OK: two things are clearly true.
There are no new stories.
We want our stories to feel fresh and new.
The key that follows, then, is to overcome the contradiction. There are a lot of ways to arrive at interesting ideas for stories and poems, but one highly effective way (and one that writers have been using forever) is to steal. It’s only natural. We become writers, after all, because we love to read. Why wouldn’t we want to recreate the pleasures of the works that move us?
Of course, we also know that plagiarism is terrible and we grow discouraged as readers when we come across a story or a poem that is clearly derivative.
The solution, then, is to follow these steps:
- Select a story or poem you love and decide on the “essence” that appeals to you.
- Change everything else so that no reader would ever realize that the idea was pilfered.
Here is a quick example from one of my stories, which appeared a few years ago in The Southern Review:
I have long been a fan of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, so I took what I saw as the “essence” of the story and tried to imagine it anew. In Ishiguro’s novel, an English butler has romantic feelings for a housekeeper but never acts on those feelings. In my short story, set in Ohio, my protagonist is devoted to his brother but also secretly in love with his brother’s wife. He is also superstitious, works in a factory that makes car seats, and (perhaps) is on the autism scale or otherwise socially inept. He never acts on his feelings either, even after his brother dies. There are enough differences in the stories, though, that I can’t imagine anyone guessing at the work’s source.
Two more examples:
In one flash story, I thought about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. For my story, though, the father is not devoted to his son and protecting him from an apocalyptic world but using his son to go from door to door to sell chocolates for a local girl with leukemia (this is a ruse: she doesn’t exist).
In another flash story, based on The Red Badge of Courage, a young boy is afraid to throw rocks at passing cars, but he is so desperate to make a friend in his new neighborhood that he overcomes his fears, launches a large rock, and causes an accident.
Again, I can’t imagine anyone thinking about the source materials while reading these works.
And that’s the key: be a pickpocket so adept that the “mark” doesn’t feel a thing. This isn’t plagiarism, and it isn’t derivative. It’s what writers do.