Plagiarism or Story-telling?


I recently read an article concerning yet another case of plagiarism, this time involving a fiction writer.   Plagiarism involving works of fiction is far less common than non-fiction for several reasons.  Most often when we hear about cases of plagiarism it concerns ostensibly non-fiction writing where the writer involved has either used the words of another writer without proper attribution, or created a story out of thin air and attempted to pass it off as factual.

The situation I was reading about dealt with a writer who apparently copied almost verbatim entire novels by other authors, making only minor changes to names of characters and such-like.  From what I could gather from the article – and I should state here that I did no real research into the facts of the case – the writer in question would take a published hetero romance novel, change a few names, and publish it as a gay romance novel.  Specific plot lines, settings, even personal descriptions of characters were copied in toto, as was large blocks of dialogue.

I’m not going to go into a lengthy dissertation on plagiarism here.  That is not the topic for today.  However, that article on plagiarism did set currents in motion in my thoughts that led to this post.

I mentioned above that plagiarism in fiction writing is relatively uncommon for several reasons.  Among those reasons is that fact that in one very narrow sense of the word, all of us who are creative writers are plagiarizing the work of the story tellers who have gone before us.  I submit to you that all of us who are creating our tales of ‘original fiction’ are copying the same stories that many others have told many times before.  Now, before you heat up the tar and feathers, consider the following musings.

In many different times and places, classes and articles I have taken or read, the topic of plots invariably comes up.  How many different ‘plots’ are there?  And is it possible to come up with a new one?  The general consensus of opinion after considerable discussion usually boils down to only a very few plots, and there haven’t been any new ones in a very long time.  I recall one creative writing class in which the instructor boiled down the suggested plots to only nine.  And, no, I do not recall that particular list.  The list that I do recall is even shorter – three basic plots!

In 1947, Fantasy Press issued a limited edition entitled “Of Worlds Beyond”, edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach.  This was a symposium of essays by seven of the leading authors of science fiction and fantasy at that time.  The seven authors were asked to contribute their opinions on one phase or another of the genre that was coming to be known as ‘speculative fiction’.  Today we call it science fiction and fantasy.  The limited edition sold out rapidly and became a collector’s item.  It was reissued in 1964 by Advent Publishers with subsequent re-printings.  I have a copy of the third paperback printing of October 1971.  Those of you who are familiar with the field of SF & F will recognize the authors who contributed to this little book:  Robert A. Heinlein, John Taine, Jack Williamson, A. E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, Edward E. Smith, Ph.D., and John W. Campbell, Jr.  It is a list of the cream of the “Who’s Who” in speculative fiction in the mid-twentieth century.

In his article entitled “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction”, Heinlein opined that ‘human-interest’ stories, as opposed to ‘gadget’ stories were more likely to be picked up by editors of the general interest magazines of the day, which paid much better than the ‘pulp’ magazines devoted to science fiction.  Heinlein also noted that this was the type of story that he himself preferred to write.  It was in this article that Mr. Heinlein noted his list of basic plots.

“A story is an account which is not necessarily true but which is interesting to read.

There are three main plots for the human interest story:  boy-meets-girl, The Little Tailor, and the man-who-learned-better.  Credit the last category to L. Ron Hubbard; I had thought for years there were but two plots – he pointed out to me the third type.”

A quick aside here, before I return to the main point of today’s post.  If you are a writer of fiction, or a reader of fiction who wants to better understand the stories you read, I highly recommend you try to find a copy of this little book.  No, I wll not loan you my copy.  However, I did find it listed at Amazon, though it was the 1974 printing.  I learned more from this little book than from any single class in creative writing I have ever taken.

Just for the fun of it, I have on various occasions analyzed stories by many different authors in many different genres.  I have yet to find one that could not be reduced to its essentials as one of the three categories listed above.

If, for the sake of discussion, we can agree that there are only three – or five, seven, or nine – basic plots, then we are all of us recycling those basic plots.  All of the stories we tell have been told before.

If you write science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein probably wrote a story using those tropes half a century ago.  If he didn’t, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke did.  Heinlein acknowledged that he got his stories from Kipling, H. G. Wells, and others.  Asimov, in selling his “Foundation” stories to John W. Campbell, Jr., explained that it was a recasting of Gibbons’ “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”.

Ah, but you write fantasy.  If it is ‘sword and sorcery’, you should read Heinlein’s “Glory Road”, written in 1963.  Urban fantasy?  Heinlein, “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”, 1959.  Middle Earth and faerie?  J. R. R. Tolkien’s notebooks for his works “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings”, and “The Silmarillion” are dated back to 1917.

Mysteries are your forte, you say?  Edgar Allen Poe defined the mystery story, police procedurals, and the horror genre, all prior to his death at age 40 in 1849.  Romance?  Jane Austin published “Sense and Sensibility” in 1811.  Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” was published in 1847.

But you can take a step further back and find at least a foreshadowing of these tales in Shakespeare.  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1590’s has all the elves and fairies you want.  “Romeo and Juliet” is the definition of romance, though the comedies “Twelfth Night” and “Merchant of Venice” present romance with happier endings.

However, you can look even further back to find the beginnings of the tales we tell today.  Shakespeare’s tales find their seeds in earlier works.  The Classic Greek playwrights lend their influence down the ages, as do such tales as “Beowulf” and “Roland”.

Story-telling has its origins in all likelihood with our earliest ancestors sitting around campfires.  We are the inheritors of a long tradition, both oral and written.  And story-tellers is what we who write creative fiction really are.  The mere fact that the plots we use today have been used over and again for thousands of years does not diminish what we bring to the story.  Though the story we tell today was told many times before, it has never before been told in our voice.

And that, Gentle Reader, is why our stories are really ours.  It is our voice bringing an old tale to new life.  It is the little quirks of our writing, the unique combination of often-used words, the rhythm and flow, the rise and fall of our unique voice that makes the story uniquely ours.


3 thoughts on “Plagiarism or Story-telling?

  1. You make some good points here. I began to recognize this back in the days of the old television Manix Series that I’ve recognized in virtually every detective series whether private detective, or PD Detective. That is, usually by the third season at the latest, the investigations (storylines) are no longer focused on events of a client or victim. By the third season they’ve exhausted the robberies, murders, blackmail and the usual run of the mill mayhem so they without fail, end up with storylines where the “victim” being involved is now the detective or his family.

    This is when I know the series is going to end up being cancelled soon. You can only regurgitate for so long before you’re devoid of anything further to belch out and the series gets boring and predictable, loses viewers and goes the way of the dinosaur.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for stopping by my site, and for taking time to leave a comment. I agree that television seems to have difficulty in finding a new way to tell old stories. Perhaps that partially explains why I watch almost no television anymore. Hope to see you here again. The coffee is always on.


  3. Your observations are right on, Jay! The older I get and the more fiction I read, the more obvious it becomes that each story is a unique version of an old one. That doesn’t diminish the enjoyment, however. I still look forward to immersing myself in the unique setting, identifying with the unique voices of the characters, and waiting for that final twist and resolution of the plot. We are all human, obviously, and so are wired with the same basic emotions. Kudos to all of you who write fiction – or even nonfiction! Your experiences may be unique, but they resonate with our own experiences, and we are all the better for it.


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