Lucinda Elliot

The basic plots


My lovely friend Lauryn April (lovely in all senses of the word) recently wrote a blog post about plagiarism and every author’s fear of being accused of ‘copying’ ideas, characters, key situations, etc.

I found it thought provoking; it is excellently written and well worth any author’s reading. It is absurd that readers and reviewers should accuse writers of stealing ideas, characters, etc, for one simple reason – there are no original plots or characters.

Another writer friend, Mari Biella, was kind enough to state recently that she thought that in deliberately using cliché in my e book ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’ I had managed to make the problem of the hackneyed in the horror genre into a strength, and I was immensely flattered.

That is my way of coping with the problem, the sideways wink at the readership:

Lord Ynyr: I would remind you, Lucien, that we are not in a Gothic novel now.
Lucien: That is hard to believe, Your Lordship, down at Plas Planwydden.

However, we can’t always be revelling in the clichéd, and this is a problem that worries a lot of writers, so on this question of originality…

Now, when I started writing this article, I thought I was going to be a wise guy and write down a list of the basic plots, which were famously set out by someone about two hundred years ago and which are general.

I thought I had the list to hand in the one interesting thing in a boring How To booklet from a writing course from a body I won’t name full of sententious advice that I bought years ago, hated, and didn’t finish – but if I do have that booklet, it’s up in the attic somewhere, and the one I have to hand doesn’t list them.

This being so, I’ll have to work them out myself. I think it said, thirteen. Hmm. I suppose, thinking about it, as all the how to books emphasize conflict, all the plots are essentially about different sorts of conflict. (nobody emphasizes that better than James N Frey in ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’. he won’t hear me, but thank you, James N Frey; love that attitude!)

Conflict as man loves women, she doesn’t love him.
Conflict as women loves man, he doesn’t love her.
Conflict as though man and women love each other, there are external problems.
Conflict over loss of honour or social status and trying to regain it.
Conflict over seeking honour and social status
Conflict with nature
Conflict with the supernatural
Conflict with other people, family, etc
Conflict over loss of friendship
Conflicts caused by loss and time
Conflicts caused by clashes with authority, the law, the army, etc
Conflict, conscious or unconscious, within the protagonist’s own self
Conflict over unattainable goal
Conflict over goal attained and no longer desired

This is all just off the top of my head, and I’m sure I’ve left important ones out. Now, that just about wore me out; I don’t like thinking too much these days. Anyway, you get the general idea; plots are very general.

Now I’ve got a list from the web, which was the one I thought I had to hand; here it is.

1. Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
2. Deliverance
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
5. Pursuit
6. Disaster
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
8. Revolt
9. Daring Enterprise
10. Abduction
11. The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
12. Obtaining
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
16. Madness
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
25. Adultery
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
30. Ambition
31. Conflict with a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgement
34. Remorse
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved Ones.

Much better than mine, I think, and it inspires you at once; but again, you see what I mean. That is all the plots there are; thirty-six…

What fills them out is characterisation, historical setting, vocabulary, humour, style, etc.

And here the minefield begins. How many original characters are there?

None again. I suppose we MIGHT write about an original character, if we wrote about someone, say, whose only interest in life was keeping a pet spider, who had an obsessive need to count pillar boxes, and who went about wearing a pair of football boots, a grass skirt, and a top hat – but how many people would want to read about such an individual? (On this note, I have to say that I always wanted to read a story someone described to me about a man who did nothing but sit with his feet up all day resting on a door knob; I was never able to track this story down; I don’t think even my friend Thomas Cotterill could, though he located ‘The Outcast of the Family’ for me).

How many original situations are there? Very few again, unless we chose to write about something totally recondite.

So, if we want to write about people who have a reasonable appeal, and write about interesting situations, by definition we must write about something that has been used before – many times; many, many times.

The whole thing is, how this theme is treated.

As Lauryn says – it isn’t plagiarism to use an idea that has been used recently, because almost certainly that idea was explored several times before that recent use of it.
The originator of the vampire story was not Bran Stoker in ‘Dracula’, or Sheridan la Fanu in ‘Carmilla’ or the writer of ‘Varney the Vampire’ J M Rymer, or even Dr Polidori in his novella ‘The Vampyre’ written in a competition with Lord Byron and Shelley. We have no idea who it was – the traditional vampire legends in Eastern Europe go back many centuries.

So I don’t think reviewers should be eager to accuse writers of ‘copying ideas’ too quickly. As Lauryn says, it can’t be avoided.

12 Responses

  1. This topic never wears out, Lucinda. Most writers fear inadvertent or unconscious plagiarism. The consequences of denunciation can be severe. I can remember two famous instances where serious accusations of plagiarism were flying thick and fast.

