Variations on a Theme

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time at all, you’ve had this happen to you.

You tell someone “I’m a writer.”

That someone says, “Oh yeah? What are you writing?”

So you tell them about your story. But about halfway through your synopsis it dawns on you. This story sounds frighteningly familiar. Why if you didn’t know better…but no. No, this is your story. You didn’t steal it from anyone else. You certainly didn’t steal if from that award winning movie that approximately everyone has seen.

Only now that you think about it you story about the girl with the magical ring who trains a dragon and falls in love with a vampire? It sounds just like that other story.

So what do you do? Naturally you go into full panic mode. You shout out “Heavens to Betsy, it’s all in ruination!” and run away from that slack jawed stranger as fast as you can. Or maybe that was just me.

Okay. Calm down. Just…deep breaths. That’s right…in…out…in…you can do this.

Alright, back with us again? Here’s the thing. Originality is a myth. Seriously.

Try to think up a story no one has ever thought of before. Go ahead, think. Come up with something completely original.

Nope, been done. I don’t care what it was you thought of it’s been done somewhere somewhen before.

The truth is you’re never going to make up an original story. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands in disgust and start cribbing directly from someone else’s narrative.

But what it does mean is that you can’t let that fear of being unoriginal stop your progress.

The first story I ever wrote was about a girl who finds a magical ring and is chased by an evil presence who’s very existence is linked to the ring. And when you boil it all down like that it sure sounds a whole lot like Lord of the Rings which is pretty much the greatest fantasy story ever written.

That used to bother me a lot. But it doesn’t bother me so much any more. For one thing I know much of the rest of the book is nothing like Lord of the Rings. The rest of the book involves a group of rebels striking from a hidden base against the oppression of an evil empire, and that doesn’t remind me of anything else at all.

So what’s a writer to do? The bottom line is balance.

“Balance again?” you say.

Yes, balance again.

On the one hand you really may have created a story which is too similar to another more famous story. That isn’t wrong persay, but it might very well mean you’ll have a hard time getting it published.

On the other hand, stories are all connected to each other in weird and wonderful ways. Let’s face it, without other stories to inspire us we’d be in a sorry state as writers. We can’t work in a vacuum. And that means that no matter how hard we try some elements of our story are going to line up with other elements in other stories.

It’s okay. It’s not plagiarism. Let’s call it…inspiration.

So if your story ends up sounding like something someone else has already written, take heart. Chances are they were inspired by someone else too. And that’s completely okay with me.

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7 responses to “Variations on a Theme

  1. Oh! I think this applies to me. I’m trying to copy other author’s style. Does that count as plagiarism?

    On another note, I realize that I’m writing a story that’s eerily similar from Evermore (I love that story). But then, it’s the girl and not the guy who’s immortal. And it’s the guy who keeps on getting reincarnated.

    • Style and story are completely different animals. Copying another author’s style for effect isn’t quite what I’m talking about. I’m talking about that realization that the bare bones of your story are eerily similar to another story you’ve heard before.

  2. Great post! Many of my blog posts are inspired by something/someone else. Does that mean I can’t add anything to the conversation? Absolutely not. It’s normal to take inspiration and then spin it into a new direction.

  3. I’m so glad you wrote about this. I spent a lot of time and energy on my first draft, and then I started reading books again. I was literally heart-broken when a number of “my” ideas showed up in a popular book series. I had not read those books until I finished my draft, but I still felt like a fraud. I may even have moped for a number of days.

    It felt like a disaster and I couldn’t stop myself from exaggerating the similarities in my mind. It took some time to realize, that yes, there are some similarities, but it is still my own creation.

  4. Pingback: One Step at a Time « Marilag Lubag's Blog

  5. Pingback: From the Mailbag: On Originality | Albert Berg's Unsanity Files

  6. Pingback: From the Mailbag: On Originality | Albert Berg's Unsanity Files

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