Same, but Different

I own a lot of Barbra Streisand album. I like her voice. Even more, I like the passion she brings to the songs she selects to record. There’s one song on her first The Broadway Album called Putting it Together. Part of the lyrics run something like “All they really want is repetition. All they really like is what they know.”

So true. So very true. When I’m sitting down to read something, to listen to music, to watch a movie–I want something I know I’m going to like. Not entirely the same thing, but enough the same that I can just enjoy it and not think too hard. If I want to be intellectually stimulated, honestly, I’m not going to turn to fiction in any form of media for that.

I’ve heard lots of writers bemoan this fact over the years. They say it stifles their creativity. They say that readers should “broaden their horizons” and give things that aren’t “repetitive” and “original” a chance.

Yet, when talking about what they like to read, they’re not willing to do what they want readers to do. Silly, isn’t it?

I’ve always wondered about this viewpoint since I’ve never agreed with it. I’ve always seen “same but different” as a freedom, a guideline, an incentive to find what my “same” would be throughout my books.

See, to me, that “same” is an inherent promise between author and reader. When I read a Dean Koontz book, there’s a whole pile of inherent promises: The story can be a thriller-oid or a horror-oid; the heroes will win; The hero, heroine, any children and all dogs will live; whatever the danger is, there is some kind of quasi-science explanation. So, when I’m in the mood for a thriller/horror story with all the Happy Ending stuff I adore, I read Koontz.

Genre Romance used to promise that the hero and heroine would meet, have a great deal of emotional angst, a lot of sexual tension, and somehow discover that they were better together than apart. Everything in the story centered around that gradual discovery. When I’m in the mood for an emotional rollercoaster with a guaranteed happy ending, I pull out my keepers. (The genre started shifting to more external conflicts between the hero/heroine, so I stopped reading much of the genre many moons ago–I’d love to hear it’s back to internal/interpersonal conflicts.)

A Stephanie Plum book is a guarantee of a very particular world view, a whole host of…interesting supporting characters and some of the most bizarre ways of destroying cars with a little adventure and mystery tossed in. Exactly the kind of story I want after a bad week at work.

All of these demonstrate what I’m talking about: “Same, but different”. When I pick up a certain author, or genre, I know what I’m getting and it’s what I’m in the mood for.

As an author, I’ve taken this to heart. What kinds of things will all of my books promise my readers? It’s part of what makes a story mine, after all.

I don’t think it’s something an author can just decide on, consciously. The unconscious is so much more powerful with this kind of decisions.

I’ve written about 20 novels to completion at this point, so I have something of a body of work to figure out what my “same” promises are, regardless of what I write.

1. The heroes will always defeat the villains. It might cost them greatly, but they will win.

2. The dog will never die.

3. Magic will never have a scientific explanation.

4. Any themes are more personal (such as responsibility and its consequences, family dynamics), but social commentary won’t be off the table.


As for the “Different” aspect–that’s sometimes a challenge so it doesn’t read like the same story with different names. Sure, that’s one way of doing “same, but different”–and it works well for many Big Name Authors (it’s an easy way, IMO, of gaining a recognizable “brand” in the market). I can see why writers can get bored with that quickly (self included), even if readers don’t tire of it as fast (self included).

For me, it’s looking at the various things that interest me. Because they all interest me, they have connections automatically, so mixing this and that will yield different stories–yet, they’ll always have that “Same” that marks stories as mine. It’s pretty much inevitable, don’t you agree? They all come from me, after all.

So despite the fact that I’m looking at an urban fantasy setting in my next series (Pittsburgh–with magic!), have an original world in my present MIP, and am working in a magical riff off The Three Musketeers in COTV, what makes it the same is in the heart of the stories. The locations are part of the different. Maybe that’ll be enough to interest readers. Maybe not. Time will tell.

As of yet, I don’t have one world or one set of characters that I want to follow for story after story after story. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps something I’m working on right now will grow into it. Yet another thing that makes this writing thing constantly fun and exciting, all the things you find out about yourself as well.

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