Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

How Original Is Your Story?

by Gabrielle Bradeen Hoyt
©2003, Gabrielle Bradeen Hoyt

 

he subject of how to steal a story has been covered before, in ways much better than I can do, by both Holly Lisle and Gerri Baker -- which is ironic, since the theme of this article is originality. However, I think I can add a new technique to the time-honored tradition of "literary liberation." And that's the point here: to add something new.

This really works best on an actual piece of paper, rather than on the computer or in your head. And remember: be honest with yourself. It's impossible to completely step away from your own work and ego, but do the best you can. Otherwise you'll end up with skewed results. 

THE SEED

Ask yourself: why do I want to write a book based on someone else's? What grabs me? Ask yourself, what one thing about the original story do I love? And you can't say "the plot" or "the characters;" really think about what you love in the original.

This single element is called the seed. It has to be one distinct, concrete thing. Example: if Jurassic Park (the film) is the inspiration, maybe the seed is "dinosaurs" or maybe it's "haywire theme-park" or maybe it's "arrogant chaos theorist."

Decide what it is about the original that you love. When you have it, write it at the top center of your paper. Circle it.  

COLUMNS

You are going to create two columns. On the left-hand side of the paper, write the title of the inspiration story. On the right, put down your title. Underline them.  

CHARACTERS

On the inspiration-story column (hereafter ISC), make a list of the main characters' names. Do the same for your version on the other column.

Now: are any of your characters based directly on the inspiration? Put a star next to those that are.

Next, on the ISC, to the side of each character's name, write down their function in the plot. In the case of Jurassic Park (and this is my example because I have, several times, based my own stories upon it), Alan Grant = hero; Ellie = heroine and Grant's girlfriend; Hammond = well-intentioned villain; dinosaurs = man-eating obstacles. Do the same thing for your column. Do they match up in one or more functions? Put an additional star next to those that do. 

STORY

In the ISC, describe the plot of the original in one sentence.

Example: Jurassic Park again; "A millionaire revives dinosaurs, builds a theme-park around them, and invites visitors to the island, whereupon all hell breaks loose."

In your column, write down your plot as succinctly as possible. 

KEYWORDS

In the ISC, write down various, random keywords and phrases about the inspiration story. Everything you can think of. For Jurassic Park, this would be "dinosaurs, theme-park, chaos theory, paleontologists, kids, raptors, science gone wrong, deaths of many characters, evil computer geek, destroying cars, T. rex," etc…

Underline all the keywords in this list that can be found in your rendition. 

SETTING AND TIME

Write down in what time period the original takes place. Write down what time yours does. Put a star next to yours if they're the same.

Where is the original set? Where is yours? Write them, and then put a star next to yours if they're the same. 

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

First, take a look back at your list. Be honest with yourself here. If you're not, the only person that loses is you. How many elements of your interpretation are identical, with minor alterations, to those in the original? How many stars and underlines do you have?

The point of writing is to tell a story: one that is uniquely yours. There is no point in writing something that someone else has already written. Superficial changes will not hide a theft.

So ask yourself: what can I change? Do not think in terms merely of altering names, or changing location or anything minor. Think big.

Do many of your characters resemble the those of the inspiration? Delete them. You probably don't need them. Does your plot need a toady? Is this toady essential to the plot? How different would the plot be without him? Get rid of all the characters you can.

What did you write for your seed? A story is made up of many seeds. Jurassic Park is, as I've said, "dinosaurs," "haywire theme-park" and "arrogant chaos theorist," among others. But if I've decided that the one thing I love about the original is "arrogant chaos theorist" I don't need the dinosaurs or the theme-park. So get rid of them. Even that vastly changes the theme and plot.

Then, further alter the seed. Make them Nazis or escaped tigers instead of dinosaurs. Why is my arrogant scientist a chaos theorist? Make him a physicist. Make him a woman. Switching genders can be a radical alteration to the narrative: men and women behave differently.

But: every change you make must affect the story. They cannot exist in isolation. You cannot tell Jurassic Park with rampant alien mutants and an arrogant physicist hero. It will not be Jurassic Park. It will be completely different. And that's a good thing.

Everything must spring from the seed. The seed is what your story is about. All the other elements of the inspiration are unnecessary. Tell your tale without them.

 

I highly recommend both of these theft-related articles:

“How to (Legally and Ethically) Steal Ideas” by Holly Lisle at http://www.hollylisle.com/fm/Articles/wc3-3.html

“How to Steal a Story” by Gerri Baker at
http://www.fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue%2015/stealstory.htm