I was a screener for a film festival recently. It’s something I’ve done before many times — and just like writers reading a lot of others’ writing, watching a lot of films can give you perspective on both what you want to do and what you don’t want to do as a filmmaker.
As you might imagine, a screener’s job is partly to vet films. You’re trying to score all the submissions to see which ones with the high scores should get a second screening… the most suitable of those eventually going into the program (as I posted the other week, “the best” isn’t always what does nor should make it into a particular festival’s program). Part of the score was based on how original the film was: how did it come across on a spectrum of fresh to re-hashed?
Now, being a conscientious sort, I wanted to do right by the festival and uphold their standards and methodology. I didn’t want to ignore the word choice of “originality.” But as I started in, I was troubled. Pretty much all the overarching plots and scenarios were ones I’d seen before: the father trying to connect with his kid, the assassin having second thoughts, the artist having a creative block, and so on. I’ve seen all these scenarios before.
Ah, but I hadn’t seen any of the films. And here’s where things sorted themselves out. You see, I found I could easily give high marks to films that had scenarios I sussed out within the first few seconds, but had a specificity and truthfulness that came alive in a way I’d never seen before. That’s how one is original: by being specific and truthful (not necessarily factual). By giving authentic, well-realized characters that, even where they’re familiar, are well developed. Characters that could make the right or wrong decision at any moment because of how they honestly arrived at this moment and you have to keep watching/reading/listening!
I thought of this more expansive, more abstract idea of “original” when I read a piece by writer Chuck Wendig, whose blog post –quite eloquently, emphatically, and using not-safe-for-work language — asserts that originality is overrated. And yes, he’s talking about the notion –the Sword of Damocles nightmare, really– that torments creative people: somewhere, someone will look at the creative work and realize it’s not 100% unique. Why, you can see echoes of other stories and characters and situations in it! Now the ever-lurking Imposter Syndrome flares up in the creative person and misery ensues.
My realization that originality (as in uniqueness) was not all that occurred about 10 years ago. I was already going for specificity in my writing after absorbing that and other lessons from Brenda Ueland and others. I directed a short film, a quiet fantasy of the gentle Twilight Zone variety. The magic of the world is quickly understandable the moment it’s revealed because you’ve seen that sort of magic before. I didn’t care about that: I wanted the focus to be on the moment of decision and the relationship between the characters. That, incidentally, is why I love working in science fiction and fantasy, because of the scenarios you can concoct that give these wonderfully heightened moments of decision, sometimes safely removed from the real world and its ready-made dismissals (“oh, well that’s not exactly how [x] works, therefore nothing they have to say must have truth”).
Anyway, an interesting thing happened when the film made it out into the world. I got two sets of feedback. Audiences, by and large, were swept up in the characters and moment of decision as we had hoped. However, several festival judges and other reviewers didn’t like it because they had “figured it out” too easily. It wasn’t “original” enough.
And that’s a key reason why I think many creative people continue to stress about the notion of being “original.” Because among gatekeepers, tastemakers, and even an average audience member, the notion of uniqueness, of that sort of originality is revered. Achieving the label of “original” is a prize to be won.
And let’s face it: who doesn’t want to be an original? Who doesn’t want to be unique? And for those of us who create some form of art, be it writing or paintings or music, who doesn’t want that work to be described as “original” and for “original” to mean “my word, this is a unique, singular piece of work!”
But take another look at Chuck Wendig’s article, especially if you skimmed it the first time. Just like Dorothy, you’ve had the solution the whole time. You are the unique element. You are what makes your work original. It’s what you bring to it. And people will be perfectly happy with your work even if it is “unoriginal” if it is authentic and fresh and they get swept up in it.
And that brings me back to the beginning where I was talking about screening films. The good ones were original in terms of being authentic, in terms of being specific, and in having a vitality that made me want to keep watching. And they did it because of what the filmmakers were bringing to it: their unique perspectives.
I don’t have to fret about my story being unique, but I have to worry about my storytelling being unique… or at least distinctive enough that people want to let me continue telling the story.
Let me unpack that. I don’t think the gatekeepers and reviewers and others who might judge my work as “unoriginal” are wrong, per se. True, I think many of those people are using “original” to mean “something I have never, ever, ever seen before” and I think that’s a useless measure of storytelling on anyone’s terms, not just how one “should” judge my work.
And I have no say in how they judge my work. They just will. I will hear filmmakers and writers sometimes complain about how their work is judged unfairly and I empathize, but we don’t get a say in the fairness of their judging. In fact, if they’re not a fan of a particular genre or style of story, I expect them to be a bit more unfair. And I suspect those people will label my story “unoriginal” and dismiss it more readily if it isn’t the most unique thing ever. Its uniqueness is what will make them pay attention. It’s very possible you’re going to create something that doesn’t click with some people and never will. Understanding this will help you endure some people calling your work “unoriginal.” I mean, they’re not wrong, but as long as you have an audience who enjoys your work, they’re also irrelevant.
But there’s also a time when someone might call your work “unoriginal” and what they’re really touching on is that the work feels inauthentic. It feels hackneyed or clichéd. It doesn’t have that specificity that makes one long to find out what happens next. If I’m in a position where someone is telling me my work is unoriginal and I realize it’s this, I have to roll up my sleeves (and if it’s with a finished film, that’s bad, because I can call it a draft, but it would have been far cheaper to get that critique at the script stage). Of course, it’s easy to say that after the fact. In some cases, you have to make some of those films first.
So nowadays, I don’t worry about if the writing I’m doing is “original.” I worry about the characters seeming truthful. I worry about the situations seeming believable. And I want the audience (readers, viewers, listeners) to have a sense of payoff. The notion of “payoff” is paramount for me and probably worth a blog post on its own. For the discussion here, I’d distill it as an audience member consciously or unconsciously going, “Oh, yes!” at the end of a story arc. And they don’t do that for hackneyed, cliched, inauthentic tripe.
Of course, it might not be “original,” but that’s okay.