Why no one is going to write your story (unless they literally steal your idea)

Here’s a fear that will keep a writer up at night: what if someone writes the same story you’re writing and finishes before you do?

Ever experience that one? What’s worse is when, on occasion, we see it sort of happen (I’m thinking of the simultaneous Capote movies that came out a few years ago). Confirmation that if we don’t hurry up and write our story then someone else is going to beat us to the punch, and we’ll have done all that work for nothing.

This is one of those unfounded fears, one of the many, that we talk about over and over when discussing all of the things that stop us from actually writing. As a youth I stopped, more than once, from getting on with my work just because in my imagined defeat someone else was already ahead of me in telling the same story.

Oh those wasted years.

The truth is, the chance that anyone is going to tell the same story you are is nearly impossible. The percentages go up if this is a retelling of another well-known story, or if the tale is about a famous person as in our Capote example, but even so there is virtually no chance anyone is going to tell your story. There are simply too many variables.

We all know that there’s nothing new under the sun, and it turns out there’s not much new under the moon either, yet the world churns out thousands upon thousands of stories a day. Intriguing, detailed stories of human interest, filling literary journals, magazines, newspapers, television, movies, etc. Where do these stories come from?

It’s hard to remember as a novice writer that, in time, with lots of practice and hard work, something will happen, a transition will occur in the individual life, to give breath to your unique voice. And like snowflakes and killer whales, human beings are as different from one another, in thoughts, feelings, experiences and memories, as can be. Different but the same. For while our moment by moment sense of the world around us differs from that of our neighbor, all people understand just the same what it’s like to experience things in that human way. With writing, as with any art, these experiences come through for others to share, so that even without living a particular experience or emotion, we the audience can still understand what that feeling is like, because we share the human vehicle and all of its potential.

This is why we fear that others are going to tell our tale. But outside of stealing the very specific details of the story we are trying to write, no one can anticipate the unique voice and nature of others, a critical component in the great story-telling milieu. In time our voice might be imitated, a great honor, but no one else can really “be” who we are, nor can they say what we have to say.

One of two things is bound to happen when you sit down to write. 1) You may write a story that never quite develops, or never quite finds traction, and therefore doesn’t really go into the world to be seen by anyone (and therefore cannot be stolen except by a “friend”), or 2) you will write an outstanding story and it will be accepted and it will go into the world and people will see it and recognize the great work you’ve done (and some will even deign to criticize you and try to make you feel horrible, which is also great!).

There is one caveat to all of this attitude of “be free and worry not” – we should still be careful about revealing too much of an idea to the wrong people. Our ideas can spark others who may indeed manage to come out ahead of us with something very close to what we are writing. While rare it is possible that someone might steal our idea. A cheap ripoff of a great idea will become the idea if indeed it gets out ahead of us. This, however, is nothing to fear but rather to manage in our day-to-day explanation to others who ask that old question “what do you write?” Give em all the generic detail you can muster. Keep the spoilers to yourself.

The bottom line, finally, is that all we have are our stories, and as writers these are what we must tell. There is no more use in worrying about someone telling our story than there is in worrying that others will think we’re hacks, talent-less and hopeless wasters of time. We hear that all the time already.

Just do what you do, and remember, like we discussed recently, that writing develops at its own pace. Sit down, do your work, and stop worrying already. There’s revision to be done!

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4 comments on “Why no one is going to write your story (unless they literally steal your idea)

  1. jcollyer says:

    Another great post as always. I have known writers who have had this fear, and the more potent idea that if they get their work published people will actively steal their ideas. I’ve known it stop people sharing their work. I sort of say, chances are, they won’t. Writers can be an arrogant lot. The young and emerging ones can be anyway. They tend to be proud of their work and often feel that copying others is beneath them or that their own ideas are ‘bigger, better, moer unique’ . Well, sometimes anyway. Or, the flip side is, if it’s good it *will* influence people. Out-and-out stealing is unlikely, but someone might take an idea and make it their own. It’s a chance you take. But, really, if you’ve had an idea that’s good enough to be used by others, I’d say you should be proud 🙂

    • emperort says:

      Thanks, JC. Man we’re a good lot at coming up with things to be afraid of that make us quit working. No wonder Hemingway lived on the edge. If he hadn’t he might have given up, too!

  2. When the movie “Inception” was first advertised, my heart sank. I had spent years working on “If Souls Can Sleep,” a novel chock full of sleep phenomena, including individuals who have the ability to enter others’ dreams. I worried that the film would cast my book in a poor light, making me look like a copycat to some degree — even though I had started working on “Souls” long before “Inception” went public.

    Of course I went to watch the movie, dreading the inevitable comparisons I might draw between that screenplay and my novel.

    In the end, my fears proved unfounded. The premise didn’t tread too near the territory of my book, despite some similarities in the pseudo-science of shared dreaming. I left the theater with the confidence that my work would not come off as derivative and optimism that there is, in fact, an audience for complicated, speculative plots — and, hopefully, for science fiction that reads like literature.

    I’m not sure I’ll ever shake the impulse to Google ideas to make sure no one has already attempted what I aim to do. But I have to agree that no two writers will ever manage the same story in precisely the same way.

    • emperort says:

      Man, yeah, that’s a little disconcerting. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing a search to see if other ideas are out there. As part of my research I try to find other books similar to mine in part to avoid the same trap and in part to see how those writers handled certain technicals. And has been discussed, reading far and wide also gives us a good sense of what has been written. Sadly books are like movies, and there are a lot of them out there that aren’t worth spending the entire 90 minutes (or 250 pages) on. Still, even a daily skim of various new publications gives one a really good idea about what’s out there. And what’s out there? As far as I can tell about 90% of everything published in short literary fiction is written by the same person.

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