Borrowing, Stealing, and Building Upon Other People’s Writing Ideas

writing ideas

May I use a few of your writing ideas?

From epic romances to fantastical adventures, stories have been captivating audiences for centuries, and they have been inspiring writers (and other artists) for just as long.

There is a longstanding tradition among storytellers of reimagining or extending the greatest legends, myths, and fairy tales ever told, from the greek classics to last summer’s blockbuster films.

Certainly, many derivative works are frowned upon. You can find lists of authors who do not allow (and pursue legal action against) stories written in their worlds. You can find reviews that call such stories rip-offs or refer to authors as hacks who have done nothing more than steal someone else’s writing ideas.

But you can also find some impressive and respectable derivative works in films, novels, and television. In fact, many derivative works are embraced, beloved, and achieve critical and commercial success, plus massive fan followings.

So, when is it acceptable to use other people’s writing ideas? Why do some of these stories get heavily criticized while others are widely celebrated?

Once Upon a Story…


There are many sources of inspiration for storytellers. Some writers rely on their own life experiences while others rip stories from the headlines. Existing stories, both true and fictional, have always had a heavy influence on the tales we tell and retell. How many variations of Little Red Riding Hood have been written? How many fictional movies have been set during World War II? Let’s take a look at the different techniques writers use to tell stories that are built on other stories.

Formulas

Plenty of writing ideas are culled from great tales that have been told throughout history. Some of these have been converted into formulas that writers can use as storytelling guidelines.

In 1929, Joseph Campbell told the world about the monomyth, a universal pattern in storytelling that he found across cultures and throughout history. Writers turned the pattern into a formula, but perhaps nobody did so as effectively or famously as George Lucas, who used it to write Star Wars.

From the three-act structure to the hero’s journey, formulas have been criticized as making stories dull and predictable yet they have also been credited with providing writers a framework in which to create.

Historical Fiction

Historical fiction takes factual events from true stories of the past and overlays them with made-up characters or plots.

In James Cameron’s film, Titanic, two fictional characters fall in love on the historic ship that sank into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean back in 1912. Countless novels, short stories, poems, movies, television shows, and video games have taken a bite out of history and used it as the setting for their stories.

While this practice is widely accepted as legitimate, it’s worth noting that China recently banned time travel stories because they retell history untruthfully (for the record, I think this is ridiculous and a violation of basic human rights, but let’s not get too political here). There is an argument to be made about the dangers of retelling history (take the holocaust deniers, for example) and a much stronger argument to made about making art that examines history.

Fan Fiction

Fan fiction is a favorite pastime for hobby writers who are loyal fans to their favorite franchises. Google “fan fiction” and you’ll find loads of stories set in the worlds of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and Twilight — all critically and commercially successful science fiction and fantasy movies and television shows. But that’s not all. Fans are also writing fiction from TV shows like Bones, Glee, and 80s nighttime soap Dynasty (yes, Dynasty! I couldn’t believe it either).

Some authors strictly prohibit writers from publishing material set in the worlds they’ve created (although they certainly can’t stop you from writing stories in your notebook). They feel that these works will negatively impact the integrity of their stories or compromise them in some way. Other creators either look the other way or encourage fans to play in their worlds. The television show Lost spewed a veritable onslaught of fan fiction and artwork, and the show’s frontrunners enjoyed the homages all the way to the bank. This relationship between creators and fans proved to be mutually beneficial. Lost became a worldwide phenomenon and one of the most-talked-about shows in history.

Generally speaking, writing fan fiction is not the best path to becoming a respectable or published author. The work is copyrighted by someone else, so you can’t publish a book or short story and get paid for it (there may be some exceptions as with contests or other programs by the few authors who are extremely supportive of fan fiction). I think fan fiction is actually a good training ground for young or new writers. It’s an ideal place to practice storytelling — because all of the elements are provided, amateur writers can focus on specific aspects of their work, such as characters or plot.

Public Domain

In 2010, Tim Burton brought us Alice in Wonderland (3-D). This film told the story of a 20-something Alice revisiting Wonderland, so it’s essentially a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s original Alice stories. In their 1951 animated film, Disney took Carroll’s work to the screen, combining elements from various stories and poems that Carroll had written to create a timeless classic that secured Carroll’s heroine a permanent place in our collective, cultural mythology.

This is basically fan fiction breeding fan fiction, but we categorize it differently because Lewis Carroll’s works are all in the public domain, which means anyone can take them and do whatever they want with them. You too can write an Alice story, publish it, and be safe from copyright infringement or intellectual property lawsuits.

When we take our writing ideas from the public domain, the work is generally referred to (not as fan fiction, but) as a reimagining, repurposing, retelling, or recycled story. Why are stories based on public domain works viewed and treated so differently from fan fiction? In these projects, writers are using material that is decades old, and the new work basically keeps the old work alive and makes it accessible to future generations.

