A wise woman (Actually, it was my novelist mother, but I’ve recently started to think that adults shouldn’t start sentences with “My mom said…”) once told me that there was only one plot in the world. This is not an original assertion, but her way of putting it is my favorite. She said, “There is only one plot. Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”
I said, of course—as you will—“But that’s two plots!” And then she said, “No, it’s the same journey seen from two different perspectives.”
Whether you think there’s only one plot, or two, or seven (a common claim), there is not an infinite number, only infinite variation in the possible ways to tell them. That infinite variation is what makes me believe what I believe about story sharing, namely that writers don’t need to compete over ideas. The same idea in two different hands is not the same story (which is also why you can’t copyright ideas, only the execution of them).
When I was a kid, the wise woman told me that she and I didn’t need to worry about laying claim to our ideas. We could both write about anything we wanted to, and there would never be any danger that we would write the same book. We didn’t, however, actually try it until quite recently, when she submitted a list of ideas to an agent who was interested in working with her from the genesis to the completion of a novel. I helped her make the list. She came up with the ideas, and I helped her flesh them out.
One idea on the list stuck with me: There’s a hit-and-run, and the driver of the car leaves the scene but can’t get the victim out of his thoughts. My mom has a dark mind, and in her version, the driver is consumed by guilt and drawn increasingly into the lives of the victim’s family members, eventually losing perspective and neglecting his own family.
In my version, it’s a romance novel (of course). It’s not a hit-and-run, it’s a meet-cute! Nobody dies, the hit-and-run victim is injured, not killed, and nobody goes off the deep end—the driver just dabbles in legal trouble.
We both started writing—she, her dark drama, and I, my romance—and it was apparent from the get-go that the stories were unrecognizably different. She had dark roads and broken marriages and brooding protagonists. I had a misguided sister with an abusive boyfriend, a family on the brink of patching up its long-standing issues, and a heroine ready to forgive.
And here’s the punchline: She didn’t end up finishing her book because she decided it wasn’t viable, and I ended up cutting the hit-and-run incident out of my romance novel because I decided it wasn’t a functioning subplot. As a result? No hit-and-run accident books. No overlap. No problem.
With the exception of the wise woman, I don’t borrow other people’s stories. I don’t think profligate plot sharing (writerly communism?) works in all communities. But I do like that our little experiment reinforced my belief in how infinitely rich stories are, and how little need we have to feel panicky or covetous. The stories won’t run out. They won’t run away from us. And as long as we write from our hearts, we don’t need to worry about telling a story that’s already been told—only about telling it again, and better this time.
What about you? Have you ever knowingly told a story that’s already been told—a retelling for example? Have you ever asked a friend if you can “have” an idea whose ownership is dubious? Have you ever fought with someone over an idea?