What Makes Your Story Unique?

by Jami Gold on August 18, 2015

in Writing Stuff

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If we follow agents, editors, or publishing trends on social media, we’ve probably heard the idea to write something “the same but different.” Writers the world over have scratched their heads at that phrase. *smile*

Usually what agents or editors mean is that they want something similar enough to other stories that they know they can sell the book. (If a story doesn’t fit into a genre or category, how would readers find it on a bookstore shelf?) Yet they also want the story to not feel like a retread of what’s come before.

I’ve seen agents share on Twitter that for some common story ideas—such as a young adult protagonist attending their first day in a new high school—they might receive 30-plus queries with this story opening each and every day. With that kind of repetition, it’s easy to see why they might get tired of the same ideas over and over.

So how did one of my favorite TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, succeed with that premise in the opening episode?

Because the show also made it clear how it was different.

Wait… Buffy’s transferring because she burned down the gym at her previous school (due to…er, vampires?)? That’s different.

The introductions to her future friends are likewise peppered with unique events. Instead of a simple bump in the hallway to trigger a meeting, the bump in the hallway results in Xander finding her wooden stake among the spilled items.

These differences all work together to make the audience sit up and take notice. They’re hooks into our attention.

Whether we’re writing queries for traditional publishing or back-cover blurbs for self-publishing, we need similar types of hooks. So if we identify the various ways our story is unique enough to grab readers’ attention, we’ll know better how to sell our story.

What Sets the Hook?

There are many elements that can appeal to readers. Any one of those could be unique to us or our story:

  • our voice
  • story premise
  • characters (name, job, hobby, goal)
  • plot or sequence of events
  • setting (time or place)
  • challenges and conflicts
  • situations or setups
  • character flaws or backstory, etc.

However, not all of those will make it easier for us to sell our story, simply because not all of them will be obvious at first sight. It’s difficult—if not downright impossible—to show our voice in a book’s cover, for example.

A back-cover blurb or query is where we can really start to set those hooks and show what makes our story unique. In a blurb or query, we can show off our great voice, give a description that makes our characters sound interesting, or mention an unexpected setting.

Can We Have Too Much of a Good Thing?

It’s no secret that I’ve struggled with queries and blurbs over the years. One issue I’ve run into multiple times is writing something that ends up a confusing mess.

Sometimes we can leave readers confused by trying to include too many interesting elements. Some aspects that make our story different might lie in a subplot that doesn’t belong in a query or blurb at all, or an element might require too much explanation to make the significance clear.

In other words, while it might seem that we’d want to include every single hook possible—”Well, if this doesn’t appeal to them, maybe that will!”—that way lies incoherence. And a confusing blurb doesn’t instill trust in readers (or agents) that the story will be any better.

How Do We Know which Elements to Include?

A couple of years ago, I took a workshop by Laurie Schnebly Campbell called Blurbing Your Book. Laurie’s experience covers both the fiction author type of creativity and the advertising copywriter type of creativity.

So her workshop focused on how we can sell our book to potential readers. Covers, blurbs, or queries all act like advertising for our story.

One advertising concept that she shared with us is Unique Selling Points (USP). As she said, we need a bit of what’s cool about the story.

Which bits should we focus on? The elements that will clearly make our story sound cool—to our target market.

So we first have to think about what the readers of our type of book would find interesting. A women’s fiction book boasting of a “love at first sight” plot might get a few confused eyebrow scrunches, whereas that description of a romance novel would result in grabby hands from those who love that trope.

That’s the key: Different target markets want different things. So our goal is to express in our blurb or query what makes our book unique and interesting while still matching those unique and interesting elements to what our target market wants. Easier said than done, right? *smile*

What Are Our Book’s Unique Selling Points?

What’s special about our book? What boxes could we check off with “If readers like, A, B, C, or D, they might enjoy my story”?

We might get some ideas by looking at blurbs of other stories in our genre and seeing what stands out. Often, it takes only a hint to grab our interest, especially if that hint alludes to big universal ideas.

Chelsea’s dreams for her first big career job crumble after her dad nearly dies in a car accident. Her good-for-nothing brother refuses to help with caretaking, so she’s left to pick up the pieces for her father’s sake.

Scrambling to salvage her new boss’s last shred of goodwill, she’s working late at the office—alone—when a threatening phone call forces her to question everything she thought she knew about her family. Now she has to figure out who she can trust—before the next accident is more than a near-miss.

