In 2009, I wrote a book. A few years later, it became a movie.
Except it wasn’t a movie based on my book. It was a completely different story … that just happened to have many similarities to mine.
I’ve told this story before. At the time, I hate-watched the movie and pretended like it was a big deal. But in retrospect, it really wasn’t.
Those two stories had the same premise. But they were, zoomed out, two completely different stories.
The difference between my situation and many others is that a lot of people worry about this happening before they’ve actually written a book. They’ll excitedly tell a friend about their story idea and that friend will respond with, “Wow. That sounds a lot like the plot from this one book I read …”
And boom. Their story idea is dead.
Except it doesn’t have to be.
If it seems like the premise to your story is “too” similar to a story that has already been written, first understand that just because you have a similar idea as another writer does not mean you will — or even can — write the exact same story. If you’ve already written it and it’s somehow identical, you can revise it. Make it different enough.
Second, realize that no two stories — unless deliberately plagiarized — are exactly alike. You’re technically worrying about something that isn’t worth worrying about … yet, or at all.
If you have not finished — or even started — writing a book, and you have an idea that can fill a whole book, just write the book. You may not know it, but you’re opening yourself up to yet another lame excuse not to write. Stop it! Just. Write. Worry about everything else later, OK?
I know the idea of publishing something “too similar” to another story makes you nervous. But it shouldn’t. Your story might start out with the same framework, but I can pretty much guarantee it won’t end up that way. But you won’t get to that point of separation if you stop writing before you get there.
Most people wish they could sit down, write one version of a book, and be done with it forever, selling it immediately, making all the money. That’s not how writing works. First, you have to actually write a first draft. Then you probably have to rewrite parts — if not all — of your story several times. Then you have to edit and revise and keep tweaking it until an agent or editor or publisher says it’s “done.”
If you don’t want to endure the writing life in not just its glorious moments, but its tough ones, too, don’t pursue a career in writing. It never gets easier. You just get better at it. And learn how to ride the ups and downs. And appreciate both the good times and the bad.
If you’ve explored this blog before, you already know that my answer to pretty much everything is “just write anyway.” I know, for many of you, it’s more complicated than that. But my advice stands. Stop worrying about the little things, the things that don’t matter right now.
Write the dang story already. It’s in your head. Make it yours.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.
13 thoughts on “Can You Write a Story if Someone Else Has Already Written It?”
I have read blurbs and descriptions for books and gone “oh no! That is my EXACT story!” But upon reading it, it’s been almost nothing alike. I think if the “plot” has been done before every writer will still write it differently enough to create an entirely unique story. <3 Great post x
Thanks! And thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I’m sort of working on a sci-fi novel (but mostly I’m in denial about that since I haven’t finished my other project yet) and every time I sit down to write it, I wonder if I’m just rewriting all the stories in this genre that have already been written….but then I just keep going. Because it’s FUN, gosh darn it! haha.
Your story will be unique, because you are! <3 Keep doing what you love x
Right back at you!
I like to write down the title, then finish my book. Then… see if that book would make a good comp for querying.
Do you stick with your title all the way through? I almost never come up with “the perfect” title until I hit a certain point in the story. I’m curious how it works for you.
Oh! I meant the title of books people tell me that my story sounds like. I stink at titles. I’m currently using something one of my Beta readers suggested.
Titles are definitely a struggle! What’s your current title? :)
Flesh And Ink – which was fine 3/4 years ago, but now sounds like 5 other books.
Ahhh I love it though! :(
I think a lot of it goes back to the fact that most writers start down the path because when reading a story it isn’t quite right. I remember, as a kid, searching for just the right story, only to eventually get frustrated and decide “I’ll write it myself,” only because I was tired of spending so much time with nothing to show for it.
My favorite example of the subjectivity of artists is Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia. CS Lewis read the Hobbit, and knew about Lord of the Rings, since both he and Tolkien were professors at Oxford, and often met as part of a writer’s group.
Lewis was inspired by Tolkien’s epic fantasy, and decided to write his own. But if I didn’t know that Narnia started out as a kind of emulation of Lord of the Rings, I would never expect that. The two series are too different.
One of my college professors once proposed that we try typing out a story, one we knew well, and in almost every instance, even while flicking our eyes back and forth between page and computer screen, we still kept drifting away from the text.
Writing has a momentum to it, and unless one keeps a very firm hand on the tiller, it will drift. As long as someone doesn’t intentionally bind themselves to an existing story, theirs will be unique, in some ways.
I give that suggestion a lot — especially when people unnecessarily, heavily criticize a book, movie, or author for not writing or ending a story the way “they” wanted it. Not satisfied with a story? Write your own story. This is a terrible, embarrassing example, but 50 shades of grey started out as twilight fanfiction. Write stories tat interest you and in time they’ll become original enough…I like your Lewis/Tolkien example much better haha. You get the idea. It’s early, not enough coffee!