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Stealing Ideas

Today let’s talk about a post I caught on Reddit over the weekend. In the post, the OP is concerned about the line between re-using the plot devices and ideas of others and outright plagiarism. The ensuing dialog wanders around a bit, as Redditors are wont to do, but I found it fascinating nonetheless.

This a topic that troubles all writers, I believe. At least, I know it bothers me. Anytime I create something, I feel like somebody’s already done it. In fact, they probably did it better. Usually, this realization is followed by a bout of self-doubt, staring at a blank page for an hour before finally deciding I am a no-talent hack who should give up on this whole writing thing and get a real job.

I am then saved by remembering the words of my friend and noted children’s book author, Tad Dilday. To paraphrase, “It doesn’t matter if somebody already told that story. They didn’t tell it the way you will.”

That’s a powerful thought.

If you prefer, here’s another list of archetypes.

It’s a common thread in such discussions to point out that there are only seven unique plots. The number and expression of these plots vary from expert to expert, but for today’s post, I’ll just use the version detailed by Christopher Booker in ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ ‘Why We Tell Stories’ because I happen to have it handy. They are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • the Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Rebirth
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy


The basic idea is that every story fits into one of those categories. We can argue that until the whiskey runs out, but that’s a topic for another day. Today, I just want to point out that everything’s been done already, and the task for today’s creatives is to update those concepts to keep them relevant and express our unique viewpoints.

Storytelling is a kind of thing only people do. I believe there’s a reason for that. We don’t have instincts to guide us the way that animals do. Nobody teaches a bird to fly. Spiders don’t need to be taught to spin webs or get around on eight legs. They just know. The ones that don’t, don’t live long enough to breed.

We don’t have that. We have to transmit the key concepts humans need to master and thrive in this strange world through other means, so we tell stories. We’ve been doing this since we lived in caves, huddled around a campfire for warmth and companionship, while Gurak the elder told us the legend of Kor and how he battled the sun to steal the secret of flame. Gurak needed to keep our interest. He was too old to hunt anymore, and he knew we’d be forced to send him out into the snow if he couldn’t prove his value in other ways. He had to make the stories resonate with us. His life depended on it.

I think, in that dismal, smelly cave, our friend Gurak discovered those seven archetypes. The stories he told, the ones that worked and gave us reason to keep feeding him through the long winters, fit certain patterns. The ones that didn’t fell flat and he found his sleeping place moving closer to the mouth of the cave. Gurak learned to stick with what worked, and the tribe benefited and kept him around.

So, when you have an idea, don’t worry that it’s derivative of something someone else has already done.

It has.

Gurak did it. And it’s OK to steal from him, because he never copyrighted anything.

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