Stolen Plots: Myth and Menace

by Jacob M. Appel

Everyone in the writing business long enough will encounter some version of the Great Plot Caper. A disgruntled, mid-list writer one meets at a conference will reveal that he once sent a manuscript about his disaffected adolescence to Little, Brown and two years later J. D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye. Or a cousin at a holiday dinner will boast that he “shopped around” the first ten pages of his World War II screenplay, which featured several brothers, and Stephen Spielberg later pinched the premise for Saving Private Ryan.
These stories belong to a class of ubiquitous claims that connect personal experience to the culture-at-large: “My elementary school teacher was on the short-list to fly aboard the Challenger” or “My accountant uncle did favors for Al Capone” or “John F. Kennedy made a pass at my grand-aunt.” As implausible as these tales are in the particular, it is indeed possible that President Kennedy made a pass at somebody’s grand-aunt—so, as a listener, one cannot question the assertion. The same is true for claims of idea theft and intellectual property infringement, but the result proves far more pernicious. Since nobody dares challenge the lament of the plot-snatch victims, aspiring writers live in fear that their own ideas stand in constant peril.
In my many years leading an introductory fiction course for adults, the most frequent question I am asked on day one—either at the end of the class session or, more often, in private—is, How can I keep other people from stealing my ideas? By “other people,” these frightened neophytes may mean publishers and agents, but as often they are worried about the integrity of their fellow students. I have even had students inform me directly, “I’m not going to bring my novel to workshop, because I’m afraid someone else will use my ideas.” Needless to say, such prophylactic secrecy prevents many a promising manuscript from receiving the feedback it deserves. Yet what I emphasize to my students is that their fears are unfounded. The Great Plot Caper is a canard.
In my novel The Biology of Luck, guru Ziggy Borasch has written a book titled Fate, Fluke & Happenstance that seeks to disprove the concept of coincidence. In the text within a text, Borasch describes a man who watches an action movie and discovers that the license plate on the getaway car is the same as that of his own vehicle, and he is dumbfounded by the “coincidence.” What Borasch then explains is that this is not a coincidence, but rather a statistical likelihood. After all, this same man has probably watched hundreds or even thousands of movies in which the license plates did not match his own. And this particular license plate did not match his phone number or his mother’s birthday or the street address of his summer home.
The planet, in short, is boiling over with random numbers—and we only notice those that do not appear random to us. Similarly, the world teems with thousands of plots, most of them recycled. When one of these plots appears similar to a previous idea of our own, we instantly conclude that some form of duplicity has been involved. More often, two creative souls, working against the identical cultural backdrop, have arrived at the same idea independently. Biologists are well-familiar with this concept, which explains how squids and mammals have come to possess analogous camera eyes or why dolphins and crows are both far more intelligent than their common ancestors. In science, they term this convergent evolution. In the arts, the knee-jerk reaction is to label this theft.
One might ask: Why does this matter? Even if stolen plots are few and far between, does any harm come from keeping one’s ideas secret? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. To my thinking, Plot Paranoia is a major impediment for aspiring writers, creating at least three distinct barriers to improving their craft.
The first danger of Plot Paranoia is that it fosters the misguided notion that the success or failure of a literary work stems primary from its underlying idea. If this were indeed true, then locking the magic recipe in a safe until the date of publication might make some sense.
Alas, as Edison said of invention, creating a successful story or novel is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. The execution is what sells a manuscript, not the concept. That is presumably why agents and editors ask to see a finished work, rather than sample chapters, before making a bid. I am very confident that, if asked to write a novel about two young men rafting down the antebellum Mississippi, my finished product would not read nearly as well as Huckleberry Finn. That is why Mark Twain is a household name and I teach adult writing courses to supplement my income.
While a good premise may prove necessary for a polished work of fiction, such a premise is never sufficient. And such premises abound in the ether. Shakespeare and Boccaccio offer lots of ready-made ideas, most of which they appropriated from their predecessors, if you cannot conjure up your own. Not only will no editor reject your otherwise brilliant novel because the plot is derived from Shakespeare, she is unlikely even to recognize the similarity.
