  And that’s not a negative thing.  Realizing it doesn’t make writing a story any easier, but it does allow the writer to focus on what’s really important.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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7 Comments

  1. Charmscale
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I agree. As far as I know, Shakespeare stole the plots for every play he ever wrote. Romeo and Juliet is stolen from a book. Hamlet could have been stolen from any one of several dozen plays and books with the same basic dead-father-appears-to-son-seeking-vengence story. What makes his plays stand above all the others is his writing skill and sense of humor.

  2. Zovesta
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    Honestly, this is probably one of the few things I strongly disagree with you on.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted June 1, 2010 at 3:28 am | Permalink

      Everyone’s allowed to disagree with me once. I hope it was worth it. ;)

      • Zovesta
        Posted June 5, 2010 at 5:59 am | Permalink

        XD Well, I don’t know.

        Personally, I have stopped reading a lot of books because everything has been repeated. Yes, yes, there is nothing new under the sun, all that matters is how the light shines on it, but my point is that they aren’t even trying to make it creative.

        Originality is what I look for when I look for a book. =V Even if it’s not done well, I’ll read the entire thing if it’s CREATIVE. So, yes, opinions differ.

  3. Jesse
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Technically the whole show wasn’t in purgatory. In the final season they created what appeared to be an alternate universe but in the very last episode it was revealed that this alternate universe was actually purgatory. Which felt like a bit of a cheat as then a few things they show in that alternate universe make no sense from a story stand point if they are in purgatory and their sole explanation appears to be “It’s the afterlife, anything can happen there; silly wacky afterlife.” It’d be like if you were watching The Dark Knight and then instead of thumpy moody music as Jim Gordon is giving his closing monologue they started playing the Benny Hill theme music. It was a drastic thematic and tonal shift that was jarring and not in a good way.

  4. Bradley
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    My History With Books

    In elementary school I always loved reading books. The Bridge To Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, Ralph the Motorcycle Mouse, Bunnicula, all of which are still great books. When I began going to middle school and high school all of my assigned readings began to heavier themes and story. Lord of the Flies, Farenheit 451, Tale of Two Cities, Things Fall Apart. The magic of the books I used to love were no more. I was suddenly thrust into this world of all books I read having and tragic themes, and told with an unnecessary amount of detail that they became excruciating to read. The only book that I I truly enjoyed was one that I found in a library one day called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the galaxy. Why can’t more books be like this one, I said to myself?

    For years I went on being a book skeptic. That was until last summer when I picked up a copy of the Sheriff of Yrnameer by Michael Rubens. Holy smokes was that a fantastic story.

    After reading the book I searched Amazon.com to see if Michael Rubens had any other books. He did not. So I looked in the ‘what other reader’s bought’ section and I found Monster. I snatched it up from my local library, took it home and finished it that night.

    A few months later I noticed another in the Amazon other reader’s bought this book called The Gates by John Connoly. It was written with same tone and liveliness of an A. Lee Martinez book. (All so a very good book) Which got me thinking.

    My questions

    Do you read books written by other writers who write in the same kind of themes and tone that you write? Examples above being Michael Rubens sci-fi novel The Sheriff of Yrnameer, and John Connoly’s The Gates.

    Do you feel like there is competition or animosity between writers who have similar styles of writing in terms of theme, tone, and character?

    Have you ever one a single game of Heroscape using Brunak? He never seems to work well for me, despite the fact he looks super awesome.

    All so, thanks for getting me back into loving books again.

  5. ti'ane
    Posted June 7, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Wow I so watched a different LOST to you guys :)
    (Or interpreted it way differently)
    The sideways flash wasn’t purgatory or “they’re all dead”, as Jack’s dad says “This is the place that you all made together so you could find one another”.
    This is a place they all created so that they could meet up again once they all died eventually, some during the series and some long after. They didn’t all die in the first episode, nor did they all die in the last episode.
    Just a good old pocket of space/time where they could all “be” at once “to remember and let go”

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  1. [...] A. Lee Martinez uses Lost as a case study for a discussion on originality. [...]

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