The Pitfalls of “Originality”

One of the distinguishing features of modern society is our preoccupation with originality. Giving proper credit to the creator of something is the basis of everything from copyright law and patent offices to anti-plagiarism policies in high schools and universities. Much of this stems from an artist’s desire to get noticed in some way (as well as paid). While this desire is certainly not bad, the quest for originality also carries certain temptations.

In the 1934 book, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande discusses some of the dangers that often plague inexperienced writers:

“When the pitfall of imitation is safely skirted, one often finds that in the effort to be original an author has pulled and jerked and prodded his story into monstrous form. He will plant dynamite at its crisis, turn the conclusion inside out, betray a character by making him act uncharacteristically, all in the service of the God of Originals. His story may be all compact of horror, or, more rarely, good luck may conquer every obstacle hands down; and if the teacher or editor protests that the story has not been made credible, its author will murmur ‘Dracula’ or ‘Kathleen Norris,’ and will be unconvinced if told that the minimum requirement for a good story has not been met: that he has not shown that he, the author, truly and consistently envisages a world in which such events could under any circumstances come to pass.”

I see this all the time when I ask my high school students to write narratives. What starts off as an interesting story suddenly ends with a “surprise” twist: The starving orphan is actually the long-lost child of the city’s wealthiest citizen; the heroine’s disease is miraculously cured with an experimental drug; or worse yet, “I woke up and realized it was all a dream.” When I point out that these sorts of endings are not very convincing, the students counter, “But I wanted my story to stand out.”

Brande reminds writers that the key to originality is not distorting a tale into something unrecognizable. Rather, it is telling a story from your own perspective. “There is one sense in which everyone is unique. No one else was born of your parents, at just that time of just that country’s history; no one underwent just your experiences, reached just your conclusions, or faces the world with the exact set of ideas that you must have. If you can come to such friendly terms with yourself that you are able and willing to say precisely what you think of any given situation or character, if you can tell a story as it can appear only to you of all the people on earth, you will inevitably have a piece of work which is original.”

Remember what Agnes Mure MacKenzie says about originality in The Process of Literature: “Your loving and my loving, your anger and my anger, are sufficiently alike for us to be able to call them by the same names: but in our experience and in that of any two people in the world, they will never be quite completely identical.” This principle is true regardless of genre, and when you think about it, isn’t bringing individual experiences to life in an engaging and believable way the basis of all good—and original—art?

About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.


  1. This was one of the early things that plagued me about writing, the concern about originality. Something that helped was realizing having an original voice was more important than a supposedly original story.

  2. That’s true. When I think about the books I have enjoyed the most over the years, it is often the author’s way of telling the story that sticks with me more than the plot itself.