Where Do You Get Your Writing Ideas?

All around us, there are stories being told and retold, revised and reimagined, stretched and skewed. Today, we have such easy access to stories (they’re all right at our fingertips) that it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by our favorite works. Consciously or unconsciously, many of our writing ideas come from other writers. The only question that remains is this: where do you think you get your writing ideas?

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

16 Responses to “Borrowing, Stealing, and Building Upon Other People’s Writing Ideas”

  1. Vicky Pino says:

    I never agreed with film industry to rely on some one’s else work to make films. Why don’t they hire good script writers to write good and original scripts? Surely, it’d give a lot of work to many writers. I’m a writer and I know well how difficult it’s to write a 2000 word story. A writer, if he/she agrees on his/her work to be filmed, will be paid, but she or he won’t get as much as any producer.

    • Hm. I see your point, but I believe that producing films based on books, legends, myths, and fairy tales serves a few important purposes. First, it brings those stories to people who don’t read. And as hard as it for me to relate, some people just don’t like to read. Also, through the medium of film, we, as an audience get to experience different interpretations of stories, which is exciting.

      In terms of screenwriters, every single film needs a screenwriter (even if the film is based on a novel). That’s why there’s a special award at the Oscars for “screenplay adaptation.” This award goes to the writer who the Academy felt did the best job taking an existing story and prepping it for the big screen.

      Many movies and pretty much all television shows employ teams of writers. I’m pretty sure Hollywood is doing its part to provide work for writers, and from what I’ve heard they make a decent living (can anyone confirm that?). As for who gets how much money — I think some screenwriters negotiate for royalties, but it depends on the contract and who owns the creative rights to the “story.” The original author (if still living and the work is not public domain) also makes a mint selling the film rights. In filmmaking, there is a massive team of professionals involved and everybody must get paid (including the investors). Do writers get their fair share? I don’t know for certain, but from what I understand, it’s not a bad gig. They’re doing a lot better, financially, than poets.

  2. James Thayer says:

    One school of thought is that there are only five plots: (man against man, man against himself, man against nature, man against society, and man against God) and all novels are derivatives of these five. Maass says, ”There are certainly no new plots. Not a one. There are also no settings that have not been used, and no professions that have not been given to protagonists.”
    Kurt Vonnegut said, “Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails; a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits fornication . . . . I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.”
    So whatever you write, you won’t be the first, and you shouldn’t worry about it. Edith Wharton said the fear of imitation is immature.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Well, they do say (whoever ‘they’ are) to write what you know as well as to write what you like to read so it makes sense to me that what I write is influenced by books, shows and movies I enjoy. I just hope that I can put enough of ‘me’ into them to make them original so that they don’t just come off as sycophantic rip-offs!

    • I think true rip-offs are rare and most may even be coincidental. Often, when I recognize something in one story as having roots in some other story, I actually like it. In fact, it almost becomes a game.

  4. John Yeoman says:

    True, but there have been only 32 basic plots since the dawn of humanity, according to Georges Polti – or is it just seven (Christopher Booker)? We all steal plot ideas and themes. In fact, if we didn’t do it consciously we’d do it unconsciously!

  5. Andrea Z says:

    With regard to fan fiction – which I have taken part in – I always put a disclaimer that the characters I am writing about are not mine, and belong to someone else. It’s a good way I cover myself. It’s more of a hobby than anything, but I like my real writing a whole lot more. I also use it for writer’s block. If I’m stuck for inspiration, I’ll write a short drabble of fan fiction to get my brain flowing, then go back to the poem/short piece I’m working on. Fan fiction is helpful, as long as I don’t get stuck for hours reading endless fiction from other writers! :)

    • I think fan fiction is a perfect way to experiment with fiction. I like your idea of always including a disclaimer. I’m not sure if it offers any legal protection, but it definitely demonstrates good intentions!

  6. Wesley McCants says:

    Someone once asked me if I had a choice between a woman and my ideas, which would I sacrifice permanently. I considered diligently what my inquisitor wanted to know. And when I’d weighed all my options I answered, the woman. Taken aback he responded, “This means as a heterosexual you would rather live a life entirely alone?” I nodded. He shook his head in absolute dismay. I smiled then we parted company.

    • It’s an interesting question, and you gave an interesting answer.

      • Wesley McCants says:

        Rene Descartes, mathematician and philosopher, discovered he could doubt everything in the objective world but his conscious faculty to think, an attribute of the mind. Therefore our thoughts and ideas are what we literally are, i.e. creative beings. Furthermore, without ideas we could not even solve a simply problem like feeding, clothing, and sheltering ourselves or our fellow man.

  7. Hemu Saini says:

    That’s why Picasso said, “Good Artists Copy But Great Artists Steal”.