(Er, yes, I completely made up that blurb on the fly, so it’s not the best thing ever. But hey, if you want to run with that story idea, go for it. *smile*)

My point is that blurbs can hint at many elements that readers might find interesting. This one could check off boxes for:

  • New career dreams
  • Family drama
  • Caretaking and family obligations
  • Job stress
  • Mystery and suspense
  • Deadly threats
  • Family betrayal
  • (and maybe others that I don’t even recognize)

Likewise, for our stories, we could come up with a “readers might enjoy my story if they like…” list. If we’re writing a mystery, what kind of mystery are we writing?

  • Light and humorous or dark and twisty?
  • Is our protagonist a detective or a dog groomer?
  • Is our setting an intrigue-laden small town or a gritty downtown?
  • Are the character interactions filled with sexy banter or by-the-book interrogations?

There’s no wrong answer because there are readers for each of those types of stories. Our goal is to attract the readers who will like our type of story by hitting their hot buttons.

What Do We Do with that List?

Once we have a list of all the things that makes our story cool, we can use that list in several ways. We can use it to:

  • add spice to our synopsis,
  • ensure our query or blurb has hooks,
  • create promotional messages to attract our target audience, or
  • use it to keep a draft on track if we develop the list before finishing the story.

For each of my novels, I created a “readers might enjoy if they like…” list that I added to as I thought of things. These lists don’t include everything yet, but it’s good to have a starting point for when I have time to dig deeper later. (One of these days, I really need to get serious about promo. *sigh*)

For Treasured Claim, the “readers might enjoy if they like…” list (so far) includes:

  • dragons
  • shifters
  • sexy jewel thieves
  • games of bribery and domination
  • reformed playboys
  • assertive virgin heroines
  • “one last big heist”

For Pure Sacrifice, the list is:

  • bad-ass unicorns
  • shifters
  • virgin heroes
  • matchmaking dogs
  • seduction of the hero
  • beta-ish heroes
  • sexy scenes without conventional sex

For Ironclad Devotion, so far I have:

  • faeries
  • cowboys, blacksmiths, and horses
  • good guy motorcycle clubs
  • Southwest/Native American
  • foster parenting
  • enemies-to-lovers
  • secret baby backstory

For each one of those stories, many elements show up in the blurb, but not all of them fit. The “virgin hero” element of Pure Sacrifice couldn’t make it into the blurb without getting into convoluted worldbuilding explanations. (Believe me, I tried. *smile*)

However, as an example of how else we can use these lists, I made sure that one of the teaser quotes I created for posting on social media alluded to the element:

Quote from Markos of Pure Sacrifice: She took a step toward him. "You? Mr. Sexy Ass Bad Boy Extraordinaire. A virgin. And you expect me to believe that?"

So we definitely don’t have to try to cram every cool idea into the blurb. That way leads to confusion.

Instead, as long as we know how to identify what makes our story cool, different, and unique, we can focus on hitting potential readers’ buttons in other ways. And an interested reader is one step closer to a reader who decides to buy. *smile*

Do you struggle with knowing what makes your story unique? What elements of your story do you think potential readers would find cool? Can you use those to help sell your book? Do you have other ideas for how we could use a USP or “readers might enjoy…” list? What elements in other stories immediately make you sit up and take notice?

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17 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Melinda Primrose August 18, 2015 at 6:33 am

Hi Jami,
This is the single most difficult thing I have problems with LOL. I can never seem to find what makes my story unique. One thing you might do with a USP list is look for comp titles. Another title that has 4 or 5 of the elements on your USP could be a good read for several reasons.
1. Comp titles for querying.
2. You may want to see how other authors have handled the material, especially if you get stuck in your own writing.
3. An idea of what’s already been done.
Thanks for your lists of USPs. It gives me some idea where to look for my own!
Melinda

Reply

Jami Gold August 18, 2015 at 7:54 am

Hi Melinda,

I understand! And I often struggle with which cool bits to include in a query or blurb. I think I have a system now of thinking about the basic story and focusing on the bits directly related to that first. 🙂

Great suggestion about comparable titles! Thanks for sharing that insight! 😀

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Evolet Yvaine August 18, 2015 at 12:40 pm

Male exotic dancers who work for an undercover organization that rescues kidnapped children from human traffickers. It’s going to be a series of 6 books and I started half of Book 1 during Camp NaNoWriMo last month. I think that’s pretty unique, don’t you? LOL

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Jami Gold August 18, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Hi Evolet,

LOL! Yes, indeedy! 😀

And seriously, that’s a great example of how we can get those cool bits into even a short logline. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Deborah Makarios August 18, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Yeah, I can’t quite see anyone going back to the bookshop saying “Hey! This isn’t the series about male exotic dancers rescuing trafficked children that I was after – it’s a completely different one!” 😀
Sounds intriguing, I might add. It’s the juxtaposition of unexpected elements that does it. I’ve aimed for the same thing in my WIP – fairytale princess comes down from her castle all full of sparkly-eyed idealism only to find that everyone thought she was dead and the world has moved on. Fairytale princess + harsh political realities. That’s the concept that grabbed me, and that’s what keeps me going with it (I’m a slow writer).

