In this article I'd like to cover some of the issues to consider when your writing is definitely inspired by another story. There are different types of inspiration. Some are considered admirable; others can lead to lawsuits. This article is not the last word on legal issues, but it will hopefully make you aware of them.
There is nothing wrong with being inspired to write by another author's story; in fact I believe that nearly all creative writers begin as readers of stories. Reading experiences can be so strong -- so enthralling -- that the readers want to continue the experience even after the story ends. A person may read a romance and think: I want to do that! If you do not enjoy, or have never enjoyed, reading fiction, then you should ask yourself why you want to write it. For fame and fortune? Sure, some authors manage this, but most do not. There are easier, far more reliable ways to gain money and celebrity.
Many stories have similar elements. In fact, some people, such as Christopher Booker, maintain that all stories are built on one of seven basic plots (the numbers and descriptions of the plots differ). If this is true, it is not surprising that many stories resemble each other, sometimes obviously, and sometimes less obviously. We'll cover instances of obvious resemblance -- plagiarism and homage -- and then move on to examples that are a little less obvious.
Plagiarism is bad. It can refer to copying something verbatim and putting your name on it, something which has happened all too often in schools and universities and is considered so great a violation that it can be cause for dismissal. Sometimes it is not verbatim copying, but nevertheless a copying of ideas. Here's what Wikipedia says about plagiarism:
Plagiarism is the "wrongful appropriation" and "purloining and publication" of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions," and the representation of them as one's own original work. ...Plagiarism is not a crime per se but in academia and industry it is a serious ethical offense, and cases of plagiarism can constitute copyright infringement.
Plagiarism happens, even among well-known authors. There was a famous case in which the prolific romance writer Janet Dailey borrowed passages from the even more prolific romance writer Nora Roberts and published these passages in Aspen Gold (oddly enough, it is the only book "by" Janet Dailey that I ever read -- and I guess that means that I still haven't read any by her). A settlement was reached, but it seems to prove that plagiarism is tempting to everyone, even to successful writers. The reason why is clear: it's a matter of getting credit and possibly money for no work.
My adamant advice: do not plagiarize. If you quote another author, give credit where credit is due. Check to see what the limits are with respect to fair use.
By paying homage, you are supposed to be showing your respect and admiration for another author or artist by alluding to their work. The homage could be direct, such as when the geeks in The Big Bang Theory make references to Star Wars and Star Trek. It could be oblique, as when characters in one story behave similarly to characters in another story, perhaps by having a similar conversation or by doing a technique that echoes another.
The boundary between homage that flatters the original artist and a level that the original artist considers stealing is not always clear. From the commentaries accompanying the DVDs I learned that one particular episode of Star Trek's Deep Space Nine, "Our Man Bashir," was supposed to honor, that is, pay homage to, the James Bond franchise. The episode was extremely similar to James Bond; for example in James Bond there is a "Dr. No," while in the "Deep Space Nine" episode there is a "Dr. Noah." Evidently the creators of Deep Space Nine thought they were paying a compliment to the James Bond franchise, but the owners of the James Bond franchise were not pleased. Deep Space Nine was told to desist. The next time that Bashir visited the holodeck wearing a tux, the scene was very short. So, homage can be in the eye of the beholder.
There are many famous examples of stories inspired by other stories. West Side Story, the musical by Leonard Bernstein, is based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Bernstein made many changes to the original: the setting is New York City, instead of Verona; Bernstein's factions are the Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, rather poor groups fighting for power in New York City instead of Verona's two rich houses of Capulets and Montagues; the character Maria who takes the role of Juliet does not die (which somehow makes it sadder at the end). And of course West Side Story is full of music and dancing.
Bernstein did not have to worry about offending the original author, as Shakespeare had been dead for centuries before Bernstein wrote West Side Story. Besides, there's certainly plenty of originality in West Side Story. Even though one can see the outline of Romeo and Juliet inside it, Bernstein has made the familiar story his own.
Here are some ways to take familiar stories and develop them differently:
Different Point of View. You could tell Cinderella from the point of view of one of the ugly stepsisters.
Different Medium. You can take a story that is a play and turn it into a novel, as Alice Underwood and I did with Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which tells the story of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (we also changed the point of view). West Side Story took a play and made it into a musical.
Different Time and Setting. A recent, extremely popular example is Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, which has many points in common with the story of the ancient Greek hero Theseus and the groups of Athenian youths and maids sent as offerings to Crete's Minotaur.
Different Ending. It is possible to take a story with a happy ending and make it sad; or take a sad or depressing ending and make it happy. Sometimes the version with the changed ending becomes more popular than the original. For example, in the original version of "Little Red Riding Hood," the scarlet-clad lass was eaten by the wolf; the story served to warn children of the dangers of wandering into the woods. However, these days and in fact for many years, most people only know the version of "Little Red Riding Hood" in which the little girl survives, usually rescued by a lumberjack or a hunter.
Different Versions of the Characters. Perhaps you will change the genders, or the ages, or even the species of the original characters.
Different Vibration. You can take a story that is usually serious and make it funny. An example of this is the parody of The Lord of the Rings, known as Bored of the Rings, by the Harvard Lampoon.
Another possibility is to let your writing be influenced by two or more different sources. When she started writing Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling must have been inspired by the endless Enid Blyton books about boarding schools. However, Rowling brought in magic (and a lot of other things), making the story her own. In her novels even she paid homage to others, such as in calling the favorite drink "butterbeer" after one of the characters in The Lord of the Rings, the innkeeper Butterbur.
Combining influences can lead to completely new subgenres. Romance has been combined with fantasy and horror to create love stories with vampires. Other examples of combined influences include time travel romances, paranormal romances, mysteries featuring cats, and historical mysteries. If you are a great fan of two genres or two particular stories, why not mix them together and see what comes out?
The creation of stories does not happen in a vacuum. You can create something new and wonderful if you let yourself be inspired by other works; you can create a richer reading experience for your audience if you incorporate some of these influences.
In general, you should not plagiarize and you should create your own story. However, there is one important exception. In the next article, we'll look at some of the issues that you will encounter when writing fan fiction; that is, if you choose to write a work completely in a world created by another.
Wikipedia on plagiarism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagiarism
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.