Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Attack of the Evil Plot Clones

This week I was Googling character names for my work in progress. I wanted to be sure I hadn’t inadvertently picked something I thought was cool and obscure, but in reality riddled half the titles on bestseller list. For me, it's the literary equivalent of checking popular baby names du jour so you can avoid saddling your kid with the next "Jacob" or "Isabella" moniker (with apologies to Jacobs and Isabellas everywhere).

To my slight dismay, I found my main character name used in another series of books. Since it was a completely different genre, and a supporting character at that, I chalked it up to a minor annoyance, but not a show stopper.

But then I sat up and took notice, realizing I'd uncovered bigger potatoes than the shared name.
Evil plot clones may, or may not have facial hair.

As I read more, I realized this book shared some pretty significant plot elements with a manuscript I’d just finished beta reading for a friend. And when I say significant, I mean the core-premise-of-the-story significant. AND the book was in her genre. An evil plot clone!

When told her what I’d found, I got a reply that I won’t repeat here on the prime time Internet. Suffice it to say, it was in all caps.

Whether or not she ends up considering this a big enough deal to rework anything of her story remains to be seen. But as I thought about it, maybe this mountain is really more of a mow hill. A teeth-grinding, blood pressure-raising mow hill, to be sure, but a still mow hill.

During the months it took me to finish my last novel, more than once I had the same kind of sick feeling. I’d be reading a book or sitting in the theater, when there it was – one of MY story ideas – playing out before my eyes in someone else’s work like a punch in the gut. I remember this happening when I saw Sherlock Holmes, Avatar and Limitless. And during re-watches of older stuff like Blade Runner and Minority Report.

As the list grew, I got more and more frustrated. But then I realized that taken together, the same list gave me just as much cause to relax. Sherlock Holmes and Limitless? Really? Do they share elements with each other (and with my story)? Yep.

Okay, so the posters are kinda similar. But the movies aren't.
But are they anything alike? Would someone watch one, and call it derivative of the other? Not likely.

Why? Because when it comes to originality, the idea can often be less important than its execution.

In support of this assertion, I offer the following list of movies that seem ripped right from the same pitch sheet. Released at nearly the same time as their counterparts, each found varied measures of success or failure. Not based on plot elements they did or didn’t share, but on their own merits.

Deep Impact. What it lacked in the Liv Tyler department, it made up in heart-wrenching self sacrifice.

When it comes to originality, there’s a fine line between innovation and duplication. It’s always good to know what’s out there so you don’t end up feeling derivative. And it's important to strive for original ideas.

But complete originality just isn't going to be possible 100% of the time. And with the myriad tropes common to every genre, as long as you can tell a great story with them, I think you’re on pretty solid ground.


  1. Oh no! That's so sad and frustrating! I'm so sorry for your friend. She'll just have to find a way to tell her side of the story better. It's kind of an opportunity when you look at it like that.

  2. A good topic to address-- on some level, we're all redoing old ideas, but it can be quite frustrating when you come up with a concept, then find someone has already done it!

    Also, you have won book art! email me at sb.stolk(at)gmail(dot)com for details.

  3. Wandered over from AbsoluteWrite, and I'm excited to explore your blog some more... I completely know this sinking feeling as I realize I'm not the only one who comes up with good ideas, but you're totally right. You just have to tell a great story and stay true to your voice.

  4. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting. Indeed an informative Article I am impressed this author. Googling is a first-person narrative of the title character.

  5. OMGosh! Great post.
    I hadn't thought of googling my characters names.
    And to have such a rude reply from the person you were trying to forewarn is a shame. They say there is no such thing as an original idea!

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  7. I am excited to explore your blog some more. Congratulation on maintaining a great blog. I am work on baby names sites, where you can found a large list of unique baby names for boy and girl with meaning and origin. Thanks to new post.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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