Monday, July 6, 2009

The Key Is Unique

America's Got TalentImage via Wikipedia

One of my family's summer indulgences is America's Got Talent. When I first watched it some years ago, I wondered how in the world three judges, let alone the American public, was going to compare such varied talents as ventriloquism, singing, and magic and come up with one most talented person. Heck, I can't even compare a country singer versus a rock singer on American Idol.

What I've learned from watching the show over the last three seasons is that to move on to the next round, you have to stand out. Not just be good at what you do. Not even necessarily be excellent at what you do. You have to be unique at what you do. It is not enough to be able to play the violin well, you have to play it in a way no one has seen before, the way Nuttin' but Strings did to pull out their second place win last year. You can't just sing, you have to blow away everyone's expectations, the way Susan Boyle did (yeah, I know that was in Britain, but still, it makes the point). You can be not as talented, but very young, and that works too. You can sometimes even be not talented at all, but somewhat entertaining and surprising - something so different no one can compare.

You can't just sing a song everyone's heard. You can't just juggle knives or dance a mean jitterbug. You have to be unique.

Which brings me to the book I mentioned last week: Q&A by Vikas Swarup (Otherwise known as Slumdog Millionaire).

If you haven't read this book, you should. Even if you hated the movie, you should read the book (like most book/movie adaptions, the book is very different, and much better!).*

Like the best acts of America's Got Talent, this book is unique and creative, and different than almost anything out there. The story itself could have been just another story of a boy in the slums of India, growing up without parents and ending up on a quiz show. And I probably would never have picked it up.

What makes this book different is its structure: the whole format of the book is different than anything else I've read. Its premise is stated in the first few pages: boy from slums wins a billion rupees on game show and is arrested for cheating. How can a boy with no education know the answers to questions most people in India don't know?

The rest of the book is structured by the game show: each chapter is a slice of the boy's life, followed by the question. Of course, each answer comes from the experiences of his life.

Unlike the movie, the book doesn't follow a chronological timeline. It jumps back and forth through his life, with few threads throughout so it's almost a series of vignettes about his life that you might be tempted to think have no bearing on each other at all. In this way, it's easy to read, quick, certain sections more interesting than others, but all like pieces of a puzzle.

And the end... BAM! Just when you think it's just a story about his life.... maybe a commentary on the game show industry or on poverty or a referendum on how humans treat each other... it suddenly becomes something much greater. The threads of the story-line, all seemingly random, come together is a WOW moment.

Swarup could have written this book with a traditional chronological structure, but my guess is the book might never have been picked up. What makes it fantastic - what gives it that WOW factor in the last few pages - is it's uniqueness in the way it uses time and the way time is less important than the quiz show format. It's brilliant.

As a writer, I am filing this away as one of the examples of "how to move to the next level." Because sometimes it's not enough to just be a good writer. Sometimes it's about having something no one else has.

*In the book the main character's name is not Jamal, he has no brother, and there is no love interest - or girl for that matter - that he loves and seeks to find, just for starters on how different the book and movie are!
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  1. Extremely nice post. I admit, I struggle with the unique thing but you're absolutely right - it's what will make them take you on.

    I'm dying to read this book now. I wanted to watch the movie but it's not over here I'll go ahead and buy the book from Amazon on your recommendation.

    Great post! Again, I must say it. :-)

  2. I'm so out of the pop culture loop. And I agree, the best stories make you aspire to be better.

  3. Great post. To be unique and stand out in a crowd. I think that's what we all strive for. I wasn't going to read this book because I quite liked the movie but may pick it up now.

  4. I haven't even seen the movie and hadn't even considered reading the book instead. Until now. Thanks, Heidi!!! :)

  5. Jen - definitely read the book. The Don't lose sleep over not having seen it yet!

    Kerri - you're right. I'm reading some good books now, and they are making me want to write better.

    Patti - you'll like the book if you liked the movie, I'll bet. It's so different it's not like you know the end before you begin!

    Kim (Randy laughed when I called you Kimberly! So I'm using what is apparently your "for friends" name! :) )- Read it! I didn't really want to see the movie, and I'm not much for Indian culture (and all the books that are currently popular featuring middle eastern culture), but I heard the author speak and couldn't wait to read it. It didn't disappoint. His new book sounds awesome too!

  6. Love this post. I am going to read this book! Sounds like one that will not be put down.

    The unique factor--great but hard to do so having managed it, alone, makes it a Wow.

    How to do it is the next question. Anyone have an answer to that?