How to Avoid Plagiarism When You Steal Ideas

Mugger with pistol, illustration for how to avoid plagiarism article

Have you ever read a story or watched a film and thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” When you see great story ideas put into action, it can make you jealous, or even tempted to take them and use them as your own. But is that ethical? Where do you draw the line between inspiration and theft? By adding your own creativity, you can avoid plagiarism while still taking (inspiration from) other people’s ideas.

You should only ever use someone else’s story as the starting point to your own creative journey. Don’t ask yourself “How can I rewrite Ender’s Game?” Instead, ask yourself “What are my favorite parts of the overall Ender’s Game story, and how can I adapt them to fit my own ideas and writing style?”

The more inspiration you take from another story, the more details you have to change in your own story to make it original. If you write about a high school student and a white-haired scientist traveling through time to the 1950s, people might say you are just ripping off by Back to the Future. However, you can avoid plagiarism by changing the major details. If your student is named Becky, your scientist is named Professor Edith, and they visit 1950s Mexico in their time-traveling hot air balloon, your story will probably end up being pretty original.

When you are inspired by a story, pick out the details you like, break them down into smaller elements, and then start tweaking and changing things until your new story becomes something unique. The less you borrow, and the more creative steps you take away from the source, the more original your final outcome will be.

Again, take Back to the Future as an example. Let’s start with a borrowed scene and use it to create something original. One of my favorite scenes in the film is Marty’s first meeting with 1955 Doc. After Marty accidentally travels back in time, he finds Doc’s mansion and bangs on the door. Doc forces Marty to help him test a mind reading helmet. Finally, Marty tells Doc that he has traveled there from the future in a time machine he invented in 1985.

We have several elements in this scene that we can change to avoid plagiarism and make a new story:

  • Characters – White-haired scientist Doc Brown and high school student Marty McFly
  • Conflict – Marty is stuck in the past and has to convince Doc to help him get back to the future
  • Location – The Brown Family mansion in 1955 California
  • Main science fiction gadget – A time-traveling DeLorean
  • Secondary science fiction gadget – A mind reading helmet

For our new story, let’s make our Marty in his early thirties. Our Marty is working as a research scientist for a large university in Seattle, but all of his projects are failures, just one dead end after another. He is on the verge of losing his job and willing to do anything to keep it. He discovers that a graduate student, Rachel “Doc” Brown, has developed a device that can open a portal through time. He decides to steal her device and claim her research as his own.

He sets a fire in Rachel’s lab to destroy any evidence of the theft. The portal device explodes, and he is accidentally hurled into the future. Unable to return home, he decides to find Doc and beg for her help.

When he arrives at her house, there is a teenage girl standing at the door. Aiming a ray gun, she says, “My name is Emma. Twenty years ago, you stole my mother’s research and her legacy. I’ve been waiting my entire life for you to show up.” She fires the weapon, shrinking Marty down to six inches tall. She grabs him and forces him into a mason jar. “I’m taking you to the university. You will tell everyone that you’re a thief, or I’ll feed you to my cat.”

Our new story is off to a great start. It’s a time travel story with a confrontation scene, but just about everything else is different. All we have to do is change the characters’ names, and we will have an original piece of writing.

We don’t have to stick with scenes or plots. We could follow similar steps to borrow a character and turn it into something original. Let’s start with a character everyone knows: Superman. What are the individual elements that make Superman who he is?

  • Alien from another planet
  • Secret identity pretending to be a human
  • Home world destroyed
  • Gets super powers from the sun
  • Super strength
  • Flight
  • Invincibility
  • Can only be killed by Kryptonite
  • Patriotic, good-hearted farm boy

The more of these elements we change, the more original our character will be. Let’s make our Superman an adventurer from another dimension. Rather than getting super powers from the sun, his powers come from his world’s advanced technology: an indestructible force field, a jet pack, and gloves that allow him to manipulate magnetic waves and lift metal objects. His weakness is water. Water can short circuit his force field and make him temporarily vulnerable, or flood his jet pack’s engine and make him unable to fly. And we’ll make him a good-hearted city boy. The only thing left is to change the name, and we’ll have an entirely original character inspired by, but very different from, Superman.

Another great way to turn old ideas into something original is to gather elements from more than one work and mix them together. You can avoid plagiarism by taking inspiration from multiple sources. Once more, we will start with Back to the Future. Let’s forget about time travel and just take the element of a flying car. Our second source will be the movie The Evil Dead. If you’ve never seen it, all you need to know is this: a group of college students staying in a cabin in the woods find a magic book. The spells in the book summon evil spirits, who then set to work possessing the students.

In our new story, a group of UFO researchers head out to the woods to investigate some recent sightings of a small, black craft. As they search for evidence, they are attacked by a horde of zombies who chase them through the trees, shouting taunts and threats. 

Suddenly, two lights appear in the sky. It’s not a UFO. It’s the headlights of a flying hearse. The passenger’s side door opens and a rope ladder drops down. The researchers climb up, barely escaping the zombies. The driver is Simon, an inventor and bounty hunter. He has been searching the woods for a fugitive necromancer. Apparently he did not find him soon enough. The necromancer has already summoned a horde of evil spirits and is using them to control an army of the dead.

Again, we have taken elements from other people’s stories but produced something original. (Note that I didn’t say something good.)

Finally, I’ll note that you you should never publicly discuss borrowing ideas that are still under copyright. Even though you cannot technically copyright an idea, and there is nothing unethical about using an idea as a starting point to create something completely different, there are still plenty of litigious jerks out there. So keep your sources to yourself.

Good luck, and keep writing!

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