Stealing Ideas


When someone says ‘I have a great idea for a novel’, I get apprehensive; ideas are what we create as sentient beings, and don’t amount to anything until they reach corporeal form. So your idea remains an idea until it exists outside of your head in another form. Are there an infinite number of them? The consensus is no, but ideas themselves are infinitely malleable. And that means those of us who turn ideas into products for a living are bound to overlap. But is it stealing when the same ideas appear together?

John Yorke’s refreshingly astringent writing guide ‘Into The Woods’ dares to equate soap operas with Hamlet, and like Christopher Booker in ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ points out that it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts.

There were a thousand magical schoolboy stories before Harry Potter (many of them considerably better) but JK Rowling’s middle-of-the-road path was just what the public wanted. But it’s most decidedly not stealing to use the same idea in a different fashion. Rowling reworked a faded format into something that had fresh relevance for parents and children alike, by combining a nostalgia for the days of rules and formal education with thrills for kids.

And historical rewordings can also be exempt; the US-funded Jeremy Irons series ‘The Borgias’ arrived hard on the heels of the darker, deeper European ‘Borgia’, but the two productions were entirely separate and offer different talks on the same historical material. The latter is the lower budget option, but better. However, when it comes to fiction certain BBC TV writers tread a very thin line between homage and ripping off when they recycle their favourite genre books and films into television fodder.

The latest example of cleverly repackaging old ideas into a new format is John ‘Skyfall’ Logan’s new TV series ‘Penny Dreadful’, which mashes together a number of out-of copyright book plots and characters from Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein to Jack the Ripper (there’s nothing like venerating a real-life murderer to get ratings) and of course, Dracula. So, it’s not exactly the stuff of Penny Dreadfuls but rather of Victoriana reduced to the level of penny dreadfuls by filling each episode with sex and gore.

While there are a lot of writers out there spitting blood over this, I have no problem with it at all. But I do feel bad for those who have been doing exactly the same thing for years. Obviously there was Alan Moore, the comics magpie who’s been pick-n-mixing from established tropes for decades, but also Kim Newman, whose witty spins on these characters have long populated his novels, and there are many other writers who have spent lifetimes producing smart twists on old warhorses.

The difference is that John Logan had the connections and knowhow to sell his repackaged tales of sluts and bolts, and the end result is supposed to be rather good because the title allows us not to take anything too seriously. Like everyone who turfs out sensationalist fare, Logan is anxious to stress that he’s not a pleb; ‘When I’m alone I read Dickens, Thackeray and Dostoevsky.’ The fact remains that what we currently seek is a mix of sex and violence that would once have had TV censors foaming at the mouth; ‘True Blood’, ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘American Horror Story’ have established the fanbase – but there is a problem.

The pouring of old wine into new bottles is fine, but now each added element is required to be a brand, remembered even by Mr and Mrs Thing of Anywhere, and there is a limited supply of stuff that has entered the public conscience. Unfortunately the half-recalled blur of fact and fiction that gets repeatedly used feels distasteful, so that we have the Ripper and Dorian Gray treated as equitable. Imagine present-day brands falling out of copyright in the future, leaving networks free to make a show set in the present day that mixes Daleks, Miley Cyrus and real-life rapist/murderer Fred West –  are you feeling uncomfortable yet?

Just after my novel ‘Spanky’ came out, the brilliant ‘Fight Club’ appeared. It hinges on the exact same plot twist, but of course was not lifted from my book – we all arrive at these ideas separately. You could reduce all romantic novels to ‘One meets another, falls in and out of love, finally commits’ and find a million variations.

When I wrote ‘Hell Train’, did I steal from Hammer? Absolutely not – I invented four brand-new monsters with which to terrorise my cast, and the effort nearly finished me. But my plan is to seed the future with original characters, which is why the upcoming ‘Nyctophobia’ does not borrow from any existing haunted house novel or film I know (and my knowledge of the genre is deep enough to be able to bore for Britain) although it does follow the established rules.

So a good writer like Logan can restitch old ideas into new tapestries. And while I think it’s far more rewarding to make something the world has not seen before, even Bryant and May have precedents of a sort in Charters & Caldicott, Albert Campion and DI Kenny, Mr Calder and Mr Behrens, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

What we do with the template of a story can be utterly original.


3 comments on “Stealing Ideas”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    Is there perhaps also the crystalisation of previously existing slightly vague fictional ideas, i.e. being the writer who finally gets right a trope that has been floating around for years?

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Another good one. These seems particularly fine for your “class” handouts, if you are still intending to tutor want-to-be writers.
    I never talk about ideas I have for a story, as it seems to drain the propulsion away leaving a desiccated crumb that rattles, but no longer attracts thoughts, observations, and extended plot lines..

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Definitely, Dan. An idea for a novel can be anything from a snippet of character, a perfect setting, or a plot twist to end all twists, but when you mention it the listener wants a bit more detail, then more and then critiques it so you have to defend something that was never more than a distant glimmer. At that point you give up the whole thing before you’ve even started.

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