Agents and publishers want originality. I've been asked the question (several times): What makes your novel unique? Coming up with original plot lines and twists are key to writing something that people will enjoy. But this can be really, really hard. Sometimes we don't even know we're picking cliche reactions and story lines in our writing.
At a writing critique group I met with a few weeks ago, one of the other writers brought an exercise (from Joan Soward's post on the ANWA blog) for us to do on metaphors. There were two columns of words:
One: skinny girl, autumn leaves, computer screen, black and white movie, and old shoes.
Two: water slide, bed skirt ruffles, wedding buffet, clothesline, and bubble bath.
Then we took just a couple of minutes to make as many metaphorical sentences that we could using one word from each column.
I will share my sentences with you (knowing that they are not metaphors, they are similes, but that is not my point!), but I was working under a time frame and just wrote the first thing that came to my mind:
1) The autumn leaves fell from the bag over her shoulder like water down a slide.
2) The skinny girls arms stretched like a clothesline as she prepared to do a cartwheel.
Well, imagine my surprise that as we went around and read our sentences aloud, all of us had chosen to pair the skinny girl with the clothesline, and two of us had paired the autumn leaves with the water slide. Why had we all chosen the same images?
Because we had all picked the first things that came to our mind. We picked the easy-to-pair images. And as a result--we didn't have bad sentences, but none were truly unique.
I think the key here is to not go with the first thing that comes into our minds when writing. We need to brainstorm several different paths our stories can take, give ourselves several options to pick from. Try to dig deeper. Try pairing the skinny girl with the wedding buffet instead (go for a little irony maybe) or the autumn leaves with the the bed skirt ruffles (as one of the women at the critique group did and she gave us a vivid image of what those leaves sounded like). Get a little crazy!
A side note: The book: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell has an awesome list of brainstorming questions to help us come up with something original. I love this book!