Plagiarism Phobia

There should be a word for “a true story that nobody can believe”. I’ve experienced a few, one of them directly related to writing.

It was in 1975 in Cleveland Heights. I was 12 years old and my then best friend and I would get together in his room in the attic and write stories that came to our minds. Our best idea ever was a science fiction story that involved a boy bored out of his mind because he lived in a boring place with grownups who did not care about his problems. Then one day a pair of robots from another planet fall out of the sky and tell him that he must go on an adventure. One of the robots had a cylinder body with a dome on top and his name was AD-1. The other robot, can’t remember the name but it was also a combination of letters and numbers, was more humanoid in shape and spoke with a British accent. Me and my friend were both Star Trek fans so we tried out a few titles that were all Star Something, but none of them quite seemed to fit so we kept the working title on the project. It was the “AD-1 story”. Eventually, my friend moved to Florida and my family moved back to Japan. The project was never finished.

A few years later when Star Wars was released, I was totally furious. I kept saying “How could this be happening?” I learned two valuable lessons from this experience. One is that there is no such thing as an original story. All stories are old. The other is that it never makes any sense to fear that your ideas will be stolen. We all have the same ideas anyway. If I had a dollar for every million dollars ever made by story ideas I can claim to have thought of first, I would be retired by now. It is not the ideas that count, but the quality of the work you put into it.

In Save the Cat, an instructional book on screen writing by Blake Snyder, the author tells you to try pitching your story ideas to complete strangers to see their reaction to it. He writes “I have no fear that anyone will steal my idea and anyone who has that fear is an amateur.” Truer words were never spoken. Ideas, as stand alone elements, are worth nothing. Breaking Bad was a brilliant show, but the idea of a cancer patient plunging into a life of crime to leave something for his family is a concept I have been playing with for ages. I am sure a lot of writers had the same idea. We all have the same ideas. It’s the work that we put into it that counts. Anybody who has any talent at story telling has more ideas than he has time to write down in his entire lifetime.

There are plenty of books in the world I wish I had written. There are plenty of great pieces of prose, great lines of dialog, great innovations in plot development I wished I could steal. But in my 52 years of life there have been only two story ideas I wish I could have thought of first. One was Jurassic Park and the other was Harry Potter. But I have read some other writer say that he had the same idea as Michael Crichton but did not pursue the story because it seemed too convoluted. And the stories that may have influenced Harry Potter have received more attention than due. And these are exceptionally good ideas. Most other stories owe more to the sweat and toil that went into them than to the ideas per se. Think of all the teenage vampire stories. The only thing original about any of them is the perspective. The rest is all about the execution, not the story idea itself.

The good news is, any random idea you can come up with has the potential to be the next Star Wars. Almost all the stories ever written by mankind had existed by the time of the Greek poets. We have been rehashing the same stories ever since. Once every century or so, a truly new plot element is added to our collective lexicon that can significantly garnish an existing story. A vampire. A space alien. A pedophile. A private detective. Once those ideas are introduced, everything else falls into familiar structures. There is no such thing as an original story idea. The flip side of that is that your idea is every bit as original as anyone else’s.

In the 38 years since Star Wars, I have been observing movies and novels carefully. I have very rarely come across an idea that I could not have come up with (Jurassic Park), or should have but never thought about (Harry Potter). My experience tells me that ideas, in the absence of the effort to turn then into full blown stories, are worth nothing. Ideas alone are rarely worth stealing. So don’t worry about your ideas being stolen. If you have to worry, it merely means that you are incapable of coming up with twenty ideas just as good or better. Most story tellers can.

There are so many people out there who say that they have a terrific idea for a story but do not have the time to write it down. No shit. Me too. I once demonstrated that I could come up with one story idea every minute for an hour. Given a noun, I can build a story around it. If you say “cat”, I would say “A cat gains the ability to speak and instructs his owner how to rob a bank”. It takes about ten seconds. You could do that too with a little practice. Ideas are dime a dozen. It requires little or no effort to produce them. What takes effort is writing them down and structuring a marketable story. Also, you can never know which idea will sell unless you market test them by telling them to people. There is no sense in being stingy about telling your ideas.

This is not to say that writers cannot get screwed. It simply means that an idea without the infusion of hard work and skill is not a marketable product. And as such, there is little to be gained by stealing it. So do not be afraid to share your story ideas with total strangers. Only amateurs are afraid their basic ideas will be stolen.

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