On originality in fiction: angst, coincidence and some stuff writers think about but maybe don't want to admit
Recently, I enjoyed White House Down, a surprisingly well put together action film (hey, stick with me). A few weeks earlier, I'd seen Olympus Has Fallen. Now, no one missed the fact these two movies had pretty similar plots. It's Die Hard in the White House. The details differ a bit, but there you have it. I'm going to come back to this at the end, but my point for now is that this sort of thing seems to happen quite a bit. We all remember Armageddon and Deep Impact, don't we? And someone's even made a list of others, here. A bit closer to home, however, I hear a lot of angst from writers about borrowed plots (or ones that seem borrowed). Usually, it comes from seeing someone else has written (what seems like) the same EXACT DAMN BOOK that you've just written. (Extra indignity if you read said book and feel it's better than yours). And in the last year, I've felt the end of that angst stick myself.
It all started when I was almost through writing Iron Junction, the next book in my three planned Walker-Bell stories. Now, I have a pretty clear rule when I write in a genre: I don't read in it. I do this because I don't want to be influenced by another writer's writing style, or have my brain constrained by genre tropes. So, if I'm writing rural romance, you can bet I'm reading fantasy or sci-fi or non-fiction. But, when I wanted to write a blurb for Iron Junction, I began reading blurbs in the ru-ro genre again, getting a feel for an appropriate rhythm. And that's when I read a blurb for an already-published book that seemed to be the same goddamn story.
Now, of course it isn't and can't possibly be. But as a writer, my first reaction was panic on two fronts. The first (and largest) is that readers are going to think you've deliberately copied someone else's story and will think of you as a hack, inviting ridicule. It doesn't matter that I've never even heard of the similar-sounding story, much less read it; no one else knows that. The second is that the market already has a story like that in it. Maybe they've had enough.
It got worse. After I'd handed in the manuscript, I was made aware that a subplot in Iron Junction had a similar construction to another book that was about to be released (and of course I'd never heard of). Goddammit. Not only that, but when describing my third book for someone in the industry, they asked if I didn't have a different idea as a few other authors they knew were working on books with those themes (army characters). Arrrgghhhh!!! I've had the book 3 story idea for three years now, having sown the seeds in Ryders Ridge and done the set up in Iron Junction. There's no backing out now. It hadn't even occurred to me that the Gallipoli anniversary is coming up. Pure, angst-generating coincidence ... but no one else knows that. But it's not the only example ... I heard from another industry source that two recently turned in manuscripts from different authors had ended up with incredibly similar elements, with neither author knowing of the other's work. I could give you another half-dozen examples of writer friends who've had similar experiences.
So, it happens, and perhaps more than we'd expect. The thing I'm wondering is, what (if anything) do we do about it? Here's the list I've come up with to talk myself down off the ledge.
- Firstly, I remember the incredibly sage Kim Wilkins saying (repeatedly) that originality is in execution. So, even if two writers have taken the same idea, they aren't going to write the same book, even if they write similar genres. It's pretty well impossible. (And here, I point out I'm not talking about fan-fiction where writers take the characters and worlds of others and use them. This is all about high-level ideas). A novel is a big project with too much nuance to allow big picture plot ideas to result in a similar product. By way of example, I cite the earlier mentioned movies. White House Down was far superior in my estimation to Olympus Has Fallen. For a start, the protagonist had very different agency, the interweaving of plots and pay-offs accomplished differently, and that made a very different experience. Armageddon and Deep Impact couldn't be more different in tone and execution, even though some very similar things happen. The former is an action movie, the latter more humanist. I made a similar point recently about Riddick and Pitch Black, which are essentially the same plot. In all these cases, the execution of primary and secondary characters, tone, pace and conflict make for different stories.
- Secondly, I remember the lead times, and that we all live in a connected world. Books (and films) have long lead times. They take months or years to conceive, incubate, be written and edited. And the writes who shape the stories live in a similar world to each other, experience similar influences (big world events, previous publications, cultural shifts). In that environment, coincidences make sense, and so does the inertia of a long-lead project. You don't abandon it just because someone else might have a similar idea (see point 1 for why).
- Thirdly, I'm not sure it matters anyway. As a moviegoer and reader, I'm not thinking about these things when I consume myself. So, I don't know really whether any readers are holding up two books and tut-tut-ing because they think someone's ripped off the idea from someone else. Did I care that I saw two movies this year with similar plots? No. Really, I care that one of them was a good film that I enjoyed, and the other wasn't. That makes for great comparative teaching material, but that's about it.
So, I'm going to attempt to stop worrying about this; I'm sure it's happened to writers much greater than me, and I hope readers who enjoy my books judge them for what they are. Though, I am certainly very curious if anyone thinks differently about this ... feel free to comment. :)