“I have a great idea.”
On several occasions I’ve been approached by a well-meaning person with a verbal proposal (and once a written one sent by registered mail, preceded by an introductory e-mail) that goes something like this:
“I’m a fan of your suspense novels. For years I’ve had this great idea for a novel plot, and I’m going to trust you by revealing it for the first time. I figure you can whip out the actual book in a month or so and then we’ll split the money for it. What do you say?”
What I do is stop the person right there, as graciously as possible. (In the case of the registered-mail missive, I returned the package unopened, along with an appreciative and apologetic cover letter.)
Because here’s what can happen: The inspired reader explains a treasured secret plot idea. The author politely declines. A year or so later the same reader picks up a book by the same author, recognizes some elements of his or her plot idea, becomes incensed, and threatens to sue the author’s shorts off for stealing the idea.
Aside from such well-meaning readers having no concept of how much work it actually takes to produce, say, a hundred-thousand-word novel of any quality (my first salable novel, GUNS, required eighteen months to research and write), there are, in fact, only a few basic plot structures (some have said as few as seven), and we see them over and over in endless variations. Consider just how many romance plots there can be (the simplest being male and female meet, fall in love, are separated for some reason, but get back together in the end), or how many lone-hero plots there are, or how many kidnap plots, or treasure-quest plots. There just are not all that many basic plots from which to choose. And all the best ones are based, in turn, on one or some combination of only three basic conflicts. (See my earlier posting on conflict.)
So, no matter what ingenious plot a reader thinks is unique, it is really only another variation of some existing plot line, and it’s inevitable the reader will recognize elements of her or his cherished idea in the published works of authors.
Actually, it would be more accurate to say the inspired reader almost certainly, and probably unconsciously, stole his or her plot idea from one or some blend of the authors she or he has read.
Maybe next time I get such a proposal I’ll sue the shorts off that reader.
For the best analysis of plot structures I’ve found, see the book 20 Master Plots by Ron Tobias.