Thursday, August 4, 2011

Simpsons Did It!

A pop culture reference that’s so spot-on it’s not even funny.

Okay, it’s a little funny...

(General Disarray, go get the minions before they get lost...)

One of the big worries with creativity is wondering if you really are being creative. Is that clever new idea of yours something you came up with all on your own, or is it something you unwittingly borrowed from someone else? Maybe you skimmed over the back copy of a paperback in your local neighborhood bookstore or read a few spoiler-filled reviews on Amazon and your brain just filed it away. Worse yet, what if your clever story gets out there and then you discover five other people already had similar ideas. Now you just look like some hack plagiarist.

I’ve been involved in a bunch of discussions about stuff like this in the past few weeks. Has anyone crossed X with Y before? Have you ever seen this element used in that genre? What about that plot but in this setting?

The answer to all of these, alas, is yes.

Some guru-types like to drawl on about how there are only seven stories (or nine, or thirteen, depending on who’s selling what this week). While I think this is an oversimplification, it does point out an obvious truth. Most stories have things in common with other stories. That’s just the way of it. The same type of characters show up. The same situations arise. The same relationships form.

Here’s a random observation for you. When was the last time you met someone who didn’t remind you of someone else? Think about it for a minute. When we were little everything was new and fresh but as we got older we started to see patterns and similarities. A guy I met at a birthday party last weekend reminded me of a guy who lived across the hall from me in college. When I first met her, I thought my girlfriend looked a lot like one of my next-door neighbors. A production assistant I used to work with looks kind of like a sound mixer I know in San Diego. Another one reminded me of my cousin Chrissie crossed with a bit of Angelina Jolie (a very good mix, I have to say).

But those are all first impressions. As I delve deeper, I start to see the uniqueness of each person. The better I got to know them, the more Leo, Colleen, Russ, and Sarah became individuals and those superficial similarities dropped away.

Still, those initial generalities can be a bit bothersome. If there’s something else out there that’s similar to your work, should you worry about it?

Probably not.

Submitted for your approval is The Dueling Machine. It’s a 1969 sci-fi novel by multiple-Hugo-award winner Ben Bova. In the far, far future, a brilliant scientist has created a machine to help reduce hostility. It’s “a combination of electroencephalograph and autocomputer” which lets two or more people connect their minds through the machine and interact in an imaginary dream world that they create inside the machine. The story comes about when someone is killed during one of these “simulated” duels—is it possible that dying in the imaginary world could make someone die in the real world?

Hopefully this premise sounds a bit familiar to you. It should because it’s a big chunk of the plot to The Matrix movies. And The 13th Floor. Also the Lawnmower Man films. Plus there’s a few books like Cybernetic Samurai and Snow Crash and Giant’s Star. And that television show VR5 that was on for a while. And about a hundred Star Trek episodes where people get trapped on the now-deadly holodeck, because the holodeck safety systems are apparently made of cobwebs and wet tissue paper. Heck, you’ve all probably got a dozen more at your fingertips, don’t you?

For the record, there are also dozens of books and movies and television shows featuring vampires in space (one’s actually called The Space Vampires—it was the basis for the movie LifeForce). And zombies in the old west. And new takes on time travel, space travel, politics, Jekyll and Hyde, all that stuff.

Now, this doesn’t mean that most stories copy other stories. We all draw from a lot of the same sources, so our thoughts are going to follow a lot of the same paths. But even on those paths we’re all going to march to the beat of our own drummer, so to speak. We’re also going to dress differently, bring different things with us, ask different people to come along, and we’re all probably heading down that given path for different reasons.

Y’see, Timmy, we put our own stamp on everything we do. If I did a modern version of Dracula and you did a modern version of Dracula, neither of us would end up writing Salem’s Lot, which was Stephen King’s modern version of Dracula. You might stick with Europe, but I’m probably going to set mine in southern California. We’d have our own ideas and notions and way of looking at it, just like Mr. King did.

Now, there’s a downside to this apprehension, too, and it’s kind of similar to the people who won’t write anything because they’re too busy learning how to write. Sometimes we—yes we—get so caught up in worrying if something is original that we grind to a halt trying to prove it isn’t. This desperate need to avoid being a copycat brings things to a dead halt.

True story —I was working on a book a few years back (right before I was inspired to start Ex-Heroes, in fact) called Mouth. As I was typing away, I suddenly came up with the coolest way to explain teleportation ever. I mean, this was Stephen Hawking-level brilliant. It was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, sheer elegance in its simplicity. I typed up a quick scene where Character A explained it this way to Character B, read through it, and realized it was even cleverer than that.

Too clever, in fact, for a guy like me to come up with it. It was too clean. Too perfect.

In a panic, I wracked my brain trying to figure out where I’d heard it before. Because I must’ve seen this somewhere. Online? In a comic book? All I was reading at the time was Amazing Spider-Man and that was all packed full of “Civil War” nonsense. Maybe a television show? What had we gotten from Netflix in the past few months?

I asked my girlfriend to read it. I figured she might recall whatever this source was, because I kept drawing a blank. She went through the chapter, got to the questionable explanation, and loved it. When I asked her where she’d seen it before, she couldn’t remember ever seeing it. After I pressed her for a bit and she re-read it again, she admitted it was vaguely like the explanation of “tessering” in Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time, but only in that it took what was plainly a very complex idea and boiled it down to an extremely simple explanation.

In other words, it was all mine. But I wasted a week worrying over whether or not I’d copied it.

Do a quick look at your chosen field. Make sure no one’s done something exactly like your idea. Then just write. Your own style and vocabulary and characters will give it a flavor all its own.

Like the Buddha says, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Next time, if I don’t get any suggestions, I may have to fall back on spelling.

Until then, like I just said, go write.

4 comments:

Langhorne said...

How about another crack at story structure. Maybe with focus on shorter works. How about a post on writing short stories (films).

Virtual Stranger said...

Hmmmmm...

Just did a big three-post piece on structure a few months back (starting here) so we probably don't need to hit that again quite yet.

Something on short stories might be good. Although my lovely lady has been gnashing her teeth about screenplays lady, so that could be good, too...

Thanks, Langhorne. ;)

Anonymous said...

Can we read the explanation? You have me intrigued.

Virtual Stranger said...

The explanation of teleportation that I used in Mouth?

Maybe someday you'll get to... :)