by Tess Gerritsen
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
-– Ecclesiastes 1:9
Years ago, when my husband and I were still newlyweds, we took our first trip to Cairo and hired an Egyptian guide named Abu to show us the sights. As we stood gazing at the pyramids, Abu described the various architectural techniques used by the ancient Egyptians that are still in use even today. And he quoted a phrase from Ecclesiastes: "There is nothing new under the sun."
In our archaeological travels since then, whenever we encounter some startlingly familiar feature in an old ruin (the street curbs and ancient fast-food counters in Pompeii, for instance), my husband and I repeat that same phrase that Abu quoted so many years ago. There is nothing new under the sun.
Which, it turns out, applies to storytelling as well. Novelists like to believe that their plots have never been used before, that they've dreamed up something completely fresh and original. They can't imagine that anyone else in the entire world could possibly have come up with the same amazing idea. So when they learn that another author has simultaneously written a book with a similar plot, their first thought may be: "He stole my idea!" They'll try to figure out how the thief managed to get his hands on their story. Maybe some sneaky editor called up a more experienced novelist and said, "I just read this manuscript with a great premise, but the author's a total unknown. Why don't you write the book for us instead?" Or maybe someone in the post office snatched the manuscript. Or maybe the computer repairman swiped it off the hard drive.
The fear of having one's plot stolen is such an obsession for unpublished authors that some will resort to the literary equivalent of hanging garlic against vampires. At the top of their manuscript, they'll type in the all-powerful words that are sure to make any plagiarist quake: Copyright by John Doe!!! And then they'll draw the magic symbol "C" with a circle around it, so that when the manuscript arrives on some big-shot NY editor's desk, she'll know that the writer is not someone to be trifled with. She'll know that she can't steal his idea. That's what the writer thinks anyway.
But guess what those words "Copyright by John Doe" really tell the editor? They tell her she's dealing with a paranoid amateur.
In all my years as a novelist, I've never typed "Copyright by Tess Gerritsen" on my manuscripts. Nor have I heard of a single instance of a novel being stolen by some sleazy New York editor. The reason these fears exist is probably due to the mistaken belief among newbies that a premise is the same thing as a plot, and therefore easily lifted. They believe that the really hard work of being a novelist is in coming up with the idea — not the writing itself. (These are also the same people who approach published novelists at cocktail parties and tell them, "I've got a great idea for a book! Why don't you write it and we'll split the profits?") Anyone who's actually written a few books will tell you that it's what you do with the premise — how you spin it into a plot, and flesh out its characters — that turns an idea into a story. That's where the craft of writing, and the real hard work, comes in.
Let me repeat: a premise is not a plot.
Just because two simultaneously released books have an identical premise, it doesn't mean someone stole someone else's idea. Because, weirdly enough, it happens all the time. One romance editor told me she received a sudden deluge of manuscripts featuring race-car driver heroes. She never did figure out why. I have a friend who's a script reader in Hollywood, and she recalls when two different screenplays arrived within the same week, written by two writers from different parts of the country. These scripts had the same wacky premise: a man dies, comes back reincarnated as a dog, and must win the affections of his wife. How do two writers simultaneously dream up a premise this bizarre? I don't know. Maybe it's just something floating around in the ether. Maybe they both read the same article about reincarnation, looked at their dogs, and thought: "Aha!"
When ideas simultaneously occur to several authors, the reason is sometimes obvious. Years ago, after Dolly the sheep was cloned, any editor could have predicted there'd be a rash of stories about cloning to follow. Sometimes, a premise is so powerful, so elemental, it gets used again and again through the years. "Romeo and Juliet" became "West Side Story". "The Odyssey" became Cold Mountain and Brother, Where Art Thou? When "West Side Story" was produced, writer Arthur Laurents openly credited Shakespeare as his source for the premise of star-crossed lovers. He took Shakespeare's tale — and turned it into a modern masterpiece all his own.
While I don't worry about my own ideas getting stolen, I do worry a lot about getting accused of being a thief. A few years ago, I got an email from an unpublished writer who'd attended one of my workshops. She accused me of stealing her idea. "I'm considering legal action," she said. "I want you to apologize and admit you are a plagiarist." The idea I supposedly stole from her was about criminals kidnapping pregnant women, cutting them open, and stealing their babies. (Which was the premise for my book Body Double.) Lucky for me, I'd never laid eyes on her manuscript because it was in the other instructor's pile. I pointed out to her that there are a number of well-publicized cases in the news of pregnant women getting murdered for their fetuses, so the premise is hardly original. I also pointed out, as I have here, that a premise is not a plot. Had I reproduced her story scene by scene, that would be plagiarism. But a premise that's all over the news, a premise that can be wrapped up in one sentence, is not something you can call all your own. If she had sued, I would certainly have won. Nevertheless, I'd have had to pay legal fees and the emotional turmoil would have made my life hell.
