Stealing Ideas


Whenever people ask me where I get my ideas from, I always admit that I steal them. I’m not a very original thinker. Hence this column, about stealing ideas, has the not very original title, ‘Stealing Ideas.’ (The sad fact is, it took me hours to come up with that title).

Aren’t there laws against stealing, you might ask?

Well, there are. But when it comes to ideas in fiction, those laws are really aimed at plagiarism: the verbatim reproduction of another author’s copyrighted work and this really is a hateful criminal act. Stealing ideas, however, is acceptable because there really is no copyright on ideas. And also, whilst I call it ‘stealing’ the real truth is, like most other writers, I’m just being heavily influenced.

To illustrate: I want to write a story about a transvestite. I got the idea whilst watching a movie the other day. Is this plagiarism? No. Is this theft? No. I’ve been influenced by an aspect of the movie. My story, being erotic, will focus on the eroticism of cross-dressing. What was the film I watched?

Well, you can pick from the following list:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
The Crying Game
Mrs Doubtfire
As You Like It
Silence of the Lambs
Some Like It Hot
Ed Wood
La Cage Aux Folles

The list could be longer. I haven’t included any porn titles. However, unless I make my transvestite protagonist a movie producer (Ed Wood) or a serial killer (Silence of the Lambs) or Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot) I’m not running the risk of making a genuine theft: I’ve only been influenced.

Does this mean I’m just copying someone else’s story? Never. Well, not intentionally. I might have a scene where my protagonist’s concealed gender surprises another character (ala The Crying Game) but it won’t be the same scene. I might have a scene where my protagonist rides on a bus: this doesn’t mean I’m rewriting The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Ideas are nothing more than the seeds from which stories, novels and movies grow. More importantly: the ideas for the vast majority of stories have all been done before. The only time originality appears is in how each different author tackles the specific presentation of an idea.

Tomorrow I might decide to write a romance set against a background of war. Does this mean I’ll be re-writing Gone With the Wind, John Jakes’ North & South or Casablanca? No, it means I’ll be adding my own original work to a canon of romance stories set against a background of war.

Even when we come up with original ideas, the maddening thing is that someone always seems to have beaten us to it.

A colleague of mine confided that she had come up with an original idea for a story about a family. The daughter of the family introduces her new boyfriend to mum and dad. Mum and dad are both cordial but there is some tension. As the story develops it transpires that ‘mum’ has been having an affair with the boyfriend. The conclusion of the story announces that ‘dad’ has also been having an affair with him.

It’s a cool idea. But it’s been done in most of the major soap operas over the past three decades. It also sounded eerily familiar to the lust-triangle in Cabaret. Nevertheless, I congratulated my colleague on her original idea and assured her I wouldn’t steal it.

Mind you, I might be heavily influenced by that scenario with the next piece I write…

Ashley Lister
October 2009

“The Write Stuff” © 2009 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

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