On Ideas and Plots and Their Mutability

Sometimes I get asked questions on twitter that cannot be answered in 140 characters. Candanosa asked one such yesterday:

Do you ever get amazing ideas for your books and then realize it was just something you read in someone else’s?

I couldn’t answer this in a tweet because being inspired by other books is at the heart of most writers’ work. It’s a feature, not a bug.

My book Razorhurst wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Larry Writer’s non-fiction account of the same period, Razor. Now most people see no problem with that: a novel being inspired by a non-fiction book. It happens all the time.

However, Razorhurst also wouldn’t be what it is without Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux. Those books, Razor included, inspired and in some ways, shaped every sentence I wrote.

I couldn’t answer Candanosa’s question in a tweet because it expresses as a problem what I see to be a feature of being a writer. Every one of my novels has to some extent been inspired by, influenced by, made possible by, other novels.

My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, was inspired by a popular series in which magic solved all the problems and had no negative consequences. I was annoyed me. Greatly. So much that I wrote three novels in which magic was more a curse than a gift and had grave consequences.

If I get an amazing idea and then realise that it’s similar to a book by someone else I start to think about how I would do it differently. For instance Hunger Games is not an original idea. You can trace its origins all the way back to the gladiators. The idea of people fighting to the death as entertainment for the masses has been used in The Running Man as well as Battle Royale to name two of the more famous examples. Hunger Games is not a rip off of either of these.

These three books are not identical. That central plot is mutable. Read them side by side, look at how differently they treat the similar set up. They’re in conversation with each other and their differences are far more telling than their superficial similarities.

I know many writers who when talking about the novel they’re currently writing say things like: “It’s Jane Eyre as if it were a thriller, and Rochester a psychopath,1 set on an isolated satellite.” Or “It’s a YA version of Gone Girl but set in a fantasy kingdom ruled by pterodactyls.” You get the idea. Pretty much every writer I know does some version of this.

It’s not plagiarism, it’s not cheating, it’s not lazy. It’s how creativity works in every field. We are inspired by what went before us.

Most people reading those Jane Eyre or Gone Girl reworkings would be unlikely to spot that that’s how they began life. Two writer with the same starting idea, or even with the same plot, will write different books. That’s how fiction works. Hell, that’s how non-fiction works. I’ve read several biographies of Virginia Woolf and they’re all different.

Getting an idea, coming up with a plot, are not the key to novel writing. I come up with millions every day. I do not write millions of novels every day. The heart of novel writing is actually writing the novel; it’s breathing life into characters and settings and situations. Plots are easy. Someone goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town, blah blah blah. All writers steal plots even when they don’t think they that’s what they’re doing. Just look at Shakespeare!

What makes a novel work is so complicated, there are so many moving parts, that declaring a book is merely its central idea, merely its plot, is ludicrous.2 If that were true why would we bother reading the novel? We might as well read the Cliff Notes version. Same thing, right? WRONG!

Next time you have an amazing idea and realise you read it in someone else’s novel. Relax. That’s a good thing. Your brain is in story-making mode. Treasure it, think about how you would do that particular idea differently, tell that story differently. Who knows? Maybe it will lead to something awesome.

  1. Not a big stretch given that Rochester is TOTALLY a pyschopath. []
  2. For starters most novels are inspired by more than one idea. []

4 comments

  1. Megan Maurice on #

    Okay, now I really want to read the fantasy pterodactyl Gone Girl. It’s got to be way better than Gone Girl.

    • Justine on #

      Harsh, Megan! I’m increasingly of the opinion that if I had been told that Gone Girl was an over the top Gothic I would have enjoyed it. Instead people told me it was as good a thriller as a Patricia Highsmith. Lies!

  2. Dan Liebke on #

    Your pig-headed insistence on not writing millions of novels a day will eventually prove your undoing. Mark my words, Larbalestier.

    • Justine on #

      Tell no one but I actually do write that many novels a day. It’s just that my agent won’t send them out. She says I’d saturate the market and kill my brand. Sadly my writing style is too distinctive for me to get away with publishing them under pseudonyms. You have uncovered the biggest tragedy of my life. *sob*

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