Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Borrowing plots from other books

A reader e-mailed me to ask: Sometimes I find myself borrowing from plots of other books. Is that bad? How do I stop that?

In certain situations, yes, it’s bad. Plagiarizing is taken super seriously and can totally destroy careers. So, if you’re writing as a career, then yeah, I’d avoid it.

If you’re in high school (which this question-asker is) or still just testing the waters with this whole “writing thing”, then it can be an okay tool to use for now if it’s not something you plan to publish. It can be a good way to stretch creative muscles, particularly if you examine what it is that makes this particular plotline so good. You can use that as a springboard to come up with plots of your own that do the same thing, just in a more “you” kind of way.

For example, say you’ve just read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and you now want to write a time travel romance of your own. There’s nothing wrong with kicking around the idea for about 30 pages or so and seeing what you come up with. (I call this “wroodling.” Doodling, but for writers.) But if you want to do something more than wroodle, I’d suggest instead studying Ms. Niffenegger’s fabulous work and doing some deep thinking about what makes that story so fabulous, why it hits home, etc. And then, with the answers you come up with, craft a story idea of your own.

All writers study the work of other writers. (Or they don’t, if they should.) When a book particularly touches you, or when a phrase really sings, take time to notice and dwell on it. Is it the word choice? The symbolism? The tone?

Like right now I’m reading Julie Klassen’s The Silent Governess, which is a fabulous read. She used the phrase, “He sat in a puddle of sunshine,” and I just LOVE that. I’ve never seen that used before. Am I going to steal it? No. It’s Julie’s, and even if nobody ever noticed that I took it from her, I would know and that’d be enough. So instead, I sat there and thought about different ways to describe the scene. (A slice of sunshine, a pool of sunshine, a splash of sunshine, etc.)

So the way to “grow out of” borrowing plots and such from other writers is to instead study them, then think of the way you would say or change it. Your uniqueness is the best thing you bring to your story.

Have a question? E-mail me, and I'll do my best to answer.


  1. It should also be noted that there are officially a limited number of plot lines, so even our "original" ones could be accused of being "borrowed" from someone else. (Like Shakespeare--I think he used them all, LOL.)

    You certainly don't want to copy particular plot points. But some themes are necessarily present if you want to write a particular genre. Like Romance 101: Boy meet girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again. Millions of books share that basic setup, and it's okay to use it. The trick is to use it in a way no one else has before. =)

    My first book was very much based on another book in my first draft. As I developed it in later drafts, I took out all those aspects that were far, far too specific to the inspiring work and replaced them with twists all my won. The basic theme of "girl displaced from home, falls in love with man who takes her to new home" remained the same. The details? All my own.

  2. Roseanna makes several excellent points. (Girl, why I don't run every post by you is a mystery.) There are only so many themes in the world. It's all about your unique twist.

  3. Totally!(I don't have anything thoughtful to suggest, like Rosemary...but I really enjoyed the post!) I have no idea why I wrote that in brackets. Bad writing, huh? :P