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Jami Gold August 18, 2015 at 4:10 pm

Hi Deborah,

Yes! “the juxtaposition of unexpected elements”–that’s a great way to put it. 😀

“Unexpected” automatically means different in this context, and “juxtaposition” implies pairing things with a contrast–pairing that difference with something similar, like twisting a common trope. 🙂

And I like these ideas from both of you. LOL! Thanks for sharing your insight!

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Tamara LeBlanc August 19, 2015 at 5:40 am

As ALWAYS, LOVE this post!
I do struggle with many things about writing. My worst characteristic? I have low confidence when it comes to my writing. I’m always worried I’m not going to do my story idea justice. I’m pretty good at coming up with fresh ideas, but that worry weeds its way in and makes it difficult to put on the page.
I soooo love your blog! Truly and honestly, it’s the best writing blog on the web.

Hugs to you 🙂
Tamara

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Jami Gold August 19, 2015 at 6:04 am

Hi Tamara,

I understand that fear. I have another series in a drawer, and part of the reason is because I’m not sure I can do the premise justice. We have to have faith that between our growing skills and our critiquing and editing team, we’ll get there. 🙂 *hugs* back to you, and thanks for the comment!

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Glynis Jolly August 19, 2015 at 8:00 am

I think most of us realize that there isn’t any truly original story, just oodles of variations of the same stories. However, knowing this, it’s important that our story is different in some way or form or we’ll be accused of plagiarism. Then there’s the problem of sounding like a rerun from a previous book we’ve written. The four lists you give in this article are excellent check points. Moreover, they can be used all during the duration of the WiP to help the author focus better and make those differences happen..

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Jami Gold August 19, 2015 at 8:18 am

Hi Glynis,

Exactly! The basics of every story have already been done, so it’s all about what twists we’re bringing to the idea. 🙂

And thanks for reiterating the tip about using the list to focus during drafting. Often when we come up with a story idea, the reason we’re excited to write it is because of some of these unique elements. So keeping them in mind during drafting might help keep us closer to the story we want to tell. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung August 19, 2015 at 11:15 am

Hey I really like this post! I do kind of think about “what would interest my target audience” things when I write my blurbs, but I haven’t thought about the what would be “the same but different”, i.e. “unique but sticking to well-loved tropes” elements. 😀

Haha I love your Buffy the Vampire Slayer example! How you can start off with something that looks familiar yet has an original element.

Just for fun, I’ll tell you what hit my “hot buttons” as a target reader of Treasured Claim and Pure Sacrifice. (I would call myself a target reader since I gave them four and five stars respectively, and you already know what four and five stars mean to me. 😉 I like your tips on my last comment about review ratings, btw. :D) For Treasured Claim, I liked:

-dragons
-shifters
-and jewel thieves without the sexy part lol

I would have liked assertive heroines, but it seems most heroines are assertive nowadays, so that wouldn’t stand out to me much. Haha and I really love Elaina’s dad and his backstory, but I know that would be a massive spoiler, so I understand that you couldn’t put that in the blurb.

For Pure Sacrifice, I like:

-bad-ass unicorns (I always like unicorns)
-shifters
-virgin heroes
-matchmaking dogs (:D !!!)
-beta-ish heroes

Why don’t I name my likes for Ironclad Devotion too? Here they are:

-faeries
-horses
-foster parents
-secret baby backstory I sort of/ sometimes like
-enemies-to-lovers I sometimes like

You know, I actually liked your made-up-on-the-fly blurb too, lol. The things that stuck out to and attracted me were: “Her good-for-nothing brother refuses to help with caretaking” (since I for some reason love stories about brothers); “ she’s working late at the office—alone—when a threatening phone call forces her to question everything she thought she knew about her family” and “Now she has to figure out who she can trust.” 😀 The threatening phone call probably attracted me most.

So thanks for this post. It will help me come up with some good blurbs for books in the future!

Oh I have an unrelated writing question: So you know I’m a pantser, and so as I write, I keep finding plot holes, and sometimes have to go back and change things. But if I’m writing a series, I might have to change things in previous books too! That means I can’t publish any of the books in the series until I’ve finished writing and editing the entire series! What would you do for this kind of problem?

I posted this question on some writing Facebook groups, and people are basically divided into two camps: The first thinks that you should just try your best to remove these plot inconsistencies, since there will always be plot holes, so you can just publish your books; or you can find creative ways to change things in future books rather than alter things in past books, or you simply take previous books as “the unalterable truth.” The second camp agrees that I shouldn’t publish any of the books until I’ve written and edited the entire series, because that would show that I care about my readers and the quality of my work. Also, one commenter said that self-published books already have a bad reputation of having lazy writers and lots of errors, so getting rid of those plot holes in the entire series would definitely be helpful to not propagate this bad reputation more.

