What makes you think your story or article idea is even worth stealing?
On the comforts of genre and the limits of originality…
Genuine idea theft and plagiarism are complete no-nos, of course. But I’m amazed how protective writers of stories, articles and posts can be about ideas that aren’t really worth stealing. Here are a few thoughts on ideation and originality.
Originality isn’t everything. We all love Westerns, romcoms, cozy mysteries; we all love things that happen according to predictable templates. Think of the group of innocent teens going for a holiday in the remote woods at the start of a horror movie; no surprise what will happen to them. The plot may have some original twists, but what we’re really looking for is a fresh execution on a much-loved theme.
Your idea for a murder-mystery set in space won’t be the first (there’s even a film called Murder in Space). But do it well, and people will love it. And a big part of what they love will be the tropes and conventions they recognise as well as the original elements. ‘Storytelling is genre driven and each genre has demands that must be understood and met,’ says Richard Krevolin, Screenwriting from the Soul.
The job of the writer, then, is to balance convention and freshness. ‘[The audience] enters each film armed with a complex set of anticipations learned through a lifetime of moviegoing,’ writes Robert Mckee in Story. ‘The genre sophistication of filmgoers presents the writer with the critical challenge: [She] must not only fulfil audience anticipation, or risk their confusion and disappointment, but [she] must lead their expectations to fresh, unexpected moments, or risk boring them.’
No one used to care about originality. For many centuries, the idea of originality in literature carried no kudos at all. Readers looked for retellings of classical stories and conventional feelings and themes. Shakespeare, for example, took story ideas and characters from all over the place, almost never acknowledging provenance and reusing specifics of plot and language in a way that would probably be classed as plagiarism today. Even in the 18th century, when the rise of the idea of the author as an individual genius, we still see an emphasis on eloquence over originality, on ‘What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest’, in the words of Alexander Pope: lots of people might have an interesting idea or feeling, that is, but only a great writer could really get it into words.
Other people can have the same ideas. The world is full of people straining for ideas for things to write about. Inevitably, with all that concentrated mindpower, you will get duplication. You might be pleased with your very fresh-seeming idea for a post on ‘What Strangers Things can teach us about characterisation’ (or teamwork) (or trauma) but don’t be surprised if someone hasn’t also thought of it already. (They have — all of these.) People everywhere are looking to leap off topical hooks and contemporary themes for their ideas, and we all lean on familiar templates (such as ‘x things y can teach us about z’) and conventions of genres to bring them to life. Repetition happens all the time. We are sometimes vain to think that our idea has been stolen; often, mere coincidence is the culprit.
We all love things that happen according to predictable templates. Think of the group of innocent teens going for a holiday in the remote woods at the start of a horror movie; no surprise what will happen to them. The plot may have some original twists, but what we’re really looking for is a fresh execution on a much-loved theme.
Ideas get emulated. A few years ago, when I was a freelance feature writer, a couple of friends of mine joined choirs for fun. I decided this signalled a new vogue for amateur singing as a hobby, and duly sold the idea to a national UK newspaper. Two days later, a TV news channel ran a story on the singing trend. Did they steal my idea? Come on. They used their own interviews and material. And it was hardly an in-depth idea in the first place. Were they inspired by my idea? Possibly. But that’s OK, because…
Ideas make room for ideas. A new idea or approach or style that gains currency can open up interest in that area for others to exploit. When a topic trends, other outlets will want content on it too. So other writers might see that original singing article and come up with their own ideas: ’10 reasons why singing is good for your health’, ‘How singing helped me overcome depression’ or ‘5 expert hacks for improving your singing technique’.
Or think of how Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett brought a new self-conscious, post-heroic comedy to scifi, or how Ringworld influenced the space opera. Think of the impact on the canon in their different ways of Neuromancer, of Tolkien’s Ring trilogy, of Jules Verne. ‘We are all, in one way, children of Jules Verne,’ said Ray Bradbury. ‘His name never stops. At aerospace or NASA gatherings, Verne is the verb that moves us to space.’ The greats open up spaces that let others in to explore further. That’s not copying; that’s inspiration.
Themes and topics are not ideas. Think of all the writer sites and blogs you read. A perennial topic is productivity — getting more words done, avoiding writer’s block etc. Think you could write a great piece called ‘Top tips for beating writer’s block’? Well, I just googled that and I got over 34m hits. That’s not an idea, that’s just a topic, sorry.
Themes and topics beget ideas. But don’t despair, because that search shows a huge interest in this topic. So get more niche with your ideation. How about ‘5 bestselling scifi writers’ remedies for overcoming writer’s block’ or ‘7 unhelpful thought dragons that get in the way of your fantasy writing (and how to slay them)’. Numbers, you’ll notice, are always good; the listicle may not an original format, again, but we all like it.
Ideas get accepted for reasons beyond originality. Other reasons for ideas getting accepted include:
· Authorship: if Stephen King or William Gibson wants to write a piece with a blah title like ‘Top tips for beating writer’s block’, I guarantee that it will be published!
· A fresh format: An article or story that uses an interesting or unusual structure can often help readers see even a very familiar theme afresh. We have many histories of philosophy already, for example, but not so many as yet that rhyme or are rap-based.
· Timing and topicality: An idea that chimes with something in the news — whether by accident or design — always has a better chance of gaining traction. For some, dystopian fiction feels an appropriate response to the world right now, don’t ask me why. Taking an existing situation and squeezing it to a logically credible extreme can add poignancy and urgent drama to a story idea.
Final thought: Beware the excuse of idea theft.
Some people use the fear of idea theft as an excuse for not writing. I’ve heard writers fret about protecting their ideas, when they haven’t actually written anything yet. Trust me: as a writer, you have a unique voice, a unique way of looking at the world, a unique style. No one can steal those.
Dan Brotzel (@brotzel_fiction) is author of a collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, and co-author of a new comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). For 10% off your order, quote KITTEN10
A version of this article first appeared on The SFWA blog