Whose idea is it anyway?

One of the fundamental aspects of being a story-teller, is that we're all fishing for ideas from the same pond. At any given time, this pond will be filled with a thick sediment, the stuff of life - laid down and set to ferment over generations. A great pond of the human collective subconscious, if you like.

The ideas in this pond, the fish ready and waiting to be caught (if this can ever be truly said of fish) will be fish of the moment, finned and scaled with the hues specific to a particular time in history.

If we are to believe that there are only 7 core stories in the world, then all we can ever hope to catch from this pond, is a slightly different fish - a different way of telling the same story.

The ideas ... will be fish of the moment, finned and scaled with the hues specific to a particular time in history

My fish might be bigger than yours, and yours might be rainbow coloured. The finer details can and will be unique to each of us.

So you see, we can make stories our own, because it is impossible for me to tell exactly the same story as you. I could copy how you tell it, but I can't fundamentally come up with exactly the same telling from within myself.

And this is where, as story-tellers, we can fall in to deep water.

If you tell a story, the way I told it, all the way down to the tiniest of idiosyncratic interpretations – and call it your own – then this, quite frankly, isn't cricket. It's bad sportsmanship. It's not playing fair. It's all the gaming clichés you can think of.

If you tell a story, the way I told it ...  and call it your own - then this, quite frankly, isn't cricket

It seems that these 'rules' of the game are all that's stopping one story-teller from blatantly copying another.

Furthermore - who would, in their right and noble mind, want to lift someone else's story, word for word? It would be like wearing someone else's pants (and I don't mean trousers).

Talking of which, some years ago, I was working in collaboration with a published illustrator, on a story about a character and his pants. And right at that same time a, now very famous, character leaped on to the fictional stage, parading about in his spotty pants.

This was purely a case of catching the same (pant-themed) fish. When this happens, you just have to go back to the pond.

It's interesting how distance cleanses us of playing dirty, and allows us to copy and plagiarise with impunity. Look at how we can mess around with the re-telling of fairytales, just as Shakespeare expertly re-kindled stories previously told - including the thirteenth century legend of Amleth, which he recycled in his little known play, Hamlet. These stories are so deep down in the pond, have been around for such a long time, that we know them to belong to everyone. We're OK with this.

When you catch the same pant-themed fish, you just have to go back to the pond

Last year at the Hay Festival, I was listening to Anthony Horowitz answer the question: did he ever intend to write more novels about Groosham Grange? At that point, I have to confess, I'd never heard of Groosham Grange. Horowitz's answer was a resounding, "No!" Turns out Groosham Grange is a story about a boy with magical powers, living with unpleasant relatives, who goes to a school of magic – published before the story we all know so well, by J K Rowling. Anthony Horowitz lifted up his hands and shrugged – how could he possibly continue in the shadow of Harry Potter? You can find Groosham Grange here.

Mark Lawson – the former voice of Front Row on Radio 4 – shares his own misfortune of hooking the same fish, and cites many other famous authors who've found themselves in the same boat. David Lodge and Colm Tóibín wrote and published, at almost precisely the same time, a novel about Henry James – with one fairing somewhat better than the other. You can read all about it here.

Happy fishing!

Don't forget to cast your net over last week's healthy catch on W&P:

Monday's Inspirational exploration of libraries, with K M Lockwood - if you love libraries, you'll love this
Tuesday's Ten minute blog break from Nick, with a healthy dose of blogs exploring YA, Chitra's perspective of Indian families and reading, and what 8-13 year olds have to say about their reading habits 
Wednesday's Catriona shows us a selection of Latin words and phrases in this month's Proofreading Tips
Thursday's Network News from The North West, events coming up in The South West, and news of the forthcoming Industry Insiders quiz
Friday's Another cute and telling ProCATsination from Jion
Saturday's Read about Alison Gardiner's joint win in January's Slushpile Challenge

Nancy Saunders is the new Editor of W&P. You can find some of her short stories here, and on Twitter @nancyesaunders


  1. A beautifully written and thoughtful piece. Thanks, Nancy

  2. But when does inspiration turn into plagiarism? And what happens if you unconsciously channel someone else's idea into your own work? I know that music suffers from a much more limited canvas than language, but I wonder how long it will be before we have a Blurred Lines type plagiarism case over a mega-selling children's book?

  3. This is a great piece Nancy. I've had so many of my own ideas suddenly appearing in other people's books. I've only got myself to blame. Not for blabbing about them to other people but for spending too long getting my act together to write and polish the idea into a fit state to be published.

  4. Thanks, Nancy, for a thoughtful piece. Has everyone come across the wonderful term 'intertextuality' in critical theory? It describes how writers necessarily draw on everything they have read/consumed (whether consciously or not) and can also use references to deepen the reader's experience e.g. a fairy tale that goes wrong will be more enjoyable to a reader who knows the original story. I had great fun writing a piece on intertextuality in Andy Stanton's Mr Gum books for my MA in children's lit!

  5. Many thanks, all, for your comments and thoughts. It's a tricky business, how not to soak up the ideas of others and feed them into your own work. I'm always on the look out for ways to weave in some intertexuality - mostly for my own benefit of incorporating story elements that I've loved!


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