A Different Kind of Contract

Do you mind? This is a private conversation.

Whenever someone sits down to read or watch a work of fiction, they are forming a pact with the author. Two, in fact. The first is what is commonly known as ‘suspension of disbelief’. That roughly translates as ‘I won’t question anything you tell me, as long as it makes sense in the context of the story. Time-travel, unicorns, a different end to a war, alien robots that look like chairs? No problem, just as long as you can convince me with your writing.
The second contract is similar to the first and equally unspoken. Ask for my time, dear author, and you better damn well deliver. Sign here in blood, please. I want to be so involved in your fictional world that I miss it, and think about it, days after The End. I want to feel the story, be swept along by the narrative and plot, and see the world through different eyes as a consequence. (Only for a day or so, mind. Any longer than that and we’d all start to worry.) I want believable characters, authentic dialogue, and a plot that surprises and satisfies… Oh, and did I mention originality? I don’t care that there are only seven plots – give me something new (and even if it’s a sequel, it needs to stand on its own literary feet).
Recently, I watched a film on TV. Not a bad film actually, taken in isolation. However, it was such a breathtakingly blatant rip-off of a previous (and better) film that I’m amazed they weren’t sued for plagiarism or prosecuted for making counterfeit goods. I won’t name names, but I’ll just say it was a thriller, and let’s leave it at that.
So today’s questions are:
1. How do you ensure that you’re not blindly following someone else’s creative trail (unconsciously, of course)?
2. When does homage become plagiarism?


  1. Sandra Davies says:

    When does homage become plagiarism?
    Interesting question, Derek, and alien to me insofar as those writers I revere, of which there are many, for several different shades (and what a pity that word has become so devalued!)of reason and of admiration, I equally know I cannot emulate. Because I recognise I have my own voice. Can't even lift a suitable metaphor because that feels dishonest. But then I mainly write romance or slightly detective stuff, so am more restricted/freed by the only seven plot thing.

    If it's genuinely unconscious, I suspect it IS your own voice, though, that said, I was shocked, re-reading 'Gone with the wind' eighteen months ago, for the first time since in my teens (i.e. yonks ago) to see just how much plot, character and intonation I had absorbed and which had contributed to 'my' voice. Tricky.

  2. Chloe says:

    A great question! I worry about this sometimes. I once won a prize in a SS competition which had been partly inspired by a piece of flash fiction. The plot was different in every single way – as well as my story being 10 times longer! The only thing which was similar was both pieces dealt with a certain historical character (at completely different times in his life) and they both sort of had a what-if element (though even that wasn't very prevalent in my story). But I still felt awkward about it. It's silly – we all get our ideas from somewhere, whether we're conscious of where or not. But it's still a touchy subject! I never try to write like another writer, but if I haven't learned to write from reading, where have I learned it from?!

  3. Derek says:

    I think, when good writing or cinema really touches us, some absorption by osmosis is inevitable, especially when it's a series of works. Perhaps that's part of what inspiration is – prompting us to see how we'd do it!

  4. Derek says:

    A good point, Chloe. We could equally turn to the people around us – friends, family and strangers – and trace back aspects of our writing. If there are indeed only seven plots, they've been responsible for a remarkably diverse bounty of original work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *