It’s never nice to be accused of plagiarism. I’ve only had it happen once or twice, and never in the serious, “We’re-taking-your-ass-to-court” meaning of the word. Rather, it was suggested that I’d borrowed one or two elements from someone else’s work. The first time was when some character on a Doctor Who forum claimed I’d lifted – word for word – a lengthy bit of dialogue from an episode of Red Dwarf – an episode which, funnily enough, I hadn’t seen. The second time was when someone pointed out similarities between a script I’d written and a popular video game… one that was released a good 6 years after I last owned a games console.
In both cases, what it boiled down to was coincidence, similarity, and nothing more. In a similar way, I once asked (*NAME-DROP KLAXON*) Steven Moffat whether Borges’s The Library of Babel had influenced Silence in the Library, only to have him look at me like I’d belched in his face. He’d never even heard of Borges, let alone read the story. Again… Coincidence. If enough ideas are floating in the ether, more than one writer will grab them and use them to their own ends, resulting in similar stories by authors ignorant of each other’s work.
But while being accused of theft is a little upsetting (after the video game one I flew into a blind panic for several days), there are times when outright, blatant theft is a good thing.
So when is it OK to steal? Well, I’m talking about those times when you’re trying to come up with an idea, but you hit a brick wall. My advice, in this situation, is that you turn to a source – could be ancient mythology, the collected works of Shakespeare, or an author whose work is now in the public domain – and you pillage it for all its worth. If that idea plagues your conscience, and you think it sounds like cheating, don’t take my word for it. Here are some popular works whose stories seemed oddly familiar…
And that’s just the films. Joyce’s Ulysses is – quite brazenly – The Odyssey, stripped of deities and updated to Dublin. Stephen King admits that the starting point for Salem’s Lot was “Dracula meets Peyton Place”. In his introduction to The Magus, John Fowles suggests that it was modelled – albeit subconsciously – on Dickens’s Great Expectations.
The trick, when stealing a story, is to use only its core ingredients as your starting point. Pitch it to yourself by giving it a different setting, and see how far you get. I’ll come up with one right now – I promise, this will be off the top of my head – and we’ll see how far we get with it.
The Odyssey, but set in a garage.
So how would that work? It might be difficult – but fun – trying to adapt the earlier parts of the Odyssey to the confines of a garage, so perhaps we should stick to the later parts, when Ulysses returns to Ithaca and finds his wife, Penelope, beset on all sides by a small army of suitors, eager to take his place. Perhaps our Ulysses – let’s call him Bob – is a mechanic, the previous owner of the garage. He’s been away some time (prison?), but now he’s back, only to find that some other man is trying to usurp him. As well as taking over Bob’s business, perhaps this man is making overtures to his wife, and has become a father figure to his son, our modern-day Telemachus?
Already, it feels like it could work as a kind of Get Carter-ish crime thriller, or a straight-up drama with a bit of gangster movie bubbling underneath. Actually, if anything it feels a little like an episode of Eastenders, which – given the show’s wild fluctuations in quality over the years – is neither a good nor a bad thing. Maybe you think this story is a terrible idea. Doesn’t matter. What matters right now is that you have a starting point.
Obviously, this method won’t always work, and it’s always worth checking to see if someone already had the same idea as you (there are so many gangster Macbeths), but as “writing exercises” go, it’s a pretty good one, and a great means to blow away the cobwebs.