‘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)


16 comments on “‘A Good Idea Has A Thousand Fathers’”

  1. Diane Englot says:

    You know, I was pondering this recently when I saw an episode from the TV show “Whitechapel” that had a serial murderer hiding in the walls of his victims’ houses. I immediately thought, “Wait a minute…that’s Chris Fowler’s Master Builder!”

  2. Martin says:

    On an (somehwat ) unrelated subject-the picture brought it to mind-would it be possible to post pictures of your library sometime where the titles are readable? I’ve gotten some great book recommendations from your blog over the years, and that would be like Christmas before the holidays. (On the other hand, I don’t want to seem too stalky.)

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    To quote (not plagiarise) Newton, we all gather the same shells from the beach and we all stand on someone’s shoulders to gain a better view. What’s important is how well we use the better view to better lay out the shells. And, perhaps, that we honestly acknowledge the poor fellow who’s shoulders were trampled in the process.

  4. Roger says:

    OULIPO, who disclaim originality of plot as a virtue, use the term “pre-emptive plagiarism” for first use.
    One problem is that often the second person to deal with plot-elements does a better job of it. The same applies with words. T.S. Eliot, it’s said, used other people’s words much more originally than they did.

  5. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Eva Ibbotson was much more relaxed about Rowling and Ibbotsons The Secrets of Platform 13.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    There is a desire in many humans to simplify facts, to organise and categorise them. It’s easier to remember things if you can label them. “Right, these authors have written a #3 style book (A, B, and C) but A’s book is all female, B’s has a mixture but the setting is in the north of Canada rather than New York City, while C has a mixed cast set in New York but the time is the 1780s rather than the 1990s.” You can remember all three but probably not details.
    My son brings me up short when I make factual claims about reported events. “Prove it, give me examples.” He ends up telling me I’m being anecdotal and bringing a number of things together that don’t fit. We want to do the same with public figures as we do with books. “A, B, and C have all acted in this way and made similar pronouncements. When examined, A’s and B’s backgrounds were similar and their actions were similar so C is probably doing the same thing.” There’s no proof that the statement is true and there had better be some independent evidence if you’re going to go around making statements based on this form of non-logic. It’s one reason why judges don’t hear about priors until a case is proven and sentencing comes up.
    I’m not sure how strong that analogy is but the desire to categorise and list events and people can spoil the pleasure of the original items brought into a soi-disant generic plot. (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase in a non-French revolution context.)
    I wonder what the 7th plot is. I was always told there were 6 basic plots. Not that I canrecite the 6 because I try to stay away from categorising.

    So how about M. Macron and the Australian P.M’s wife? I suggested to the French teacher this a.m. that “C’est delicieuse a vous voir” and while she laughed she pointed out that to say a woman is “delicieuse” is equivalent to saying that she’s “tasty” so not a good choice of words at all. Hmm?

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    I think George Bernard Shaw said Shakespeare had “the gift of telling a story (provided someone told it to him first)”

  8. Ken Mann says:

    I am sometimes tempted to believe plagiarism claims when the accused author doesn’t seem to understand the implications of their own plot. Of course stupidity is an equally valid explanation.

  9. admin says:

    I’ll post the library pics when I’m back in the country next week.
    Diane, they made a film of my story with Tippi Hedren so I don’t care.
    Martin, you can’t be stalky because my stalker Stalky is stalky.

  10. chazza says:

    I recall there was a disappearing shop in Charles Williams’ “War in Heaven”…

  11. Ian Luck says:

    This is one of the reasons that made me find the ‘Harry Potter’ series so tiresome. Youd read a bit, and think: ‘Hang on, I know this’. Even the name of the school is ‘borrowed’ from an unlikely source – one of Willans and Searle’s ‘Molesworth’ books. Molesworth writes a pla (sic) called ‘THE HOGWARTS’, about a dubious Roman family. I haven’t read the books for ages, but I seem to remember that one of the characters was called ‘SHODDICUS, A USED CHARIOT SALESMAN’.

  12. Denise Treadwell says:

    Helen, I learned French at school and delicieuse was used for food , the same as in English, and I have always used it that way in French. It may now well be a slang word for something sexual .

  13. Denise Treadwell says:

    Upon reflection , his compliment could have meant ,”Food for the eyes “, but he is bad translator .. 🙂

  14. Peter Tromans says:


    According to my wife, who is a very good linguist, the best English translation is ‘delightful’. I guess that it’s not as bad as describing a lady as delicious or tasty, but I’d still be uncomfortable using it.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    I’m with you, Peter. The diplomats were trying to suggest “delightful” but it just doesn’t sit comfortably. It’s making for some interesting multi lingual discussions.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    A simple tale – Boy meets girl, girl eats boy, girl dies of Kuru. That sort of thing.

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