Sunday, June 29, 2014

Is It Plagiarism to Steal a Plot?

A creative exercise I suggest in Plot & Structure and in my workshops is "stealing" old plots and re-imagining them. Of course I use the word stealing tongue-in-cheek. Still, I have occasionally heard an objection to this exercise, that it might in some way be unethical or even the dreaded P-word: Plagiarism!
It's neither. If it were so, the greatest literary felon of all time would be a hack named William Shakespeare. Most of his plays were lifted from other sources.
For example, Will used an obscure narrative poem entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet as the basis for his play. He didn't even change the names of the titular characters! What cheek! Which reminds me: Wasn't there someone who had the bright idea of "stealing" the plot of Romeo and Juliet and turning it into a Broadway musical set in New York? But I digress.

I once read a thriller about a small town where people were being transformed into animal-like creatures who feasted on human flesh. One of the characters in the town, a child, was convinced her parents were not really her parents anymore.

As I read that I thought of one of my favorite movies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the 1956 version). At the beginning of the movie a little boy is running away from his mother because he doesn't believe she's his mother anymore.

And I'm thinking, this novelist is blatantly purloining the movie!

Then a bit later in the novel, it's revealed that the animal-people are the result of biological experiments by a mad genius.

And now I'm thinking, the author has absconded with H.G. Welles's plot for The Island of Dr. Moreau!

The clever scribe had walked off with not just one plot, but two!

Ah, but the writer was ahead of me. Further into the book he has a character think that the events are just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Later on, another character refers to The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The author was winking at readers like me who knew exactly what he was doing!

His name is Dean Koontz. The book is Midnight. And this combining of familiar plots, with updating and his own personal stamp, makes it legit.

In contrast, plagiarism in fiction is the serial lifting of actual passages and passing them off as one's own. 

So go ahead and look to old plots for ideas, while keeping these general guidelines in mind:

1. Don't Lift Words

In 2011 Little, Brown pulled a book from distribution when it was discovered that the author had copied actual sentences from James Bond novels and other sources. In an ironic twist, the book's ranking on Amazon shot up as readers snapped up the remaining copies. This is not a marketing move I would recommend!

Another infamous case involved a young Harvard student who scored a major book deal for her debut novel. Little, Brown (again!) was setting her up to be the next big thing.

Then the Harvard Crimson broke a story showing that the author had lifted several passages out of the books of another author. You can read about that kerfuffle here. The book was pulled off the shelves, the deal scotched.

These cases involved copying the words of another author. Don't do that. What will happen from time to time is that an author will write a sentence that sounds like another author's voice. That can be explained by osmosis, because we do retain things we read. No problem there. The problem is when it's intentional.

2. Make the Plot Your Own

I would not recommend that you write a novel about a spoiled, antebellum girl on the cusp of the Civil War, who wants to marry a handsome Southerner pledged to another, at the same time she is courted by a dashing rogue. But this love triangle from Gone With the Wind could work nicely in, say, a future world where intergalactic war is about to break out.

Another favorite movie of mine is High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Writer/Director Peter Hyams took that plot and re-envisioned it in outer space. Outland (1981) starred Sean Connery and is a darn good movie.

You see the point? The "stealing" of a plot idea is only meant to open up a window to new possibilities. You still need to create your own characters and setting, and most important of all, tap into a personal passion for the plot you are developing.

3. Use Plot Elements as Sparkers

You don't need to follow a plot pattern wholesale to find this exercise of value. You can use plot elements, characters and scenes and riff off them. We do that anyway, unconsciously. When you see a film or read a book and are moved by something, it gets sent down to the basement where your writer's unconscious mind is eating a sandwich. Later on, your sub-mind looks it over and either files it away or sends up a message recommending you do something with it. Sometime you may not even remember the source as a fresh idea takes hold. This is all natural and acceptable.

So why not be intentional about it? Keep notes on elements that work for you, and why they work. File those away and look them over occasionally. See what bubbles up.

Being creative and productive do not happen by accident. Get your gears churning. Find creative exercises to do on a regular basis. Borrowing or combining old plots might be a good one to try.

What if we took Liz Curtis Higgs's award-winning historical novel, Thorn in My Heart, and combined it with one of those Left Behind thrillers written by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye? Why, we'd have the story of a plucky Scottish girl eating haggis and fighting off demons during the Great Tribulation.

And we could call it: Thorn in My Left Behind.


  1. Thorn in My Left Behind...I think I've read that one. It's about a proctologist and a southern bell and their clumsy pet alpaca Cleo right?

    1. Basil, isn't that a do-over of the story about one of the unsuccessful princes who couldn't get through the thorn thicket to kiss Sleeping Beauty, and found a shepherdess who tended to a flock of alpacas to remove the thorn from his left behind?

    2. Oh yeah Lance, thanks for the correction. I always get those mixed up.


  2. Reimagined or combined plots can be brilliantly done. As a reader, I love digging for the familiar, yet understanding where the twists turn a plot on its ear. It can be very engaging.

    Thanks, Jim. Good post.

  3. Great post. Great ideas.

    #3 - Plot elements as sparkers. I like the "sub-mind" in the basement. I've always hoped that pausing and consciously analyzing plot elements in books I'm reading is adding to my sub-mind's reference library. But I need to begin physically recording them.

    Any tips on how you organize and file plot element ideas, so that you can find them later?

    Thanks for another valuable teaching moment.