P.S. After reading the above comments, I want to add that I’m quite sad that some of my friends only see stories on a very high-level, abstract way. They don’t see originality in the details of the story and characters. They only see things like, “Oh, that’s just another ‘chosen kid goes to magic/ fighting training camp and then goes off to important quests’ story,” and then they complain that “there’s nothing new anymore.” Well, both Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are that type of story, but clearly HP and PJ are very different stories as well. It just makes me sad when people only look at the abstract level but not on the concrete level of specific details.

Another friend pointed out that the Hunger Games and Battle Royale are both “the same”, so he didn’t bother watching or reading the HG. 🙁 Come on, the Hunger Games is so much more than just the political themes and kids being forced to fight each other to the death!

Also, sometimes we WANT to see the “same story” again. In Chinese martial arts stories, the most common type of story is a young guy (in his teens or twenties) who goes out into the world, gains more experience, encounters many nasty villains, makes a lot of interesting friends along the way, and becomes a super powerful fighter due to lots of good luck and miracles along the way. (Sort of like the hero on a quest trope.)

Yes, many stories follow that pattern, but I see nothing wrong with this “going on a quest, meeting villains, making interesting friends, and becoming super strong” trope. It’s a trope that I enjoy reading over and over again! (As seen from how I’ve read over 25 Chinese martial arts stories already, lol.)

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Jami Gold December 5, 2015 at 10:17 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh, thanks for sharing what struck you about my stories. 😀

And great question! Hmm, I wonder if I should do a post about that “how pantsers handle series” issue. I probably should, because otherwise that would be a very long answer. 😉

Hmm, for your other comment about readers complaining about nothing new. It’s true that many premises are similar, and for many readers, it’s exactly those tropes that attract them. I hear readers talk about how XYZ is their catnip. 🙂

This gets to that “same but different” or “finding the unique aspects” point from the post. We’d want our blurb to at least hint at what makes our story more than just a rerun.

That said, I think readers can get into a rut where they read too many on one type of trope, and they can burn out. Or–as what may have been the case with your friend about HG–the unique aspects might not have appealed to them, so they might have ignored those details in the description. Interesting point! Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Carradee August 20, 2015 at 4:24 pm

The “selling point” thing may be way I usually have an easier time writing the blurb and the book both when I draft the blurb while writing the book.

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Jami Gold August 20, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Hi Carradee,

I’ve heard that advice, and I think it might help plotters. I tried it before, but as a pantser, my blurb was so far off from the final draft that it was a different story. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee August 22, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Oh, the blurb sometimes does turn out completely different than the story you end up with, but then you revise it.

When I have an idea where I’m headed (as in a theme, image, conversation, scene—something), the blurb also helps me isolate what (if any of it) I should focus on while drafting.

For example, A Fistful of Earth could’ve ended up quite different—I had the option of making it a romance, a political fantasy, or a coming-of-age as far as the bulk of narrator development was concerned. Any of them would have worked, but it would’ve changed the focus and even some character decisions. I realized it was coming-of-age, so that’s the primary. The romance and political stuff are secondary; they’re still integral parts of the plot, but they’re primarily background/external conflict rather than what the narrator focuses on. (That entire series is pretty much built in the background, as in there’s an overarching conflict going on that the narrators in general aren’t entirely aware of and that therefore readers only start to grasp come book 4.)

I usually have to figure out that idea of where I’m headed at about the 10% mark, else I get stuck or end up with a tangled mess. Especially when I do the blurb, it gives me something to remind myself of what I was intending for the story, so I can catch my potential rabbit trails pretty quickly and evaluate if the story is morphing or if I’m getting off-track.

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Jami Gold August 23, 2015 at 10:08 am

Hi Carradee,

I can understand that. In the blurb I tried it for, I knew the setup of the final showdown, but that was it. Blurbs don’t usually go that far into the story, so maybe that’s why the attempt was so unhelpful for me. LOL!

But I can see what you mean about at least knowing the main story line from that. In my case, that blurb did have the main story line correctly, but the themes, conflicts, and ideas leading up to it were all wrong. So yes, it was revise-able, but not really a more helpful starting point–for me–than starting blank.

Of course, I’m also one of those rare pantsers who knows story structure so well that I generally don’t get distracted by tangets. 😉 But I know other pantsers might be helped simply by knowing the main story line so they don’t go off-track.

So this is a “absolutely agree in principle but less helpful for me personally” thing. 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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