Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#116) -- Oops I Did It Again

Have you ever written a story only to find that you have totally 
written or read the same story with minor differences?

I wrote The Wasteland. You do know that, right
There is the famous quoted and re-quoted adage about how good writers steal:

“Mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal.”
- T.S. Eliot

“Good writers borrow from other writers.
Great writers steal from them outright.”
- Aaron Sorkin

And let me add to those this new one... 

"Persistent writers steal from themselves."

So, to answer the question directly, yes, I have written a story to find that I've either written or read that story before. But not exactly.

Usually  it's something of the characters, or a plot point, or most commonly a theme being rehashed. I've written about themes that are common in my work one a previous Question of the Day.

C-3P0 and R2-D2?
Now, before you read more into that than is actually there, do I write the same story over and over? No. But do similarities pop up because of who I am as a person and as a writer? Yes. I am drawn to certain character types and certain types of stories of quests and journeys of self-discovery and learning by failings. But let's be honest... any writer worth his or her fire and passion can recast the same plot, shift the POV character(s), or the setting, and voila! You've got a brand new story. Is it stealing? Maybe. Is it creating something new based from something old? Yes. Is it a common occurrence? Absolutely.

Some examples:

1. Star Wars A New Hope is a recycled use of the plot of Akira Kurosawa's epic samurai film The Hidden Fortress, down to the two loveable but oafish droids (although flesh and blood buffoons in the earlier film).

2. Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres is simply a retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, with its setting updated to a rural farming community and a change in the POV to one of the disloyal sisters.

3. Agatha Christie revised a few short story plots into longer works as novels, particularly in her Poirot work.

4. Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg was successfully recycled into a space-themed version of the same book as Zathura.

5. And for a great party game some time, get a group of writers together and make a list of as many "stick in the mud person from our world must journey to another world either magically or on a vehicle of transport to save the new world he's never heard of."

This idea has been covered by better bloggers and writers than myself, and here are a few examples: 
http://www.writingforward.com/writing-ideas/other-peoples-writing-ideas
http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2009/11/17/why-do-great-writers-steal/
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jan/11/fiction-johnirving
http://janetcameron.suite101.com/a-plot-for-your-story-a318513

(Thanks to Stephen Card for today's question.)