The second negative consequence of Plot Paranoia is that most developing stories benefit from the insight and feedback of other readers. One of the primary reasons for the success of the “workshop model” in teaching creative writing is that this approach recognizes the importance of multiple and varied perspectives. In a distant era, those diverse views were sometimes offered by teams of editors at publishing houses who passed around manuscripts and dished out wisdom to their star authors. Today, when, for many aspiring writers, even meeting an editor is as difficult as obtaining an audience with the Queen of Finland, friends and fellow students are often the best available resource for such input. Keeping one’s manuscript hermetically sealed inside a vacuum safe or stashed under one’s mattress runs the risk of producing a draft that appeals only to an audience of one.
Finally, the greatest threat posed by Plot Paranoia is its menace to the development of a community of writers. While literary imaginations are often sustained on the legend of the solitary genius—Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Harper Lee in Monroeville, Thomas Pynchon in points unknown—the reality is that the creative process must be, for most, a social endeavor. As a writer, one lives in the world, retreats from the world briefly to record the knowledge gleaned from one’s lived experiences, then returns to society again. In the particularly challenging environment faced by aspiring and emerging writers at present—and maybe it was never any different—a network of fellow writers strikes me as being as essential for literary perseverance as an adequate supply of paper.
AWP, Poets & Writers, MFA programs, colonies and literary journals serve as the infrastructure for a grand web of fellow artists with whom one can share and commiserate and gloat. Or one can choose not to do so. Regrettably, if one cannot reveal the plot of one’s ongoing project, and this project is the primary focus of one’s intellectual life, becoming a contributing member to a community of writers seems rather challenging.
For the particularly insecure writer, a handful of strategies do exist for protecting oneself from the theft of one’s actual text. While a text is copyright protected the moment the author puts letters on a page, registering with the Copyright Office in Washington can provide additional proof of authorship—and, at least in theory, might increase the damages one can earn for infringement.
A far easier means of establishing authorship is to incorporate a few personal details into each work that a pretender will have a difficult time explaining. I often include the names of my summer camp counselors and former crushes in the text, using them for minor characters, incidental produce brands, and similar inconsequential proper nouns. Anyone purporting to have written my novel will have a headache explaining how the law firm in the text, Minard, Spilman & Welter, is named after my second, third and fourth grade teachers.
These techniques are far more effective—albeit unnecessary—than mailing yourself the manuscript in a sealed envelope, which really proves nothing, other than that you know how to mail a package.
Occasionally, some misguided soul does attempt to pilfer actual text from a fellow writer. Many readers are probably familiar with the bizarre tale of former Princeton University student Ung Lee, who turned in Seth Shafer’s award-winning story “Main Strength” as part of his own undergraduate thesis; similarly, the tragedy of Harvard’s Kaavya Viswanathan pilfering passages for How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life from literary heavyweight Megan McCafferty is a healthy cautionary tale for those who aspire to publish for the wrong reasons.
Yet while you can copyright text, you cannot copyright a plot or a concept—which makes these creations more difficult to protect. Alas, it is also much easier to come up with concepts than to write strong prose, which is why other authors will not get very far pinching yours. And as for the J. D. Salingers and Stephen Spielbergs of the world stealing your brilliant ideas? Quite frankly, they do not need to. People like them have plenty of brilliant ideas of their own.
At present, I am writing a novel about a high school history teacher asked to infiltrate a band of Civil War deniers and a publishing entrepreneur who markets a line of Mohammed the Prophet coloring books for schoolchildren. I think these concepts are darn original. But you are welcome to take them and use them as your own. If you are able. I cannot say with certainty that my novel will prove any better than yours—whatever “better” means—but it will certainly prove different, even if premised on an identical idea. You don’t even have to steal the premise. Consider it a gift.
This essay originally appeared in Passages North.