There may well be a million stories in the naked city, but there are only so many plots to go around. That’s why, occasionally when you write something, you find you can trip over a story which has already been written.
Oddly, I’ve been on both ends of this literary coincidence. I have both written a story which resembles a much more famous piece of work produced years later, and I have written something which another author then claims to have come up with first. So here’s how I know it’s possible to come up with the same basic idea as someone else without plagiarising it.
Years ago I wrote a story called The Runner which won a big short story prize in the UK called the Bridport Prize. The Runner was about a divorced man who was separated from his young son. In an effort to win back the affection of his son, who was living with his ex-wife he runs a half marathon against his wife’s new partner who is younger, fitter and altogether more athletic than he is.
A few years later Simon Pegg’s film Run Fatboy Run came out – and it has a very similar plot. Pegg stars in the film and is also credited with co-writing it.
Now Simon Pegg comes from Gloucester where I live – he doesn’t live here of course, he lives in That London, or in Hollywood or on the moon or somewhere. I don’t know.
But I do know that when my story won the Bridport Prize there was a chunk about it in Gloucester’s local paper, The Citizen – including the basic plot outline. And the same day there was a profile of Simon Pegg, local lad made good. So it’s conceivable he could have seen it – his family may have posted it to him at his house on the moon.
So do I think superstar actor, writer and movie mogul Simon Pegg took the idea for Run Fatboy Run from my story The Runner?
No, of course I don’t! That would be the ravings of a madman.
I think what happened is that we both had the same idea – assuming it was his idea anyway and not that of someone else on what, I imagine, was a big team who wrote the movie.
Whoever came up with the idea for Run Fatboy Run went through the same creative process as I did. What would you run for? What would the prize be? The motivation? They arrived at the idea that winning the affection of your estranged son by beating the rival for his affections in a race might be a good plot device.
And it also bears pointing out that, beyond the basic synopsis, the two stories are in no way similar – his is full of broad humour and slapstick, mine is wry and witty and a little sad.
I admit it is irritating that sometimes, if I tell someone the plot of The Runner, they say ‘Oh yeah – like that film Run, Fatboy Run – is that where you got the idea?’ But that’s life, and I can always say ‘no, it was written several years before that movie came out’ after which they give me dubious looks, secretly thinking that I have just ripped-off Simon Pegg’s brilliant concept.
But it’s a coincidence. That’s all there is to it – there’s no such thing as a new idea.
It happens, and that’s why famous writers have to take precautions against it I’m told. If you are JK Rowling and you are going on a book tour of America then you are instructed by your agent not to take any of the pieces of paper members of the public try to pass you as you are signing their books. Because on these slips of paper are people’s story ideas.
And if one of the notes says, for example: “Boy wizard goes through series of coming-of-age adventures, has crush on girl wizard, fights scary magical ghost monster and emerges victorious.” Then later when old JK writes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Hallows, or whatever, the person who wrote that note will come out of the woodwork shrieking ‘she stole my idea’ and hire a lawyer.
It even happens to us non-famous authors. When Song of the Sea God was published, the local paper where I am from – The North-West Evening Mail, did a story on me and my book. Page three, since you ask, with a teaser on the front page, picture of me looking ruffled on a windy Walney Island beach, holding up my book. Incongruously also a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine, the only other literary thing ever to be associated with Walney.
Anyway – the story also went on the newspaper’s website where it attracted a grand total of one comment. Here is what that comment said:
“This book, The Song of the Sea God sounds an interesting read. But it must be said it bears similarities to a book I myself wrote, some years ago. At the time I was using the pen-name Ivor Moore, and the book was called A Dawn of the Moomins. This was set in the Barrow Docks.”
I mean, I’m not making this stuff up – this is real – this is what my life is actually like. Apparently Ivor Moore believes I have ripped-off his book ‘Dawn of the Moomins’. For the record I have never heard of Ivor or Dawn of the Moomins – heaven knows if it was even published. I have heard of the Moomins though – they appeared in a series of children’s books by Swedish author Tove Jansson – they looked like little hippos walking on their hind legs. I think Ivor might have just ripped the name off and used it in his (possibly imaginary) book.
So there we have it – me and Simon, Ivor and I, all making pots from the same clay and, as a result, sometimes making pots which, from certain angles, look similar to each other.
If this stuff happens to me you can imagine it happens to famous writers all the time. So for the record I want to make it very clear – Simon Pegg did not rip-off my idea!
Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.
You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.