The writer’s challenge is to tell a fresh story. As William M. Thackeray (Victorian novelist, author of Vanity Fair), summed it up: “The two most engaging powers of a good author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”
But how do you put a fresh spin on old, familiar things?
Odd or quirky is, it turns out, naturally interesting. We are drawn to look more closely at something that deviates from the ordinary or expected. We are intrigued by something strange, unpredictable, peculiar, curious. We want to know more about it.
The word odd comes from the Middle English word odde, from Old Norse oddi: a point of land. In other words, it is something that sticks out like a sore thumb.
You want to make your story familiar but different – in an intriguing and appealing way. You want your story to stand out from the crowd.
This may seem obvious. But many beginner stories are what I’d call centric. They plunk themselves down safely in the middle of the expected; they refuse to venture far from normality. Beginning writers may be afraid or unwilling to challenge, threaten, or puzzle that sense of normalcy in their story.
But a story is about something different that happened. A story by definition is eccentric . . . . It makes us wonder about its origins. And it catches our interest.
Something odd needs to appear early in a manuscript to catch the attention of agent or editor. Those savvy shoppers of literary works are not looking for familiarity, but for freshness . . . especially in the first pages.
Remember, there is a stack of fairly equivalent works available to any editor, piled high in stacks or entire rooms of slush-pile submissions. Unless your story quickly offers a quirky aspect, it will quickly be tossed aside.
– from How To Write Your Best Story
More eccentricity makes a story memorable, intriguing.
Think of great characters in literature: Sherlock Holmes with his many odd habits, Long John Silver with his peg-leg and parrot, The Cat in the Hat with his colorful, crooked hat. Eccentric quirks like these don’t carry the whole story, but they capture our interest and draw us in to a place where the magic of story can happen.
Why? Because our attention is drawn to something odd. It reminds me of the iconic “More cowbell!” Saturday Night Live sketch with Christopher Walken, Will Ferrell, Jimmie Fallon, and others.
In it, some studio musicians are recording a tune, and producer Walken is looking for something he can really get excited about. He decides it’s more cowbell, so Will Ferrell begins to pound on it energetically (as the others try not to collapse in laughter).
As the sketch progresses, Walken and Ferrell agree that’s exactly what’s needed: more and more cowbell!
Why is this goofball sketch so memorable? Because it’s eccentric. The cowbell is the clanky, offbeat element in this bit of comedic genius. The phrase passed into American usage, on t-shirts and mugs, as a catch-phrase for: Hey! We need something more to catch our interest!
For your story, to make it stand out from all others . . . the literary equivalent is: more eccentricity!
(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)