Another week rolls around and this time I’ve been getting over that hump a little more every day, reliving some of those early moments in my own work that make me smile or give me a tiny ego boost. As I move through it I am also well aware of just what has inspired many of the ideas, characters and situations, and by a strange coincidence I came across one that was in an old comic book I found stashed away. Somehow the busty thief had been the inspiration for one of my own characters.
Yet where does one draw the line of plagiarism? Is it alright to use an idea that you found elsewhere? This is a thorny issue for sure, and it perhaps applies to many of the arts. Certainly in the realms of music there is a great debate about who copies who, who is inspired by who, about whether you can claim something as your own if you sample etc.
And just as a musician will be an avid listener of music, so too are writers avid readers. I can claim to have read a huge amount of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as a lot of non-fiction – politics, anthropology, science etc. Out of all of that I reaped many, many ideas that stuck with me, that I liked and thought about, situations in novels that touched me or thrilled me, characters and settings that could be explored in so many different ways there isn’t enough time in one life.
I would argue that at some point we all reach a form of critical mass, where everything that we’ve absorbed goes into the melting pot of our imaginations. There’s so much in there it all becomes indistinguishable from its original source, and as you write it comes out via the filter of you as a person, thus rendering it in your own voice. You are the lens that casts what came before into a new light: you create a synthesis which transcends any one thing of itself. This is what I refer to in the title as execution. How you execute the story, how you take all that was familiar, used up and done before and make it special. Take as an example Pulp Fiction, a movie that contains plenty of familiar characters from the pulp world of crime stories. I found this little snippet on Wikipedia:
Tarantino explains that the idea “was basically to take like the oldest chestnuts that you’ve ever seen when it comes to crime stories—the oldest stories in the book…. You know, ‘Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife’—the oldest story about…the guy’s gotta go out with the big man’s wife and don’t touch her. You know, you’ve seen the story a zillion times.” “I’m using old forms of storytelling and then purposely having them run awry”, he says. “Part of the trick is to take these movie characters, these genre characters and these genre situations and actually apply them to some of real life’s rules and see how they unravel.” In at least one case, boxer Butch Coolidge, Tarantino had in mind a specific character from a classic Hollywood crime story: “I wanted him to be basically like Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Aldrich‘s Kiss Me Deadly . I wanted him to be a bully and a jerk”.
What makes this movie so great was its execution – the unforgettable dialogue and the manner in which the movie was put together, the way the threads intertwine with each other. It takes what’s been done before (hitmen, crime bosses, a boxer reneging on thrown fight etc) and creates a new synthesis that transcends the original ideas into something special. Hopefully this is what we can achieve as writers, taking ideas that appeal to us, that inspire us or stick in our minds and forge them into something new and special.