When a writer gets an idea, it’s best to just hammer it out and get it written. If an idea is left floating around in the aether, it will be found by someone else and put into solid form, which can be copyrighted. If your story is close to something already published, it may be that you didn’t write it down soon enough.
Many beginning writers fear that someone will steal their ideas. Ideas can’t be stolen. They are a dime a dozen. If you don’t think so, look at the movies available on Neflix—every one was someone’s idea first, and there are enough variations on any theme you can think of to make a sub-genre. There are no new ideas, only new expressions and twists.
The only thing that can be stolen is the solid form—the writing, the recording, the drawing, the video. Sometimes Nobel Prizes are awarded to two independent researchers who come up with the same answers. If it isn’t in solid form, it’s fair game. Although it isn’t in solid form, if you are thinking about it, it’s in the aether.
The Collective Unconscious exists, which explains how we got two different Snow White movies released within a month of each other. That idea was floating around, just ripening up, and two different directors grabbed it and ran with it. Each one had a different take, and each movie has a different slant on this old story.
If you give the same writing prompt to ten people, even in a beginning writing class, you wil get ten different stories.
One reason it’s so important for a writer to read voraciously in and out of the chosen genre is to know what has already been done. There are only about four ways a time-travel story can work, for example. Now what you do with those tropes can be creative and original, or it’s a rehash–think Star Trek (TOS) plots from season three.
One website that can be helpful is TVtropes.org, which lists in incredible detail all sorts of themes, characters, and situations with examples from movies, books, games, and even real life. It’s a deep rabbit hole, but if you want to know what’s been done, they know, and it’s fun to read. Set a timer and tie a hank of yarn to your monitor, just in case.
It is disconcerting, however, to meet a character someone else’s web comic with the same name as one I started writing some 15 years ago. His character and mine are similar, although the stories are not, and the name came from the same general idea. But I let that character float around in my head—and by definition, in the Collective Unconscious—for too many years, long enough that someone else to think of it too.
There are enough differences in the story and details that I’m not in danger of copyright violation, but I will have to be careful how I write from now on, because I know the other character exists. I really wish I’d written more and gotten published sooner.
Today’s lesson, kiddos, is if you have an idea, write it down today. Work it up, before it latches on to someone else’s muse.