It's been said that there are no new plots, that fiction writers can only tread the same ground that's been tread by others. On the other hand, editors frequently state at writers' conferences that they want to see fresh ideas. So what are writers to do? We know that plagiarism is a no-no. Yet, every few years someone is desperate enough (or stupid enough) to copy a published author's work, in whole or part, and put their own name on it, hoping no one will notice.
Well, of course, someone notices! And then the copier isn't only in legal hot water, they've branded themselves as a cheat, as a writer who isn't clever enough to come up with his/her own words. Where then do we draw the line? When is it okay to borrow and when does borrowing become plagiarism and a career destroyer?
First, copyright law is meant to protect the original writer's words—his art. But some elements of art are not copyrightable. Titles can't be owned. Neither can a plot (boy meets girl), an idea (Earth is visited by aliens), or a character type (the bimbo cheerleader) be protected from use by another author. It's the actual words, the writing itself that shouldn't be stolen, borrowed, or used without the author's permission. And, of course, no author is going to say that you can take their book and put your name on it. No, wait! I take that back. Some writers do just that. They are called ghostwriters. And they are paid well for delivering a book then keeping quiet about having written it for another person to claim, or for sharing the billing with a celebrity.
But we're not talking about ghostwriting. We're talking about your original novel or short story, and what may or may not be permitted legally and ethically. What if you love a title you've come up with and someone says, "Hey, you can't call your story Gone with the Wind, that's been used already." Well, legally you can call your book that. Titles are duplicated all the time, either intentionally or by accident. Your book may be a story about a modern-day balloonist who is lost on his round-the-world race. It's perfect! Plus you get the added kick from people recognizing the famous title, used in this different way. But if you want your Civil War saga to be taken seriously, you probably shouldn't reuse that particular book's title.
What about characters? Can I create a story about a clever amateur detective who uses clues that no one else even notices to solve puzzling crimes? Sure. Hundreds of writers have done so, each adding an original twist and interesting traits to their sleuth. Can I make my detective a sleuth who lives on Baker Street in London in an earlier century? Why not? Maybe I could create a new competitor for Sherlock Holmes. How many vampires roam the night-time pages of novels today? How many soldiers, cowboys, mountain climbers, or deep sea divers risk their lives for their comrades? But common sense says that borrowing the exact character as portrayed by an author who is alive and writing today isn't a nice thing to do. That author might reasonably object to your using his paper people to populate your story, that is if you actually use the same names, descriptions, and so forth. If you want to write a story using the classic Star Wars characters, for instance, and you're hoping to get it published, then you need the permission of the copyright holder to do so.
However, most of us who write find that we can come up with a title that we're reasonably happy with, and characters who will work well in our stories. What I hear most often as a complaint from new writers who come to me as students or mentoring clients is that they have trouble plotting. "I'm not smart enough to think up interesting plots." "My mind just doesn't work that way." "I want to write something really exciting that's never been done before, but I can't come up with anything really fresh!"
Well, here's a secret. Of all the writers who are publishing fiction today, most are not coming up with their own plots. Seriously. You say you can't come up with a good idea for a story? Fine. Look up one of your favorite authors, recent or deep in the past, and pick a story you particularly liked. Break it down. What happened to keep you turning pages? What was the central conflict? List the hurdles the hero/heroine had to overcome to resolve that conflict. Where was the story set? How did the setting—time, place, weather, other characters—make the protagonist's job easier or harder? What you're doing is creating a map of a plot that you can then use for your story.
Shakespeare and virtually every playwright in his time stole plots. They looked to the Bible, to Greek mythology, to historical accounts and folktales, to the works of other poets and playwrights, and modeled stories that were different in slant, setting, style…but virtually lifted from other sources. If you are convinced you can't plot, borrow a cup of plot from another author as you might a cup of sugar from a neighbor when baking a cake. Write a Romeo and Juliet story set in the 31st century. Or a version of Shane, the classic Western, but make it a contemporary story aimed at teenage readers. Develop a story based on a folktale handed down through your Polish ancestors then set it in modern-day Manhattan. Use your cup of plot borrowed from a bestselling author of today to inspire an original tale that you construct and set during the time of the cave dwellers. The possibilities are without limit.
Is this playing fair? Absolutely. And it's not just because the precedent has been set by famous writers for centuries. The fact is, when you borrow a plot then develop your own characters and setting, applying your voice, wording, and interpretation to the story—it becomes something new and fresh. As you write, you begin to imagine new directions in which to take the novel, additional scenes, sources of conflict, and characters who never appeared in the earlier story. You naturally make the tale your own.
So don't let being clueless plot-wise stop you from writing a great short story or novel. Borrow a tried-and-true concept to get you started and show you the way. Once you have established the basic structure, your natural creative instincts will take over and help you make the story your own.
Happy writing! Kathryn