Every published author needs to worry about such accusations, which is why so many of us avoid reading unpublished, unsold manuscripts. I know of one bestselling author who read an acquaintance's manuscript and later got sued for "stealing the idea." Her literary agent has since forbidden her to read any more unpublished manuscripts.
I’m so glad advice like this is in print on the internet from credible sources like you, Ms. Gerritsen. Mainly because my High School students honestly think I just don’t know what I’m talking about, and how paranoid I SHOULD be, when I try to tell them not to put “copyright by” on top of the stories they turn in TO ME. They know I’m not going to submit their stuff for them. They know I’m the only one who will see it. And they think I’m nuts for NOT putting it on my manuscripts because they start out the semester writing it atop theirs. Oy…
I should have added: if anyone wants to borrow my premises (black market in organ donation; pregnant women getting cut open for their babies), I invite them to write their own books about those very topics. It won’t bother me one whit because they will write their own books. It won’t be my book.
I came up with this premise a couple of years ago:
Twelve select death row inmates. A tiny remote land mass. Dozens of cameras mounted on electrically-charged towers.
The last man living wins.
In 2019, reality TV is back. This time they’re playing for keeps.
Broadcasted live, 24/7, Survival Island is a big hit. Ratings are through the roof.
Then one day the channel goes black.
A law enforcement crew, sent to investigate, discovers that the finalists–two of the most notorious serial killers in history–have somehow escaped.
Bodies of identical twins start showing up in north Florida, with the contestants’ unmistakable signatures. Have the killers joined forces? Have they, in essence, become one maniacal bloodthirsty mind?
The hunt is on–with a five million dollar reward–but Dr. Michael Caldwell isn’t in it for the money.
His daughters are missing…
Then, someone told me that the movie (The Condemned) had already been made: The story of Joe Conrad, who is awaiting the death penalty in a corrupt Central American prison. He is “purchased” by a wealthy television producer and taken to a desolate island where he must fight to the death against nine other condemned killers from all corners of the world, with freedom going to the sole survivor.
I guess I could still write the book. Like you said, my story and characters would naturally be much different than the screenwriter’s. The thing is, everyone would probably assume I copied the idea from the movie. That’s mostly why I abandoned it.
This is funny timing for me. Just last night I attended an author event with George Pelecanos, and the same question came up: “How can I be sure someone won’t steal my idea?” Pelecanos gave pretty much the same answer you did here. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an author event where someone didn’t ask that.
For quick and well-known proof of how similar ideas can float around simultaneously, think of a Mafia boss who starts to see a psychiatrist. Analyze This, and The Sopranos.
(BTW, if anyone has a chance to hear George Pelecanos read and do a Q&A, I highly recomend it.)
Great article, Tess. I was one of those paranoid writers for years, I’m embarrassed to say. But it’s rather refreshing admitting that truth now. I feel like I’ve grown up, finally. One has only to read Greek Tragedy to realize how true your words are. I suspect even Shakespeare knew his themes had be done before.
It’s sad in a way, that this “sign of the amateur” is still around. Haven’t these folks read/studied/learned enough to know that there are only seven plots in the world and we all recycle them?
And that rash of race car driving heroines? I’d blame Danica Patrick for that.
Tess,This is the kind of article I wish I’d seen when I was starting out.
You’ve done a service here.
Joylene,Heck, Shakespeare took MANY of his tragedies from stories (true and fictional) that had come before.
Romeo & Juliet = Pyramus and Thisbe
Macbeth = twisted history of the death (in battle, not assassination) of King Duncan
Hamlet = Vita Amlethi
Troillus & Cressida = Chaucer (Troilus and Crisyede)
And many of his histories stem from very loose accounts (as there were no traditional historical texts at that time, more a melting pot of stories written down and hearsay).
Great post, Tess – valid points, all.
But, damn, does this mean I have to scrap the idea of Charlie Fox driving at Le Mans … ?
And Jude – your version sounds much better than the movie – I’d still write it, if I were you ;-]
Great article, Tess. I have critique partners who “steal” a turn of phrase or a plot device all the time from me–and have no idea they’re doing it. If I was scared they would write up my premises better than I do, I’d have no critique partners. Luckily, I know that I can do plot better than them any day of the week.
Jude, isn’t it weird when that happens? Yet simultaneous creation does happen, and sometimes to truly eerie degrees. It makes you wonder if there isn’t some collective consciousness out there that makes a story pop into a number of different minds at the same time.
Jake,and then consider how many stories are re-tellings of biblical tales. Cain and Abel, David and Bathsheba. And from what sources did those biblical stories come from?
