The art of imitation

I’d rather be caught holding up a bank than stealing so much as a two-word phrase from another writer – Jack Smith

Plagiarism is a thorny issue. One where many people agree with the quote above; how could you not? There must be little worse than seeing work that you have sweated blood over being wholesale duplicated by another writer.

Social media has made a couple of cases of alleged plagiarism pretty high-profile recently and shows exactly how strongly people react to the subject. And yet…sometimes I find myself wondering whether new writers can get too paranoid about there being even a perceived whiff of plagiarism about their work.

A lot of people have come up with lists of the basic plots in literature. They don’t all agree on how many there are and I’ve seen suggestions ranging from one (basically all plots revolve around conflict of one sort or another), through three (happy ending, unhappy ending, literary plot where everything is decided by fate) and all the way to 36 courtesy of Georges Polti.  You may well have seen other suggestions.

So, why do I mention it? The number is unimportant, what matters is the wide-spread agreement that there are only so many stories out there to be told and so the chances are that you are going to be writing in the same plot pool as other authors. Given this, how realistic is it to expect that people will always come up with new ways of writing about a given situation? Can we always expect to have completely new things to say? And, honestly, I don’t think so.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the high-profile cases I mentioned earlier involved exact duplication of phrases, conversations and scenes and that is plainly unacceptable and inexcusable. But you love your favourite authors for a reason and will try to learn from them and almost certainly seek to capture some of the same style that you see in their writing. You may even start out working with a similar vocabulary. But, I side with Elmore Leonard who freely admitted to studying and imitating when he first started writing. To my mind, even though it probably fails the test per the quote, this is not a hanging offence. It’s all part of finding your own voice.

Anybody who reads widely will come upon books that are similar, scenarios that they’ve read before, even characters that relate closely to those in other books. As long as there is no conscious and deliberate stealing from somebody else’s work I would not immediately count any of this as plagiarism.

But what do you think?

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