I often hear from new writers who are afraid their plots will be stolen if they talk about their books online or in critique groups.
But I tell them to rest easy. Writers have a lot to be wary of these days—faux agents, bogus publishers, e-book pirates, content mills, James Frey—but plot-purloiners should not be high on the list.
Consider the old saying: “There are no new stories, just new ways of telling them.”
Experts don’t agree on the exact number of narrative plots, but there aren’t many. In the 19th century, Georges Polti listed 36 “Dramatic Situations.” In 1993, Roland Tobias counted 20 “Master Plots,” and in 2005, Christopher Booker compressed the list to 7 “Basic Plots.” Miss Snark said there were 6, and I found a recent article in Author Magazine that listed only 5. The number seems to be shrinking.
But everybody agrees it is finite. So—no matter how original your story feels to you, somebody has probably told it before. Maybe last week. And they didn’t steal it. They thought it up just the way you did.
It’s amazing how often an idea that sprouts in your brain from the seeds of your own imagination can take root in other people’s brains at the same time. This is because human minds often respond in similar ways to prevailing news stories, music, weather patterns or whatever—and end up generating similar thoughts.
Evolutionary biologists call this phenomenon a “meme.” The term—from the Greek mimema—meaning something imitated—was coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. He observed that certain stories, melodies, catch phrases and fashions can flash through a whole culture in a short amount of time.
This explains why we can’t copyright ideas. Everybody has them. Very often the same ones.
Unfortunately, new writers don’t always realize this, and they can embarrass themselves with plot-theft paranoia. That’s why you never want to mention copyright in a query letter. It red-flags you as an amateur.
Of course, if you’re having severe anxiety about it, and you’re sure nobody ever thought of mixing classic fiction with B-movie paranormal creatures, you can copyright your logline for “Pride and Prejudice meets Poltergeist.” Just don't mention it when you pitch your book.
This is because delusions about the uniqueness of story ideas can get pretty off-the-wall.
Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware wrote last month about a guy who was trying to sell his plot idea on ebay for ten million dollars. Really. I’m not making this up. You can read his amazing offer right here: He said, “It can be compared to stories like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Matrix, Indiana Jones…and will bring in endless fame and money to anyone who takes it.”
And he’s not the only starry-eyed doofus who’s combined delusions of grandeur with total cluelessness about the effort required to actually write a novel or screenplay.
In the thread of the same post, children’s author Kathleen Duey said,
“I have been approached SO many times by people who want me to buy a story, or who are willing to share half the proceeds if I will just do the writing. I never know what to say. I am not rude, but...really? Try that split on any other kind of business person. ‘I think that a colony on Mars would be awesome and I am willing to give a 50% share of all eventual proceeds to anyone who can make it happen.’ I am always careful to walk away, if that's what it takes, to keep anyone from telling me the idea…just in case I ever write something similar by accident.”
I’ll bet a lot of you have been approached in a similar way. I sure have.
In fact, I have a feeling this delusion is as old as writing itself. I imagine Virgil probably met a guy at the Emperor Augustus’s orgy who said—
“You’re a writer? Hey, I’ve got this idea for a book about a guy who sails around the
Mediterranean. Meets up with big storms. Monsters. Some hot nookie. You can write it down and we’ll split the proceeds 50-50.”
I hope Virgil had a good lawyer. Kathleen Duey’s instinct to run is excellent. These people can get scary.
When somebody approaches me with this “proposition,” I say, “The going rate for ghostwriters is $50-$100 an hour. I don’t provide that service, but I can get you a referral.”
I don’t want to be mean, but they need to understand that most writers have plenty of story ideas of our own. Our biggest fear is not living long enough to write them all.
But what do you do when somebody does publish a book that’s similar to yours? Even if they didn’t literally “steal” it, you can feel kind of ripped off.
Don’t despair. Memes can work in your favor. If you’re writing the final draft of your Pride and Prejudice/Poltergeist mash-up, and somebody else sells a Pride and Prejudice/Gremlins mash-up, you’re now part of a trend. Publishers tend to be sheep. If the first book is popular, they’ll want another.
And if yours is better, you’re way ahead. As the above quote says, you can’t tell a new story; but you can tell it in a new way. It’s not about being first. You can be pretty sure you’re not.
In fact, I’ll bet some guy told Virgil when he first pitched the Aeneid, “A lost dude sails around the
Mediterranean after the Trojan War having adventures? Sorry, that’s been done. Haven’t you heard of that Homer guy’s story, the Odyssey?”
Did Virgil steal Homer’s plot? I suppose you could say he did. But it doesn’t seem to have hurt sales for either of them for the last couple of millennia. It’s the telling that makes each story unique. And that’s going to be true of your story, too. It’s not about the plot. It’s about the writing. Nobody can steal that.
Well, except e-book pirates, but that's another blogpost.
So what about you, scriveners? Are you afraid somebody will steal your idea? Would you ever pay for somebody else’s? Have you ever been approached by one of these “here’s my idea; you write it and let’s go 50/50” people? How did you handle it?