A friend of mine judges for the Nicholl (the prestigious screenwriting fellowship administered by the Oscar people), and she said that every year, ideas will come in batches. One year, it was that someone had cloned Jesus from the blood found on the shroud of Turin. I think one year there was a bunch of secret Civil War spies. I blame the History Channel.
Excellent points, Tess. And there are some stories and characters that are so archetypal they can’t ever be said to be stolen, eg. the knight errant/ronin/roaming gunslinger/Jack Reacher :-).
Your patience is remarkable, Tess.
For some reason, Harlan Ellison *does* do this . . . but I think it’s fair to say Harlan has an odd history with litigation, and a certain personal eccentricity.
When the movie UNTRACEABLE came out in early 2008, I had about a dozen fans email me saying the screenwriter had “stolen” my idea. The premise was the same: someone is killing people live on the internet. I can’t tell you how many times I had to explain that the movie was most likely in production when I was writing my book and there was no way anyone could “steal” it . . . and when I read the synopsis, it was totally different anyway. Other than the premise.
To be honest, I almost didn’t write a story on human trafficking because of your incredible book VANISH, Tess. I love that book. So I shelved the idea I had and wrote something different. But the character nagged me and nagged me and so I wrote it. Obviously nothing like your book . . .
A published author friend and I were talking the other day and she was telling me of new idea–she was writing a proposal for her agent (who is also my agent) and had some technical questions for me. She tells me her heroine’s name. I nearly flip. JUST THAT DAY I had written my next series proposal and my heroine’s name was the exact same. And it’s not a common name.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of misguided unpublished authors, and even some published ones. There was a brouhaha in my local chapter where someone accused someone else of stealing their idea (and subsequently selling it–a complete manuscript, not on the premise alone.) It was very sad all around.
“I think it’s fair to say Harlan has an odd history with litigation, and a certain personal eccentricity.”
In other news, the Pacific Ocean is a little damp.
Thanks! Maybe I will write it. I never saw the movie, but I heard it was pretty horrible.
Sometimes it does seem like there’s some sort of telepathy going on. I don’t know if I’m stealing their ideas, or if they’re stealing mine. 🙂
Tess, I don’t know if you recall my email about this, but I actually completely reworked the premise of my second novel because I discovered, to my dismay, that the original premise I had devised was pretty much the same as yours for Body Double.
But I’m actually glad that happened, because it made me work much harder at figuring out where to take the book and rather than write a pale imitation of your wonderful work, I wrote something completely unique to me — and the book is much better as a result.
Yes, my book probably would have been much different anyway, but at least I wouldn’t have that nagging feeling that I had ripped you off.
I remember when the movie STIR OF ECHOES came out and everyone called it a rip-off of THE SIXTH SENSE, simply because both movies featured a kid who had seen dead people. It didn’t matter that they were completely different storylines, each wonderful in its own way.
So not matter what we do, if an idea is even slightly similar to someone else’s story, somebody out there is going to cry foul.
In Hollywood the amateur tipoff is putting the WGA script registration number on the title page. And people who do that usually put the copyright mark on, too. You might as well use your script for kindling.
There are ALWAYS competing projects in film, too – but there the first one to the finish line can knock a lot of projects out. What I’ve learned, though, is that you can always wait a few years and then do it, because just as you say – the stories are so differently told.
Allison, I thought of you when I was watching Untraceable the other night. But it is way different than your story. So, Tess is right yet again.
Sometimes my plots are so weak, I WISH someone would steal them…
Truly, this is the voice of experience. I’ve been publishing novels for decades and I agree with everything Mrs. Gerritsen says. It is commonplace for two or more authors to come up with the same basic storyline simultaneously. A friend of mine wrote a great screenplay a while ago called Frozen Assets. In it, a nasty old lady, much despised by her family, wins a lottery and gets a big check every month for as long as she lives. But she soon dies, so the family freezes her in a wheelchair, and every little while runs her around the block and then puts her back in the freezer, so the checks keep on coming. Well, guess what? Someone else came up with the same basic idea at the same time, and my friend’s screenplay was trumped.
I’m late commenting, but I was just at a writers’ conference this weekend and this topic STILL came up. No matter that these newbie writers were assured over and over that they did not need to copyright their work, I SWEAR I overheard one attendee explaining to another how to copyright! I just kept on walking.
very interesting blog topic and great comments (the ocean is a little damp? Thanks for the insight! LOL)
So true, Tess. The funniest part is that I’ve even had an intellectual property attorney (a family friend) tell me that I had to put the copyright symbol on my stories and register them with the Copyright Office before I submitted them. Needless to say, he doesn’t work in the publishing industry. If I had listened to his advice, I wouldn’t have gotten published.
Great post, Tess. I have a hard time convincing my readers who are wanting to be writers this, and yet, also have a hard time convincing them that no–I really canNOT read their unpublished work for my OWN protection. I may just refer them to this post!