Plot theft. It tends to be on the minds of a lot of new writers.
You were planning to write that book some day. You had this brilliant plot. Now that *#%! Patterson/Nora Roberts/Stephen King has written a bestseller with the exact same premise.
Or the story is eerily similar
to the one you pitched to an agent at a writer’s conference.
Or you're sure your plot will be stolen if you talk about your book online or in critique groups.
What should you do?
Writers have a lot to be wary of these days—bogus agents, inexperienced
editors, overpriced coders/designers, scam publishers, draconian contracts,
trollish critiquers—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:
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 a bestselling novelist
like James Patterson.
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. 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
something imitated—was coined by biologist Richard Dawkins
in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.
observed that certain stories, melodies, catch phrases and fashions can flash
through a whole culture in a short amount of time, changing and mutating as
they go. Darwin and Wallace simultaneously came up with the theory of evolution
while on different sides of the world. Newton and Liebnitz simultaneously
This explains why we can’t
copyright ideas. Everybody has them. Very often the same ones at the same time.
Unfortunately, new writers don’t
always realize this, and we can embarrass ourselves 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, you can indeed copyright your magnum opus
, although it’s not necessary under current copyright
laws. And if you’re really sure nobody ever thought of mixing classic 19th
century fiction with B-movie paranormal creatures, you can even copyright that
logline for “Silas Marner
Just don’t mention this to industry
This is because delusions about
the uniqueness of story ideas can get pretty off-the-wall.
Victoria Strauss at WriterBeware wrote last year
about some guy who was trying to sell his plot idea on eBay for
ten million dollars. 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
at Writer Beware, 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 writers have
been approached in a similar way. I sure have.
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 a good one. These people can get scary. (They’re
more likely to resort to lawsuits than murder, but I used it as a plot device
in my comic mystery set at a small publishing house: SHERWOOD,
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.”
Thing is--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
big like Patterson 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 version of your Silas Marner/Gremlins mash-up, and
somebody else comes out with a Silas Marner/Poltergeist mash-up, you’re now part of a trend.
Readers tend to be sheep. If the first book is popular, they’ll want another. And if yours is better, you’re
way ahead. It’s not about being first.
You can be pretty sure you’re
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?”
Hey, Virgil stole Homer’s plot!
suppose he did--in a way. 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.
You should be more worried that your plot has been overdone.
Unfortunately, memes have short life spans. So it's important to keep up with what's selling in your genre. You need to know when the reader-sheep have moved on to greener pastures..
I'm not telling anybody to abandon a WIP with an well-used plotline. But be aware you're going to have to work a little harder to make it stand out. I thought I'd never want to see another vampire movie, and then Dark Shadows came out. And I laughed my head off watching Vampires Suck last night. You can always take something tired and make it fresh with humor. Or Johnny Depp.
Here are some overdone plots I see agents and readers complain about:
1) The thinly disguised memoir/rant
- The Health-Crisis Survivor: The
protagonist has cancer, lost a loved one, or has a disabled child—and
after much agony, learns what’s important about life. Heart-wrenching, but
misery won’t sell books unless you’re Joyce Carol Oates.
- My Terrible Childhood: Child abuse
is tragic stuff, but after somebody has seen 1000 versions Bastard Out Of Carolina, she gets
calluses on her eyeballs.
- Days of Wine and Roses: Too many
addicts have twelve-stepped before you. It’s hard to make a story of “I was soooo f***ed up” sound fresh.
Journal about it, and use your insights in other work.
- The Government Sux: Most of what
you’re ranting about will probably be old news by launch date, even if you
self-publish. This is why we have blogs.
2) The wish-fulfillment road-trip fantasy
- Me and Bobby McGee: Unappreciated
husband leaves soul-stifling life for the freedom of the road. He picks up
a sexy hitchhiker who teaches him what’s important about life and some
nifty things to do in bed. Been there, read that.
- Thelma and Louise: Unappreciated
housewives leave soul-stifling lives for the freedom of the road. Sounds
fun, but we all know how it ends.
- Zen and the Art of… Same story,
with motorcycle/sailboat/classic Corvette.
3) Obvious or copy-cat plot devices
- Grail Quests: J. R. R. Tolkien
provides some pretty stiff competition in the “searching for a magical
object” category. If you saddle this old warhorse, make sure it takes you
somewhere wildly original and/or funny.
- Wardrobing to Narnia: I’ve seen a
lot of agents kvetch about the proliferation of “portals” in SciFi/Fantasy
queries. Pop your characters to fantasy worlds by magic toaster or
- The Chosen Hero: the ordinary
Harry Potter-type kid who doesn’t know he’s the anointed hero destined to
fight the Evil One and save the school/civilization/planet. Old when young
Arthur pulled the sword out of that stone.
- Improbable high school love fantasies:
Dorky new kid in school attracts the most popular kid of opposite sex.
Been done. With sparkles. Just once, we’d like to see dork meets dork.
- Creatures of the Night: The
curtain has fallen on werewolves and vampires.
- The Da Vinci Homage: If your hero
has found a secret code or artifact that holds the key to a shocking
revision of ecclesiastical history, you’d better set it on Mars or reveal
the fetid meatballs at the Pastafarian heart of the Church
of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or you’re going to have a hard time.
- A writer writing a novel: We’re
told to write what we know, which is probably why most writers try this
one. But you’ll do better with a story about your day job at the
On the other hand, oldies can be goodies in the right hands.
Nothing was more tired than the English boarding school melodrama before J. K.
Rowling put her spin on it.
The way to avoid this is to read books in your genre before
you start. It’s essential to know what’s out there. You may think you’re the
first person ever to think of mashing up B-movies with classics,
and unless you look at your local bookstore shelves and see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
won’t know it’s been done, and you’ll think “Seth Grahame-Smith stole my plot!”
What about you,
scriveners? Have you ever had your brilliant plot show up in somebody else’s
book? Have you had somebody try to sell you a plot or use their plot and split
the proceeds 50-50? What did you do? Have you tried to write a book with one of
the overdone plots? (I sure have: writer writing a novel—still have it in a
Labels: 20 Master Plots, 7 Basic Plots., Anne R. Allen, Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, copyright your plot, Kathleen Duey, logline, Meme, Miss Snark, overdone plots, Richard Dawkins, Seth Grahame-Smith