    Robert W. Burda, an English professor at Illinois Wesleyan University had his novel dropped by Book-of-the-Month Club (and later quit his post amid scandal) after a reviewer accused him of plagiarizing Somerset Maugham’s *The Painted Veil*. Burda claims he was debunking Maugham’s “sexist” novel and had to borrow here and there in order to do the send-up. He was probably right, but that did not save him.

    Here in Canada, Colleen McCullough’s novel, *The Ladies of Missalonghi* (1989) was greeted with howls of indignation and emotional accusations that the Australian author had pirated Lucy Maude Montgomery’s *The Blue Castle*. (Montgomery, of Anne of Green Gables fame, is legend here.) McCullough replied that she had based her novel on her real-life aunt’s experiences in Australia. I don’t doubt this as life in colonial Australia and colonial Canada had a great many similarities, with both countries presenting a blend of frontier, English, and Scottish influences.

    In both these cases, a similar plot and milieu, along with a few quotes were offered up as “proof” of illicit literary behaviour. The problem with plagiarism seems more a case of ignorance on the part of accusers than any deliberate attempt to steal on the part of authors. Regrettably, in literature, reputation matters and accusations do not have to be true to do damage.

  2. Thomas, Those stories show outrageous injustice, as in the first case the author had even said that it was a spoof, for goodness sake! I think you are right about ignorance on the part of reviewers. Also, possibly, a lack of sense of humour or irony or understanding that there are no original stories?

    Now, in my next, which as I have said is a spoof of the Aristocrat Disguised as Brigand (touched on in ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’) and the Careless Rake Disgraced and Falsely Accused motive so beloved of writers of Regency Romances, goodness knows how many plagiarisms I might be accused of as I am sending up this tradition. The aristocrat turned robber story is of course, as old as Robin Hood – and probably older – in the UK, and the original brigand novel may have been ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini, Captain of Banditi’ (splendid title!) by Christian Vulpius in 1798 (I’m reading it slowly), though Schiller’s play ‘The Robbers’ pre-dated it, I think he first wrote it in 1778, though I could be wrong.

  3. Excellent post, Lucinda. It is certainly true that there are only a certain number of basic plots – I’ve heard the exact number put as low as about eight! Human life (and, by extension, human literature) only has a limited number of possible permutations…

    What counts, I think, is how the author deals with plot and character. A variation on an old tale can feel wonderfully fresh and interesting if it’s told in a compelling way. ‘Guy meets girl, love ensues’, for example, is a very basic and very popular plot, but far more important is the way the author tells it. They take something as universal as romantic love and make it particular; then, they sort of reverse the process, and make the particular universal once more.

    Accusations of plagiarism do swirl around an awful lot, unfairly so much of the time. It’s not at all uncommon for two authors to have similar ideas at around the same time. Also, being inspired by another author’s work and taking it as a starting-point for a work of one’s own is entirely acceptable, I think, as long as you don’t infringe upon anyone’s copyright. There are grey areas, admittedly – remember the controversy over exactly how much ‘50 Shades of Grey’ owed to ‘Twilight’?

    (By the way, if you ever manage to identify the story about the guy sitting with his feet up all day, let me know! I’d actually quite like to see how much could be done with that idea…)

  4. Very interesting points, Mari; concisely and tellingly made as ever.

    I remember thinking that yours was entirely original; though the fens setting and the brooding atmosphere were no doubt influenced by Susan Hill, still, it was entirely your own. The characters still haunt me (lol!) a bit. I was quite upset by it!

    I can’t comment on ‘Fifty Shades’ – couldn’t bring myself to read it – but yes, they are everywhere, these accusations. Lauryn on her blog quotes a splendid line from TS Eliot about ‘good writers steal’.

    About the Feet Up All Day Man – I may get a lead from my sister, who recommended it when we were in our teens – but she may have entirely forgotten what sort of anthology it was in! I do remember she said another man ran into his rented room (presumably character number ohne had to remove his feet from the doorknob first) and shouted, ‘You’re a bum! I hate you! Everybody hates you!’ and said it was very funny. I will let you know if I ever trace it.

  5. Wonderful post, and thanks for the mention! Also, I love that your friend said that about the cliches in your book. I’m sure I’ll agree with her, and I think as more and more plot elements become “cliche” authors should learn how to better twist cliches or use them to their advantage instead of just trying to avoid them all, which is of course impossible to do. Sometimes embracing a cliche can be a great plot element and often adds some humor to a story (if done correctly of course).

    Also, funny that you bring up 50 Shades. I can’t bring myself to read it either, but I did a post on it a while ago when everyone seemed to be talking about it.

  6. Thanks, Lauryn! You are so right, authors should stop striving for originality and concentrate on enjoying a fresh exploration of the old, old themes, which is so much fun. I’ll look up that link, as your posts are always good. Still delighted by that quote from TS Eliot!

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