But sometimes that inspiration can go too far. What started out seeming like a gift from the muses can turn out to be an outright copy of another author’s story or even worse, lifting the exact same phrasing as another author to describe the exact same thing. In other words, plagiarism. Here’s the weird thing about it, though. Authors can telegraph characters, sentences or even whole plots from other writers without ever realizing that they’re doing it. It sounds weird, right? But it’s one of those “strange but true” things about writing.
Personally, I think it has to do with the way we acquire language. Who hasn’t heard somebody make a particularly pithy remark and then filed it away for future use? Part of being a good writer at all is being able to create different voices for different characters and that requires a certain amount of automatic and mostly unconscious memorization of other people’s words. During my many years working in a restaurant, I’ve acquired a lot of great phrases that did not originate within me. Here are a few examples:
From a snowboarder: “Turns out, gravity doesn’t work like that.”
From a mechanic: “Let’s get this bad boy up and running.”
And my oft-recycled, perennial favorite, lifted from a pre-med student: “When I say that you’re drunk it’s not an accusation, so much as a statement of fact.”
The way we learn to speak is by hearing others speak. The way we learn to tell a story is, in part, by ingesting the stories of others. Some similarity with existing stories is then, inevitable. It only gets to be a problem when we remember some other story a little too well and too accurately without being aware of the source and then make the mistake of thinking that we made it up ourselves. Careers and reputations are quite easily ruined in this way.
So here I offer a few tips for avoiding the dreaded specter of accidental plagiarism.
- 1. Be suspicious of any story that blooms, suddenly full-formed in your mind, with no critical thought at all. This is a sign that you’ve read or seen it before and should regard it as off-limits without substantial alteration. The one kind of story that can still be used in this circumstance is a story that is so old and well-known that it has become common cultural property, such as mythological or biblical tales.
- 2. Careful scrutinize any story idea that can be described as “X but with gay characters.” What I mean here are ideas like, “Starsky & Hutch, but with gay characters.” Broader ideas such as, “70’s buddy cop story, but with gay characters” are still usable so long as you avoid having them ride around in a gran torino or get information from anyone even remotely resembling Huggy Bear. Also take care to avoid ideas that can described as “my version of” such as “my version of Gone With the Wind” or “my version of Moby Dick.” Rather try and personalize your concept so it becomes “my civil war story” or “my seafaring story.”
- 3. Unless you use quotes and attributions, be especially careful that you do not directly reproduce explanations or descriptions that you find during research. In other words, make sure that you do not take anything word-for-word from a non-fiction source. Travel guides, nature guides, science journals, histories and biographies are very often accidentally plagiarized. This is because the writing in them is very transparent, straightforward and expository and so doesn’t exactly seem to have had a writer. Always remember that all books have writers—even nonfiction ones. So any information gained through them needs to be rewritten in your own words.
Got any thoughts? Questions? Want to know if it’s plagiarism for somebody in your writer’s group to steal your premise? Go ahead, ask me!