‘There is no such thing as a new idea’, Mark Twain once wrote. Which is bad news for anyone trying to be original! But as he goes on to say, we can create new and endless numbers of new combinations. Still, what if you find that you keep coming up with ideas that have already been done? I’m reading a charming little book at the moment, ‘How To Fall In Love With A Man Who Lives In A Bush’, (quite easily, it seems, apparently Austrian men aren’t up to much) where the protagonist dreams of becoming an author. The only problem is that every story she comes up with has already been written …. by Charlotte Bronte or Stephen King!
It’s something of an occupational hazard for storytellers – even when it comes to choosing a title for your book. A quick search on Google will reveal that your unique, edgy and entirely original title has already been used by a handful of other authors, in some shape or fashion. It’s happened to most of us, at some point or other in our writing lives, but thankfully it doesn’t always sound the death knell for your book.
On reading Graeme Simsion’s novel ‘The Rosie Project’, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of deja vu. Not surprising really, considering one of my favourite movies in recent years is ‘Adam‘, the story of a young man with Asperger Syndrome and his efforts to connect with a young woman who moves into his building. It’s a really touching love story, as is The Rosie Project, because we can all see a piece of ourselves in these characters as they fumble unsuccessfully on the road to true love and self-determination. Anyway, my point is that, as I was reading Simsion’s novel, I realised that while both stories had their similarities, they each had their own authentic voice. Imagine if either of them decided to give up on their project, because the story had already been done?
I believe that it is our job as writers to bring our unique viewpoint to these stories, regardless of whether the idea has already been explored. Because nobody can truly write the same story in the way you’ve written it and that is your gift as a writer. Original thought might be as rare as hen’s teeth, but it is the writer’s perspective which makes a story ‘new’, recycling old ideas and creating something different. I found a great article by Melissa Donovan on Writing Forward. She states that “Originality isn’t a matter of coming up with something new, it’s a matter of using your imagination to take old concepts and put them together in new ways.” The following is a little test to prove her theory:
A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger, which leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he must receive training to learn skills that are seemingly superhuman. Along the way he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. Our young hero is also helped by a number of non-human creatures. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves — the same villain who killed his parents.
If you guessed that this synopsis outlines Harry Potter, then you guessed right. But if you guessed that it was Star Wars, you’re also right.
So it’s not unusual for people to independently come up with the same ideas in the creative sphere, or any sphere for that matter. We all share the same collective unconscious. Plagiarism, however, is another issue entirely. Plagiarism is the intentional copying or lifting of another person’s work and passing it off as your own. When I hear stories like this, it makes my blood run cold. I was in a chat group recently where a writer lamented the fact that a novel she had written a few years previous was now a major hit for someone else. Obviously, I have no proof as to whether or not this was true, but I could feel their helplessness. What can you do if you see a book that shares more than a passing resemblance to your own (even the twist that ‘you’ll never see coming’?)
The most recent high profile copyright lawsuit involved the 2012 novel ‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M.L. Stedman (author Margot Louise Watts) which screenplay writer Joseph Nobile alleged was based on his 2004 screenplay, A Tale of Two Humans. The case, which was taken after Dreamworks adapted the novel for screen, was eventually dismissed, despite the plaintiff arguing that there were striking similarities between the work of the two authors, (the story’s setting on a remote storm-swept island, the central couple and specific scenes in chronology and specific passages of dialogue).
Equally being accused of plagiarism, based on mere coincidence, must be an unsettling experience. Unless you’re Daphne du Maurier, whose much beloved ‘Rebecca’ bore many similarities to A Sucessora (The Successor), a 1934 book by writer Carolina Nabuco. Nabuco and her editor alleged du Maurier had stolen the plot and much of the dialogue, but Du Maurier scoffed at the claims, arguing that the plot itself was too common to have been plagiarized. Although sued for plagiarism in 1947, du Maurier won the lawsuit.
As Oscar Wilde once said, as only he could, ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.’ Although I wouldn’t say that to anyone’s face!
While the majority of us don’t set out to write novels that have already been written, it’s almost impossible not to end up treading on the toes of stories that have already been told. Having said that, publishers and readers alike don’t want the same old tropes churned out year after year. The trick is to tell a tale as old as time, but in a new way. Mix up genres and avoid the predictable cliches. The real challenge is to find your own unique voice as a writer and tell a story as only you can tell it. That is what will make your work original.