Hey, James Patterson Stole my Plot!

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—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, 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 invented calculus.

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 meets Gremlins.”

 Just don’t mention this to industry professionals.

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, LTD.)

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 not.

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!

I 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

2) The wish-fulfillment road-trip fantasy

3) Obvious or copy-cat plot devices

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, you 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 drawer.)

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