August 18, 2015

What Makes Your Story Unique?

Neon sign of "Same Same But Different" with text: Is Your Story the "Same Same But Different"?

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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Comments — What do you think?

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Melinda Primrose
Melinda Primrose

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!

Evolet Yvaine

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

Deborah Makarios

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).

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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 🙂

Glynis Jolly

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..

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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…  — Read More »


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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