You can’t copyright a plot.
As a writer, people sometimes approach me with book ideas. They have the idea, they just need someone to “write it up.”
Sometimes, they even offer to split the profits with me. They’ve done the hard part, after all – thinking up the idea – and just need someone to put the words on the paper.
But an idea is nothing. It’s like saying that you have an idea for a bridge and just need someone to build it for you.
Which is why the central dilemma of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz didn’t resonate with me. In the novel, Jacob Finch Bonner steals the plot for a novel from one of his students.
Bonner turns the idea into a best-seller. And then is blackmailed by an anonymous figure who accuses him of being a thief. Bonner then desperately tries to cover up his “crime” while trying to figure out the identity of his accuser.
But it’s not a crime. As Bonner himself says, plots are in the air. They’re narratives we’ve heard a million times before, from the Odyssey to Star Wars. They’re stories we hear from friends. Things we read about in the newspaper. Tales we overhear on the bus.
All these plots – they say there are only seven of them – slosh around in the culture and get recycled time and time again.
Where would we be if we couldn’t use the material around us? My short story collection, Likes, is based upon things I experienced, heard about or read about. I take the stories that are in the air and refashion them into tidy short fiction.
Which is why I didn’t understand Bonner’s guilt in The Plot. Or why he was trying to unmask his blackmailer.
It’s the expression of the idea – not the idea itself – that is the real thing. Jacob Finch Bonner took a plot and turned it into a novel. He did the hard work. He did nothing wrong.
So, if you’re around a writer, be careful. We may steal your stories. And not feel guilty about it.