Story Thievery?

Has anyone every asked you if you’re afraid of having someone steal your story? I have been asked this very question. Several times.

At first, I used to laugh and say, “Good luck to them. I sure as hell couldn’t sell it.”

Now, I just explain that I could be hit by lightning TWICE before I could steal and idea and have it turn out even remotely similar to the way the same story would evolve by the hand of a different writer. And vice verse.

Reality check: Even if a writer WANTED to steal another writer’s idea (which is unfathomable when every writer knows–a.k.a. hopes–in their heart of hearts that their own ideas are superior–jiganormous eye roll), the end result would never be the same, not even if the thief had every last anal note of a character’s personality and each and every well-calculated plot thread.

I recently picked up the hobby of reading tarot cards as a creative writing device. (No, I have not wandered off on a tangent. Yes, I swear this relates.) To make a very long story short (which means skipping the entire explanation of the intro sentence), I finished a few private lessons and started with a group of women new to the, um, er, craft for lack of a better word.

Our teacher had us do an excercise to get to know the cards better. We each took one card from the deck and shared various activities with the others at the table: described the card, imagined emotions of a person in the picture, told a mini story of the scene. After we had all done it with different cards, one of the students said, “I wonder what would happen if we all switched cards and did the same thing to see how different people interpret the same card.”

We loved the idea and played along.

To start out with, we already knew the “formal” interpretation of the card and also knew how the other student had interpreted that card.

The result: a completely different and very personal interpretation of each card by each person. Even more wildly varied than I had expected.

This incident reaffirmed my belief that story and all it’s components is shaped drastically and uniquely by the filter through which the writer (or in the tarot case, the reader) saw the information (or in the writer’s case, the story idea).

In a blog post I wrote some time ago, one I may revisit for a fresh 3-part post here, I spoke of filters in developing deep character.

“Each of us sees our world differently based on our personality, our past, our peers, our experiences, our hopes, our dreams, our fears. The reasons for our unique perspectives are as endless as the quirks of our likes and dislikes. When developing your characters, knowing where they’ve been and how it has shaped them into individuals is imperative in creating a unique and believable cast.”  You can read the entire post at my website.

Using the example thread of tarot, another woman and I studied the same card: the Queen of Cups. She saw a Queen surrounded in all her glory, reveling in all she’d attained as she stared at a golden chalice with reverence, contentment and bliss.

In the same card, I saw a woman who had worked and worked to attain everything she had ever wanted, the symbol of which was the golden chalise in her hands. I saw the Queen as contemplating, almost disappointed as she held the symbol of all she’d worked so hard for and wondered, “Is this it? Is this all there is?”

IMHUO (In my humble unpublished opinion) anyone worried about idea or story thievery needs to cultivate security in their unique voice, what only they can bring to the page. Because when it’s all said and done, we all know there are only so many original plots. Making your story unique has everything to do with who you are, where you’ve been, what you need or want to say. It’s all in your own unique perception of the possibilities of a story or character.

Throw your thoughts into the mix. Have you ever had someone steal a story idea? Did it ever amount to anything? Did it ever turn out even close to the way you had (or would have) written it? Have you had experiences where two different people see the exact same thing, but visualize it uniquely based on their own personal experiences?

45 responses to “Story Thievery?”

  1. Hi, Joan! How interesting that you’ve taken up tarot reading. I hope this isn’t a silly question, but do you read your characters’ cards?

    I’m pretty sure no-one’s ever deliberately stolen my story ideas. 🙂 However, my heart always sinks when I read or hear about a published book that’s way too similar in plot to my finished mss. It’s happened a few times! But like you say, there are only so many original plots. Take the secret baby plot. How many of those have been published? Are they all the same? No, they’re distinguished by the authors’ voices and the characters.

    • Shoshana Brown says:

      >> However, my heart always sinks when I read or hear about a published book that’s way too similar in plot to my finished mss.

      I just had that happen for the first time. And this wasn’t just a published book, it was a published book by a NY Times bestselling author.

      Upon further examination, her book really wasn’t THAT much like mine. But that moment when I first skimmed the blurb of her book and thought, “uh oh” was not fun.

      • Tamara Hogan says:

        Ugh, I hear you, Shoshana. Two months ago I had the same sinking feeling after picking up a book by a midlist author I’d always meant to read but just hadn’t gotten to yet. While our plots are completely different, she used the same name as I had to refer to her paranormal society’s governing council. Damn it. 😉

        One more thing to handle in revisions.

        • Ah, but as I’m sure you know, that change is just a few clicks away! Find-and-replace is one of my dearest friends.

        • Shoshana Brown says:

          Oh, yeah. Forgot to mention that her heroine had the same name as mine (though spelled slightly differently).

          Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because both the first and middle names that I picked for my son ended up on the top five most popular names list this year.

      • Joan Swan says:

        I bet not, Shoshana. Like you said, it seemed like yours on the surface, but when you got into it, the differences came clear. They have to, because no one can write exactly like someone else. Not, at least, if they are writing from their heart.

    • Recently one of chaptermates stated she just read a new release from HQ with the same plot as her 2010 GH entry. She was so upset, because what if she finals and has to pitch her book to the editor who bought the other book. The editor is not going to want to see her MS. I told her the same thing you stated. Voice and characters will make yours different. I also told her to look hard at her manuscript and find the nuggets that make it different and empathize those elements when pitching.

      • Totally! Like, the last thing Harlequin wants is another secret baby story! (insert sarcastic tone there)

        Oh, wait. They *do* want more secret baby stories. I think they’re the very last publisher I’d worry about when it came to story-idea-stealing.

        They are, however, rather interested in seeing extraordinarily fresh twists on those long-loved plots, which is even harder than it looks!

