They say that mimicry is flattery. These days, mimicry is a more subtle art. Sometimes it can lean more toward plagiarism than respect. However, beyond that pessimistic thought, borrowing other’s ideas is a proven tactic if you’re lacking ideas (or enough ideas for a whole plot). Indeed, it seems that, with all of the novels written since the 1700’s, every possible premise has been explored. The key now is to mix and match different ideas from different sources to make it original.
Borrowing the Premise
So you’ve found a premise you like. Whether it be time-traveling baboons or living furniture taking a road trip, you’re set on it. I say keep the premise and not keep the plot because the plot is more specific. If you keep the premise and the same type of scenes in more or less the same spots, then there’s a problem. The whole point of taking the premise is to explore it in your own way, not retell the other author’s book.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the premise is fairly obvious: two kids growing up in the South must navigate a town full of segregation and hate. None of the specifics, even larger ones such as the court case, don’t need to be included because they fit into the main scheme. When a book’s boiled down this way, it seems easy to fit any number of plots into the same glove.
Characters make novels. Period. I say this as a writer who always goes plot-heavy. Because it’s true. Atticus Finch is an example of patience and virtue. He’s outspoken, responsible, and refined. Pick apart your favorite characters’ traits and apply them to your own draft. Your character may even have one of the same physical features, quirks, or habits. Pick another setting. Now apply the character and change the name (or even the gender).
Character goals are great to use because they give us the person in a nutshell. What they want is, in a sense, already them. Atticus’s goals can be used in many ways. A lawyer needs to defend his African-American client. A man must live in a town seemingly turned against him. An old man must teach his children the ways of life before he’s gone.
With minor characters, you can get away with a little more. In my opinion, one of the most interesting minor characters in To Kill a Mockingbird is Mr. Dolphus Raymond. Everyone thinks he’s a drunkard, but he’s not. He’s only pretending to be, because it gives people a reason why he does what he does. If they have little “page time”, with only a little description added, you could potentially keep them as a whole.
Borrowing the Setting
The setting helps decide the scenes and the characters. Maycomb, Alabama seems a character of its own. Actual physical location can be changed as long as you still carry the nature of the setting. As long as the premise is kept, even settings as different as a ship or space colony could apply. Any town in the world could have the same people and prejudices– having it in the South just makes it more credible for the time period.
That being said, time is also part of setting. Drastically changing both the time and location could allow you to keep sections of the plot. Instead of African-Americans, you could explore different minorities throughout history. Replace modern-day events with more antiquated rituals. Perhaps a little of Atticus could be found even in an ancient hunter-gatherer, defending a member of another tribe.
Sometimes one particular scene strikes you as being particularly powerful. My favorite part of the book is when Atticus is in front of the Maycomb Jail. It’s the middle of the night. Only one bulb illuminates the scene. With a newspaper, he waits. A string of cars pulls in across the road. He looks up. He’s been expecting them. Big men pile out, shadows. They want justice. And only Atticus is in their way.
Scenes are more versatile than you think. Change the characters involved. Change the setting. Make it in an airplane or cave, or in broad daylight. The more cliches you break, the better. The only thing that matters is keeping these things: the energy/conflict of the scene, the stakes, the goals, and the theme.
Borrowing the Theme / Character Arcs
I’ve grouped these together because, watered down, they mean the same things. A lesson is to be learned, whether by the reader, the characters, or both. As the characters change for the better, so should the reader. There’s a good chance that you liked the book so much because of the theme, even if unconsciously. Fortunately, themes are easy to copy. There are far fewer themes than plots– we should expect them to be duplicated so often.
Scout Finch learns, in Atticus’s words, that the best way to know another person is to “climb inside of his skin and walk around in it”. She learns empathy. Her arc is tied to the general theme of caring about others, and the motif of killing mockingbirds (a symbol of more helpless people). Use any of the three. You could even make the arc negative. Your character could be presented with an opportunity to learn empathy, but refuses.
In a way, literature is a perpetual idea machine. We get ideas from others, who get ideas from us, and so it continues. Converting old ideas to new can be a lengthy process. We may fear that changing too many things will distort the original premise and our idea. But, often, a clean slate can be just what we need. What we think is outlandish or off track will only explore more possibilities.
We must always keep hunting for the new angle. And whatever method makes us find that angle is a good one.
Michael Nellis, Copyright 2017