It’s bound to happen: as you work on a story, you read or see something very similar to what you’re doing. Sometimes, so similar, you might even consider stopping.
It happened to me recently, while reading The Night Circus (affiliate link). Not that I even remotely considered stopping work on A Magic Life, but I did think, “If this plays out more as this book goes on, I could see somebody thinking, ‘Hey, he ripped that from The Night Circus!'” when this particular thing was something I was going to do in a comic book script that never saw production back in the mid 90s, long before The Night Circus was started.
The Failure of the Aluminum Hat
I’ve heard more than a few sorta-writers say, “They stole that idea from me!” (They being a publisher or movie production company.)
“Oh,” you say. “Did you submit your story to their company?”
“Did you pitch it in person?”
“Uhm…no, I didn’t.”
“Did you have somebody pitch it in your stead?”
“Ah! So you’re saying your aluminum foil hat to keep production companies and publishers out of your head failed you?”
“Well…no, I just like the way I look in aluminum foil, okay? Like I have a Hershey’s Kiss for a head — sue me!”
“No problem — to each their own. But…I don’t understand how they stole from you if all you did was think of something you never acted on.”
“Okay, so they didn’t technically steal from me. But we had the same idea. I should be the rich one…not them!” (They usually say this as though it’s that easy to make it big.)
These “writers” don’t know the truth most writers who actually produce know: somebody’s already done what you’re writing!
Is Harry Potter Timothy Hunter?
Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling are well-known authors, right?
In the early 90s, Gaiman wrote a comic book mini-series called The Books of Magic. The story is about Timothy Hunter, a teenager who lost his mother and comes from a less-than-ideal family. He wears glasses and finds out he’s destined to become the magic user of magic users. He has a pet owl. He is trained in the ways of magic and struggles with just trying to be a kid.
When Harry Potter came out, some accused Rowling of using Timothy Hunter as the basis for Harry Potter. While the media tried blowing it up, making it seem like Gaiman believed this, too (he didn’t) — even if Rowling had lifted aspects of Tim Hunter for her famous boy wizard, Gaiman didn’t have the market cornered on young wizards with glasses. Hell, the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon had a boy wizard with glasses, and I’m sure that wasn’t the first.
The Funny Thing about Stories
Here’s the thing about stories: no matter how much we like to think something is new, it really isn’t — at least on a thematic level.
One could say my first novel, Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors, is a cross between National Lampoon’s Vacation and Stephen King’s Christine.
Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors begins with a father and son buying a station wagon. Along the route of the road trip in the story, the O’Brien family stops in West Virginia where the more…”rural” side of the family is introduced. National Lampoon’s Vacation begins with a father and son buying a station wagon, and Randy Quaid will probably be forever known as Cousin Eddie.
But Cousin Eddie didn’t influence Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors — relatives in Ohio and West Virginia did. (Example: one branch of my family tree had property along a bend in the Ohio River. The river flooded, and a houseboat washed down from upstream. It settled on family property and they decided, “Hey — free house!” adding to the houseboat over the years.) And I could think of no better way to establish right from the start that the station wagon in Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors is more than it seems by showing a father and son buying The Inferno from Satan. (That’s not a spoiler — it’s all very obvious, right from the start.)
So What’s Original?
Plots and themes and even writing techniques are anything but original. With mankind telling stories since the beginning, the same stories have been told so many times.
So why even bother? As writers and readers, why do we keep going back to stories? Because stories are the glue that binds us no matter who we are and where we live.
While the stories we tell are the same all over, it’s how we tell them that’s ours and keep people coming back for more.
Paul Lamb says
I’ve been flirting with an idea for a short story for many months, waiting for it to accumulate enough critical mass to make it worth trying to write. Somehow I discovered that it bears a resemblance to an obscure short story by Tennessee Williams. I’ve never read a word of TW, and I barely know the plots of his more famous plays. (I wish I could recall the thread of my thoughts to see how ever made the connection to that obscure TW story.) Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I’ve put in a request at my local library for the collected stories of TW so I can read the story in question and see just how closely my idea parallels his.
They say there are seven basic plots. If so, then there is nothing new under the sun and everyone is telling some variation on a story already told.
Still, I might deliberately borrow elements from some earlier story as a way of showing my story’s lineage and pedigree. And also as an acknowledgment of my debt to the earlier writer.
It’s all about having ideas versus executing them. And most of the good ideas (and some of the bad ones) have already been executed, so the trick is to execute them somehow differently.
Or, if you’re like people I know, complain that someone stole your ideas. It’s a great defense against getting anything done, by the way.
–Shawn, who wrote The Dirty Dozen… I mean, 47 Echo.
Christopher Gronlund says
Paul: I’m a big fan of when elements of something previously written pop up in something somebody writes later. That tip of the hat to what’s come before — when done well — is just so much fun.
The only thing by Williams I ever read was the Glass Menagerie, and his essay, The Catastrophe of Success.
Christopher Gronlund says
Shawn: Yes, almost everybody I’ve heard who’s said they had an idea stolen are people who don’t actually produce. They love the thought of writing, but never do it. I imagine, in their minds, when a similar idea makes print or a screen that it’s like saying, “See?! I could have been that!” in their minds.
It always comes back to one thing: just write! Do it enough, and eventually something will happen.
Good blog and I love Shawn’s comment about not getting anything done. So true. It simply gives the person who feels shafted another reason why they won’t succeed.
You don’t see me crying in my cheerios because my sparkly vampires won’t see the light of day…Nope, gotta move on to better writing, even if it isn’t the most original thing since bespectacled boy wizards (totally my idea, btw)
Christopher Gronlund says
Thanks for taking the time to reply, Diana. I love Shawn’s comment, too. The people I know who have said somebody stole an idea, or that they thought of something first usually don’t produce — they’re usually more in love with the thought of writing than actually writing. At some point during every big project I’ve worked on, I’ve stumbled upon something similar and had that initial, “Dammit…” feeling. But that happens, and it’s usually an indicator that I’m on to something other have liked enough to publish, and things always end up different in the end.
Good luck with all your writing!