The other day I pulled up Goodreads to check out new and existing titles to add to my to-read list and also IMDB to view some new movie trailers and see if there were any new TV shows worth watching. While I read through lists and blurbs I noticed how easy it has become to answer "no" within ten seconds. Going by summaries alone or watching a trailer a couple of minutes long, I could decide if the story idea worked for me or not. Of course, I also considered that maybe some of the summaries/trailers might have held my attention if so many of them didn't sound like simple variations of each other.
There were an awful lot of crime TV shows featured where the main character was either a grouchy detective or had some paranormal ability. I sat back and wondered how people differentiated one show from another. None of them stood out.
I noticed a similar trend with books, not only on Goodreads, but also in links I followed on Twitter or announcements done on an agent's blog. (insert YA/MG character) lives in oppressive conditions until they discover they have (insert amazing ability/power) and can now either save the world or oppress it. OR (insert MC) meets (hot paranormal person) but generic obstacle (political/social/etc.) stands in their way. All of the descriptions modeled each other and none of them stood out because of it.
I'd like to think that every one of these TV shows, movies, and books have something unique and wonderful. As described, I'm getting a blasé feel for the current trends du jour. On the upside, finding comp titles for a new story has never been easier. Making any story stand out (other than popularity statistics) is very difficult.
Query letters submitting for peer critique often fall into the same molds too. We write the trendy formula or are expected to, even if the story doesn't fit the current summary mold. Without diving in too deeply to the query process, I'd like to just put in a plug for making sure you identify what makes your story stand out from the others and be sure to mention it in the query. What makes your YA character's abilities & situation any more special than the hundreds of other YA prodigies out there? What makes your love interest or the situation involving that love interest different than the usual struggles? Do we really need another grouchy or superpowered detective/cop/attorney? And if so, there should be a better reason other than fighting crime either of the normal variety or the supernatural. (These are only three examples, you can find boxed-in niche descriptions in any genre.)
One thing that would help is character voice in these descriptions. I hear several stories praised for having strong voice, but you know what—those voices sound an awful lot alike. They do! Character traits, especially for main characters, aren't leaping out at me either. I've seen their like before many times. Or, the voice in those descriptions are completely lacking. There's a lot to be said for great characterization in a novel or TV show. I think the marketing industry is either burned out or failing, perhaps both, when I see so many cloned summaries/trailers.
Gone are the days when having an extra-ordinary power or birthright will make a story stand out. Our culture is inundated with them. High risk stakes are great too, but also very common these days. Even what the main character stands to lose is running out of steam and growing repetitive. I'm worried. How are new authors supposed to break in without happening to touch upon agents' and editors' individual wish lists, you know, the wish list made up of story types they never tire of? And that's if they haven't already signed up several other clients who write in the same mold as you do. The same worry goes for self-publishing too. Die-hards who never tire of the—say grouchy detective stories—are pretty pretty much the ones who will pick up a story just because it's that genre. Generating new readers, not so easy, unless we can give them a reason to pick our story over all the others.
We can't be out of new ideas yet, or is everyone trending to the same two or three basic story plots these days? Perhaps we're on the brink of something new taking the entertainment world by storm. I hope so.
Maybe I'm so unreasonable about this dilemma because I read several genres and have to be convinced to notice a book or show. Writers and other artists must make me a fan. Make me want to read more than that short summary, maybe open up the book and try out the first page. I don't follow willingly. Yet I'm always on the hunt for something stellar, something that I can fall in love with. New worlds, new characters, great conflicts, insightful inner journeys, stories that teach me things, and especially stories I can't figure out by reading the summary or watching the trailer alone. So help me and others like me: make your story or TV show or movie stand out from the pack. Be noticeable. The next time I comb through Goodreads or IMDB or even my local library, please let me find something I can fall in love with, instead of the terrible disappointment I felt the other day in clone-ville.