    1. I have a master file of plot ideas, concepts, opening lines, news iterms, etc. I look at that periodically and take the ones that still feel interesting and put them in another file for further development.

      The ones that develop nicely I put into a third file, "Front Burner Concepts." These are the ones I'm really going to work on.

      The nice thing is I will never run out of stories to tell.

    2. I like the idea of upgrading ideas. For the longest time I've had a plot ideas file, but that sucker is huge now, and it's hard to scroll through all of them. I also started making a new book folder for a new idea, but that didn't always work because they don't always mature into a book.

      This is a great middle ground.

      I've often thought about making a Scrivener file and organizing the ideas by type, but order of interest is even better.

  4. If stealing plots were taboo, the romance story market would be dead.

    I don't see how people can copy whole sections of another author's work and get away with it. I mean if they feel the need to steal, then clearly they are not comfortable writing in that style or method, so it would seem to me that the plagiarized passages would stand out badly against the manuscript's own original sections. And if they ARE so good at blending the plagiarized portions with their own work, why steal in the first place?

    1. I know, right? Why expend all that energy in lifting when it's going to be obvious? Esp. with what you can do via the internet. It used to be so easy. But you may have heard recently about some readers spotting a similarity between a current novel's ending and one that came from some obscure story back in 1954! You can read all about it here.

      Note: the above link should not be read as an accusation of plagiarism. It is not because the author is free to use an old plot twist. It's just to illustrate that sophisticated readers might recognize the source material and have the means to go find it. So do what Koontz did, and find a way to reference it!

  5. Paraphrasing Heinlein, I file "the serial numbers off." I don't remember which of his books it was (Moon is a Harsh Mistress?) but I thought it funny then and still do. And I shamelessly steal.

    After millennia of human storytelling, there's no such thing as an 'original' plot. Each of us have a unique way of looking at those plots. There's a lot of fun in that. A fair amount of dreck, too.

  6. The writer of Pretty Woman totally ripped off Cinderella! And everyone steals from Shakespeare.

  7. Nothing is new, only better ways of doing it.
    Aliens invade/hero foils plot and gets the girl. There, I've just described about fifty movies and books.

  8. Loved this post, Jim. But I'm not crazy about what went down to the girls in the basement when I read the title, Thorn in My Left Behind. I'm ordering the girls to start mopping the floor!

  9. Thanks for this post. It's the kind of thing I have thought, but it's very reassuring to see it on the Internets and others agreeing.

  10. There's a book that's been around for years called STEAL THIS PLOT, A Writer's Guide To Story Structure and Plagiarism by June and William Noble. Still available and well worth reading.

  11. Even if we all started with the same story line, we'd write it differently. You can't copyright ideas. And sometimes it works out that two writers, completely independently, produce works with similar premises. As long as the characters, settings and such are our own, I don't think we have to worry. And your tips are good guidelines to follow.

  12. Great column today. Thanks. Plenty to think about. Sam Rosenberg once worked as a literary detective. When someone was sued for plagiarism, he'd take the two books – plaintiff's and defendant's – and go back until he found the old classic they BOTH had been "borrowed" from. There's nothing new. There's only uniquely organized details.
    "High Noon" also became the subject of the 1987 "Three O'Clock High," where the high school nebbish is fated to fight the school's psychotic bully after the last bell. Unlike Cooper, the horified high school nerd spends the course of the movie twisting in the wind as he tried desperately to get out of the fight. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

  13. I read an article by Holly Lisle years ago called "How to Steal Ethically" and she talks about this. I really liked how she made a point suggesting you ask yourself what you liked so much about the idea. So for Gone with the Wind, was it the setting? The love triangle? Scarlett's tenacity? Figure out what makes the boys in the basement happy, and work it into something you love, and it's no longer stealing.

    I remember thinking that's what Dean Koontz did for Midnight, he took the parts that he really loved out and made it is own.

    The only thing I currently struggle with is feeling like a lot of my ideas are too similar. I know writing them will make them different, but there's still a lot of similarities in the basic set up. I wonder how people who write different mystery series differentiate between their two different series, if the basic premise is "dedicated detective solves homicides while struggling to juggle family life."

    Thanks again for a great post!

  14. JSB--Correct me if I'm wrong (I'm sure you will), but depending on how you tote them up, aren't there either 24 or 27 plots in all? This being the case, I don't see anyone NOT stealing plots. You mention Shakespeare stealing the plot for R&J. He stole all his plots, but in each case--maybe especially in the case of Othello--he so thoroughly bested the original source as to give the lie to any claims of plagiarism. That's the challenge: take a shopworn story template, and see what you can do with it.

    1. Yeah, it depends on whose book you read. The 36 Dramatic Situations is one such tome.

      But who's counting? Not the readers. They just want to be caught up in a story.

  15. As always… The KillZone authors make this site the best interactive tutorial of fiction writing on the planet.

    1. Very kind words. Thanks for being part of the TKZ community.

  16. Pfft . . . I borrow tidbits of structure and tropes from my fav Barbara Cartland (who is accused of doing much more than that in her 600 novels.) I take it from Regency England to Bleeding Kansas.

    Just do this and you will be fine

    PS: The rest of that blog is awesome as well.


  17. Wow, I hadn't heard about those acts of plagiarism. Sad that that happens. Plot & Structure is my fave book, and I remember those exercises.

    I'm always open to ideas. Heck, just reading a book blurb got my wheels spinning for my next novel. It's totally different than than blurb, but the blurb sparked the idea. Writing is cool like that.

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