‘A Good Idea Has A Thousand Fathers’
How often have you read a book and become convinced that you’ve read it somewhere before? Sometimes a particular scene will resonate and I’ll go searching for another version of it. In his immense volume ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ Christopher Booker argued that there are only seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling.
Why are we programmed to imagine stories in these ways? How do they relate to the patterns of human psychology? Booker drew on examples from Proust to Christie, the Marquis de Sade to E.T., and yes, it seems that most stories revert to a folk memory, a set framework of journeys, revenges and rewards, love and enmity. Like artists, great writers often homage previous works which influenced them.
While performing in ‘The Frozen Deep’, Charles Dickens was given a play to read called ‘The Dead Heart’ by Watts Phillips which had the historical setting, storyline and climax that Dickens used in ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘. The play was produced while ‘Tale‘ was being serialized in ‘All the Year Round’ and led to talk of plagiarism.
But it doesn’t seem likely that Dickens was influenced by the play so much as by historical fact, and any novel dealing with the French Revolution seems destined to end at the foot of the guillotine, so there’s an established pattern. Dickens was more influenced by books from Thomas Carlyle and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. His novel feels as if it is about London, not Paris, and famously EM Forster called his characters flat, not rounded (ie they only had one feature apiece) which means that we tend to notice plot more.
Characters are timeless archetypes, while plots are blueprints. If I say to you I’ve written a book in which a girl meets a boy, falls in love, breaks up and gets back with him you won’t think I’ve stolen it because it’s what millions of authors have written about in a million different ways. But if I write a novel in which the residents of an apartment building start to kill each other, you’ll says it’s ‘High Rise’ by JG Ballard.
Dan Brown won his case against the writers of ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ because it was argued that technically speaking he only lifted historical facts (although I personally think he was very close to the boundary between research and theft). As Malcolm Gladwell argues, the clever part was parlaying the facts into a novel, however ludicrous the result. You’ll find the strange story of Frank Baker and ‘The Birds’ here. It would appear that Du Maurier lifted the idea from Baker but it’s unprovable now, and that’s usually true of similar ideas.
In 2004, JK Rowling was accused of stealing ideas from Adrian Jacob’s book, ‘The Adventures of Willy the Wizard’. Jacob’s estate suggested that parts of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’ were plagiarised, but the Court of Appeal ordered them to pay the first stage of £1.5m as security for costs, and because no payment was ever made the claim failed. Every really successful author is hit with such claims. The problem is a typical one; Rowling was hardly the first person to tell a tale of a magical schoolboy, but that does not mean all tales of magical schoolboys are copied from one another. Certain topics obsess us in every era and are written about by many, so there are always overlapping ideas.
The biggest problem I have with a lot of crime and mystery novels is that they get away with the most worn-out storylines by simply changing the setting. But if I read the plot of Roger Ackroyd switched to outer space I still recognise it as Roger Ackroyd. The challenge is to try and come up with new ideas. When I wrote ‘The Victoria Vanishes’ I knew I was homage g someone else’s idea; Edmund Crispin came up with a disappearing shop. However, you don’t steal from your heroes, so I took the basic idea and turned it inside out.
But too many modern books are shallow copies. It takes an author like Magnus Mills to create something like no other book, and his new novel, ‘The Forensic Records Society’ is wonderful; a fable, a study of power and masculinity, a spin on Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’? No, it’s simply an original idea. Although if anyone can explain what the last paragraph means I’d be grateful!
(The photo is another of my bookcases)