Can you steal ideas from other stories? What if someone steals your ideas? In fact, are your ideas even good enough at all? If you’ve ever asked questions like these, I have good news for you.
A common refrain I hear from writers is that they have an idea, but it’s too much like ___________ (fill in the blank with whatever book, movie, show you like). Or writers hoard ideas like a dragon sitting on gold, convinced that someone is about to steal them. Both of these beliefs hurt you as a writer because they are grounded in fear.
What if someone steals my idea?
Sometimes writers guard their ideas like they are top-secret, waiting for the right moment to write them. They hoard their ideas to keep others from “stealing” them. Can an idea be stolen? Yes and no.
I stumbled onto a Reddit thread recently that compared stories or films with similar plotlines that had been executed into wildly different stories.
And my favorite:
Plot: “Stole a loaf of bread, went to jail, was given riches by someone, gained political office, took part in rebellion against the government, has longstanding feud with one specific government official, ultimately influences this enemy to defeat himself.”
Stories: Aladdin and Les Miserables. (Source: Reddit, zninjazero)
Were these premises stolen? *gasp!* The idea is laughable. No one walked into the writing room on Taken and said, “You know, let’s write Finding Nemo as an action film!”
But even if they had, they created something so vastly different, for an entirely new audience. All of these plotlines could be spun into unique stories, depending on the characters, setting, and voice.
Some even argue that there are only a handful of plots. (See Foster-Harris’s three basic plot patterns, Vonnegut’s story shapes, Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots or the twenty master plots of Ronald Tobias.) The originality isn’t in the core plotline — it’s in the unique, specific execution of that plot, of that character’s journey.
The point is this: an idea can’t be stolen. A finished book can be stolen in whole or parts — that’s called plagiarism or theft (see the copy and paste scandals happening right now). But an idea, one you’re just talking about? One that isn’t developed or finished? That can’t be stolen.
I’m just asking if it’s good
Once a writer gets beyond the hoarding phase and begins sharing ideas, too often they only do it to secure approval. My students sometimes come in or email me, “I have this idea. Can you tell me if it’s good?” Some writers do this same thing, sending ideas and half finished chapters to authors they love for feedback (stop doing this, please).
My answer: Who knows? Who knows until you execute it fully?
In my early days of teaching, I probably would have guided writers to ideas I found more “worthy,” but I have since realized that I am not the gatekeeper of good ideas. This frustrates students to no end.
“Just tell me if it’s good!” they say, exasperated.
I tell them, “Look, if you had come to me ten years ago and said you want to write a story about tornadoes and sharks, I would have told you to pick either sharks or tornadoes. Now there are six (YES, SIX!) Sharknado movies. Execution is everything. Until you write it and try it out, who knows if it will find an audience?”
Elizabeth Acevedo, author of The Poet X, has talked candidly about her frustration with a professor in her MFA program who had assigned a poem about nature. She’s from New York City, and she’d chosen to write about rats.
Her professor told her rats weren’t noble. That they weren’t a good idea. Then she wrote an astonishing poem that captured her unique point of view and voice. She would go on to publish a best-selling book and electrify audiences with her poetry and prose.
Stop waiting for someone to tell you an idea is “good.” If it is something you’ve been mulling over for a while, something you can’t get out of your head, write it down and finish it. Only then can you evaluate where it lacks originality and then you can revise.
The same, but different
There are entire books about how real artists build and adapt from ideas already in the world (see Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist, or the entire Shakespeare canon). When you find ideas in others’ work that capture your attention and keep you up at night? Spin those in your own direction, in your own voice.
You may start in the same place as another writer, but you will likely end up somewhere different because you have a unique point of view.
Genre fiction works on the entire principle of “the same, but different.” Anyone who picks up a romance expects two people to meet, experience setbacks and complications, and then finally accept they are in love. The romances that rise to the top tend to execute those expectations in an unexpected or fresh way.
So stop worrying about similarities when you know you’re not copying and pasting someone’s work. I would argue most developing writers mimic their favorite authors at first anyway, and it is a natural part of growth. Try out different voices and discard those that you outgrow. It will help you find your own voice.
It’s unproductive to remain paralyzed in fear that your idea will be stolen or that it’s too similar to something else. Stop letting those excuses keep your from writing your story.
What ideas have you been hoarding or worrying were too much like something else to try? Share if you dare in the comments.
It’s your turn to “steal” an idea. Using one of the movie plots above, spin a new version by adding character, setting, or voice to create a unique premise.
Or do you have an idea you’ve been saving up, one you’ve been too afraid to try? Start now. Write the first paragraph or page.