You may have seen my tweets about the local writing seminar I attended on Saturday (Sumner, Washington’s Write in the Valley, in case you’re wondering). It was a fun event; small and intimate, with a diverse panel. There were traditionally published authors (Kimberly Derting! Love her books!) and self-published authors, authors of fiction and nonfiction, and a Book Doctor who shared all kinds of useful information.
The audience was full of writers, both starting out and experienced, and some fantastic questions and conversations came up. One topic that seemed to dominate much of the discussion, though, was that of plagiarism. People seemed very afraid of copying another writer’s work (unintentionally, I presume) and getting called out on it down the road. They used gentler words to discuss plagiarism (“borrowing” and “honoring”), but the gist was pretty much the same: How can a writer ensure that their work is original when there’s so much published material already out there?
To be perfectly honest, I’ve never worried about this. There are hundreds of ghost stories on the market, thousands of books set in old houses, innumerable protagonists dealing with the loss of a loved one, countless teens sent to live with relatives, zillions of girls forced to choose between two boys. Yet, I know my story, Where Poppies Bloom, is unique. It’s told from my perspective, with my life experiences to back it up. My characters are original, the setting is my own creation, and my inimitable author voice carries the story. I did the creative work to draft, revise, edit Poppies, and I’m certain that no one else has written (or will write) a story quite like it. Nobody can tell Callie’s story the way I can.
People have been writing stories since they dwelled in caves. To think that you’ve come up with an idea that’s never been done is a little presumptuous and a lot arrogant. My mom and I were just talking about this the other day: She mentioned that every piece of women’s or literary fiction she’s picked up lately has been about a middle-aged, middle-class woman with a cheating husband who has to rebuild her life from scratch. Gosh, I feel like I’ve read that book one or two (or one-hundred) times.
I mean, really… How many fictional YA girls are there out there who have an exceptional ability and are fated to save the world? How many dangerous paranormal boys have we seen fall in love with a Mary Sue? Was Stephenie Meyer the first author to write about vampires? Of course not. Before her was Anne Rice, and before her was Bram Stoker, and before him was John William Polidori. I’m willing to bet every subsequent author drew inspiration from those who came before them. But did they commit an act of plagiarism? No way. They each gave the old vampire tale a spin of their own. Edward Cullen sparkles in the sun… didn’t you hear?
That said, there are only so many basic plots. I’ve found arguments for the idea that there is only one (ONE!) plot with millions of variations. I’ve also seen research that claims there are three (The Basic Patterns of Plot by William Foster-Harris), seven (The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker), twenty (20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias), and thirty-six (Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti).
We can subscribe to whatever idea of maximum number of basic plots we want. What’s important is that we embrace that fact that, when boiled way down, there are only so many original ideas. Every story, at its very core, can be sorted into one of these: man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. the environment, man vs. machines/technology, man vs. the supernatural, man vs. self, or man vs. god/religion. It’s what we DO with the fundamental “plot” we choose that makes our stories innovative and imaginative and memorable and ours.
Tell me… What, in your opinion, makes a story unique?