      • Joan Swan says:

        Good advice, Autumn. Those nuggets are there — no doubt.

    • Jeannie Lin says:

      I know what you mean about the wind being taken out of your sails when you see a book with similarities. Even if it’s the smallest details, your writer’s brain blows it up so it looks absolutely huge!

    • Joan Swan says:

      Hi Vanessa,

      I will read my characters cards. It’s the reason I picked up the tarot…for creativity in my writing. I’m still learning for now.

  2. Elisa Beatty says:

    What if, five or so years ago, someone had told each of us, “Trust me on this: you should write a story about a girl who falls in love with a vampire, and set it in Oregon, where the vampires live because they sparkle in the sun, and have the vampire love the girl desperately but also really, really want to drink her blood, so it’s dangerous for them to be alone together, and then the girl really, really wants to turn into a vampire to be with him forever, but he refuses, and there’s just endless, endless angsty unfulfilled longing….and also werewolves….”

    How many of us do you think would have mega-mega-best-sellers now? (Since this is the tone-deaf internet, I’ll just say my answer to that question is: uh, not me.)

  3. Jeannie Lin says:

    Joan, you make a great point that the characters we create are (or should be) unique enough to create their own journeys. Even the same characters told through another person’s eyes can change the stories drastically — look at all the Pride and Prejudice retellings.

    I’m not afraid of anyone stealing my ideas. Actually, I don’t think anyone wants them! LOL. I’m afraid sometimes that I’ve borrowed too much of the tropes from the genres that inspired me, but I suppose that’s why they’re tropes, right?

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Right, Jeannie: certain universals that will always turn up in stories…the Hero’s Journey, etc.. It’s all about variations on themes.

    • Elise Hayes says:

      Your Jane Austen example made me think of Joan’s posting in a slightly different way, Jeannie. As writers of romance, we all get the question, “but aren’t you bored? all those books are alike–you already know how it ends before you even start.” My answer usually starts with, “You know how a mystery or thriller is going to end, too–the bad guy will be caught–but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for most people.”

      I then point to Jane Austen remakes–or even the different “Scrooge” films that seem to come out at Christmas every few years. I know how Pride and Prejudice ends. I know how Scrooge ends. Heck, I know the middle, too. But I still go to see those films because I want to see how that particular set of actors/director has handled the story.

      • Jeannie Lin says:

        And all the stories retelling the lives of famous historical figures like Anne Boleyn, etc. They keep on coming even though there’s an existing historical account. Of course, historical accounts are really just another retelling, which is why there’s so much variation there as well.

      • Joan Swan says:

        You nailed it, Elise!

    • I can’t wait until Space Western is a trope! Right now, I feel like anything I write with cowboys in space will be too derivative of Firefly, no matter how different I might make it.

      Like, this about the first person who wrote a vampire story after Bram Stoker’s big hit. I bet everyone was all, “What a lazy copycat! You can’t write about vampires; that’s Stoker’s bag!”

      A hundred years later, though, and no one blinks. Funny how that works.

  4. Liz Talley says:

    I think you hit upon it with voice. That’s what every author has to strive to develop because that’s the unique quality.

    On my other blog we had Louisa Edwards guest this week. She described her heroine as a Southern girl who refuses to listen to the advice of her late-departed, proper aunt. My stomach sank because in my upcoming release, each chapter starts with a saying from Nellie’s late grandmother. And Nellie is VERY Southern. But then, the books aren’t similar at all, just that one concept….and what other authors haven’t already done something like that?

    So, yeah, it’s all about the way YOU tell the story which is why editors say, “We’re tired of seeing vampires, but that doesn’t mean we won’t buy one that’s slightly different.”

    Great post, Joan.

    • Joan Swan says:

      And you know what else your post made me think of? People who pick up a book because they have an affinity for southern heroines will pick up both books…because they have an affinity for southern heroines…if you know what I mean.

  5. Tina Joyce says:

    I agree that it’s all about the way each author tells a story. Think about how many Christmas-themed books and movies there are out there. Those break down further into different tones (comedy, drama, tragedy, etc). Then you move down another step into whose story it’s telling (hero, heroine, villain). You keep going until you get to the essence of a particular author or screenwriter.

    It’s somehow comforting to me to see how many variables there are in translating a story from idea to the written page.

  6. I heard a one-liner that is in my book and had been there for 4 years on a TV show recently. And I exclaimed out loud, “Hey, that’s my joke!” And I can prove it. Was it not that original? Was it just a matter of time before someone thought of it too? Or had my manuscript been all over Hell and back, read by every writer, agent, editor, their assistants, and the guy who empties their trash?

  7. Addison Fox says:


    I think you’re so right – so much of what makes for a wonderful story is the unique voice the author brings to it.


  8. Vivi Andrews says:

    Joan – I’ve never worried about it for pretty much exactly the reasons you mentioned. No one can duplicate my voice. I’m only secretive about my ideas because I’m insecure they aren’t good enough, not because I’m afraid they’ll be stolen. 🙂


  9. Darynda Jones says:

    This is such a great post, Joan!!! When I was a newbie, I totally worried about people stealing my manuscript. I learned pretty early the ideas thing and that someone somewhere will publish a book with your idea. It is inevitable. But I was worried someone would steal the ms itself. I looked up how to copyright it, etc. Sigh…

    Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to figure out nobody wants my mss. Nobody is going to take the time to steal them.

    I realized that I had to take a theme or idea and simply make it my own. Aka, find my voice. It seemed to work for me, so I’m much better now. 🙂

  10. Enjoyed your post, Joan. I used to worry about that–even mailed a manuscript registered mail to myself, seal remained unbroken, so it if ever went to court….(that was the fast and easy copyright method.) I still have that first manuscript in its envelope but now idea borrowing is the least of my worries.


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