Blog Post: Based on a completely and totally untrue story!

There’s a particular storytelling trope that really gets on my nerves as a writer, and I wanted to explore what bothers me so much about it. It usually shows up in TV episodes and movies, which are presumably written by writers, and yet it demonstrates such a fundamental misunderstanding of the writing process.

It usually goes something like this: there’s a new book that has become fantabulously successful, earning the writer fame and fortune and acclaim for their ability to come up with such an incredibly creative, original story. But the the truth comes out — the writer didn’t make it up at all! It actually happened, in real life, to their friend/co-worker/childhood acquaintance!! Oh, the scandal, the outrage! The writer is a complete phony and hasn’t a creative bone in their entire body!

Sheesh.

This is nonsense. Coming up with ideas is just one fraction of what a writer does. It might even be the easiest part. That’s not to say that’s okay to use someone else’s ideas or someone else’s life experiences without permission and without giving credit. Of course a writer who doesn’t acknowledge their sources would be unethical. But that kind of thing rarely happens (in fact, it’s far more likely that the writer of some shocking “non-fiction” memoir is revealed to have fabricated much of their supposedly true story). Because guess what? Real life experiences, as I’ve said many times before, do not automatically make good stories. Not without some careful crafting to make them into a readable narrative. And that is where a writer’s primary skill lies. Not in coming up with ideas, but in transforming those ideas into good stories. Whether the story is fiction or non-fiction (and yes, obviously, if you’re writing non-fiction, it’s dishonest to market it as fiction), its success will depend almost entirely on how well it’s written.

When people claim that there aren’t really any new stories, that might sound depressing. But all it really means is that so much of human experience is universal, that the same sort of stories keep appealing to us over and over. It’s not a writer’s job to come up with something completely and entirely new — it’s their job to take something familiar and make it new all over again. Was Harry Potter the first story about a secret magical world and a boy gaining the power to defeat his parents’ nemesis? Of course not! Pointing out its similarities to previous fantasy stories doesn’t prove that it’s weak or unoriginal. Take a look at how the story is told, and you’ll see why it was so successful. On the other hand, you could find plenty of stories with clever premises that just weren’t told very well, so all the cleverness in the world couldn’t save them.

Was Shakespeare a plagiarist? Well, from a legal standpoint, our modern copyright laws didn’t exist. He wasn’t doing anything that plenty of other writers weren’t also doing. (I am not suggesting we get rid of copyright laws. They protect the very real work that writers put into crafting stories, and prevent others from stealing credit and money.) But sure, he didn’t come up with every plotline entirely from his own head. Was he unoriginal? Lacking creativity? Hardly. The way he told stories, familiar though they may have been, was so inventive, interwoven with humor and philosophical discourse and witty wordplay, that he made the stories new again — to the point that most modern audiences assume he must have come up with those stories himself!

So is the ability to come up with original ideas irrelevant for a good writer? No, not at all. Innovative premises are vital to keeping things fresh. But they are only ever a beginning. Coming up with the idea for a book is the first step. Then you have to actually write it, and hopefully write it well. After that, as long as you’ve given credit to any sources of inspiration, any fame and fortune and acclaim that you receive has been justly earned.

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