That Thing No Writer Wants to Hear: What to do when your idea is like somebody else’s idea.
It happened to me again. A couple of weeks ago I was with my Mum in a pub near Wales. I was boring her talking about story I was writing where the underground rivers of London come to life once a year and go hunting in the East End.
“Oh, like Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch.”
I’d like to say I responded to this with good grace, but what I actually did was bounce my eraser on the table and act a bit stroppy for the next couple of minutes. Only a little bit stroppy. But there was definite, observable stroppiness. Why all the drama?
I’ve never read Rivers of London, and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard of it until my mother mentioned it to me in the pub. I know of Ben Aaronovitch, thanks to a couple of really good Doctor Who episodes he wrote in the late 1980s. Given how often I’d raved about Rememberence of the Daleks [i] I felt pretty cheated that the bugger had the audacity to steal my idea before I’d even thought of it and put it in a bestselling book, which is probably brilliant as well. The git.
Worse yet, it isn’t only Ben Aaronovitch who is doing this to me. It is starting to feel like every time I start talking about a story idea somebody says “oh, you mean like in that film with whatsherface” or “oh, just like in that book by reallypopularfamousauthor.” Are my ideas really that derivative? Am I bereft of any originality?
When I got back to France I sat down to continue writing the story and I found that I couldn’t. I could barely bring myself to open the document.
First, I was worried people would accuse me of stealing the idea. “But I’ve never even heard of Rivers of London” I’d say, and they’d say “Phhht”, and look at me over their glasses. And they’d be right, as well. Because I have heard of Rivers of London now. I can’t even plead ignorance.
Then I found I was second guessing myself. I’d been told that Aaronovitch’s story has detectives in it, and there’s something about the Thames being a God? So maybe if I make this about criminals where the Thames is, erm, some sort of anthropomorphic medical device? Or a cheese from the massive central region? Now I was no longer writing my story, but instead engaging in some sort of ridiculous, writers-block-inducing guessing game.
So, is my mother a bad mother? Should she be sent to the naughty school for bad mothers for having crippled my confidence in this way?
Of course not. She’s been really supportive about my writing. Also, you should read her book.
By talking about a story I hadn’t written yet I had put her in a difficult position. What else was she supposed to say? The most normal thing to do is think about other similar stories. Pattern recognition and narrative imposition (making things into stories) is fundamental to how we learn. Associating events with other events we recall or have heard of is how we understand them. It helps us to contextualise and to understand them.
This is actually a tremendous boon for a writer. It lets us show an awful lot of things without having to explain them. The most extreme examples are spoon-fed to us by Hollywood all the time. Bruce Willis in a vest? Check. Villain has some sort of physical deformity?[ii] Check. Only women in the film so she’s bound to be the love interest?[iii] Check and mate.
This goes far beyond simply big-screen stereotyping. You don’t need to read Joseph Campbell or John Yorke[iv] to recognise that there’s a certain ubiquitous quality to storytelling, both structurally and thematically. Boy meets/loses/wins-back girl has a pretty good heritage. Robots that develop intelligence and go crazy? Vampires moaning about immortality whilst dating barely pubescent girls? Orphaned princes that discover a magic sword and save a kingdom? All these things have been done and done again. This is, in part, because of need to bring order to the world through established narratives.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t write an original story, because the real story comes in the detail. We establish a shorthand, a framework, a hook that gets the reader in and lets them know where they are. That gives us the space to tell the story we actually want to tell. The original bit in a story about rivers that can become people isn’t that rivers become people; it’s what they do when they are people, it’s the meaning that we bring through the idea. I walked into a bookshop the other day and saw shelves full of recently published Vampire stories. There will have been good stories and bad stories amongst them, but each writer will have found their own way through ideas that would have sound very similar if told briefly over the table in a pub. Should Stephanie Meyer have given up when somebody told her about Anne Rice?[v] The idea gets you going but the story emerges from the journey.
So the problem wasn’t how my Mum responded, the problem was that I was talking about story ideas before I had developed them. If I’d kept my mouth shut then I might have written that story. Given a chance to grow in that passionate period when yours is the only story in the world, it might even have been a good story. The best case scenario if you share early story ideas is that they say “ooh, that’s a good idea, you should write that”, which is lovely and all but not much reward for the risk. It’s far more likely they’ll tell you that it’s like something else they’ve seen or read, because that’s the way peoples’ brains work, and you’ll probably take it badly, because that’s the way writers’ brains work (badly).
Instead, don’t worry about your idea being similar to another idea. Don’t worry about it because, well, it will be. And if it’s really good, and lots of people read it and enjoy it, the greater the chance that somebody will call you out and say you ‘stole’ the idea from somebody. Ask Daphne du Maurier. But if you go ahead and finish the story before you talk about the ideas, then as well as people saying “this is just like x, y and z”, they’ll also be able to say “I like the bit where the giraffe discovered his true parents.” Or, if it’s one of my stories, “you should have written ‘you’re’ instead of ‘your’ on the third line.” Either way, don’t talk about stories you haven’t written but instead write the damned story, and let it speak for itself.
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[i] Rememberence of the Daleks was when the 7th Doctor got good. Also: Daleks going up stairs! Ace and a baseball bat! [ii] Can’t say I’m a big fan of this one, although I did enjoy the way my supervillain cred went through the roof when I was in the wheelchair. Deformity has long been a standard shorthand for “bad guy” (the bleeding eye! It’s his tell). Breaking down some of those barriers is part of what makes Peter Dinklage’s popularity in Game of Thrones so important, although referring to someone that bloody good looking as “deformed” is a pretty hefty abuse of the English language. No, I don’t have a crush on Peter Dinklage. Not a big one. Ok, but admit it, so do you. [iii] Don’t even get me started. Ok, I got myself started, but don’t get me continuing. [iv] Campbell J, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and Yorke J, Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story (2013), two important works on classical themes and structures universal to storytelling. [v] The answer is no. Like the Twilight series or not, Meyer made a good choice writing them!