When you see your novel on the big screen

Firstly, I need to clear up that my novel has not transformed overnight into a major blockbuster movie filled with A-list stars.

That would be damn cool though!

What I really want to talk about is that moment when you pick up a book or sit down to watch a movie only to think… hang on, why does this seem so familiar??

It takes a second for the penny to drop, but when it does, it’s life-changing, because… holy crackers! IT’S JUST LIKE YOUR BOOK. THE ONE YOU’RE STILL WRITING!

It feels like you’ve slipped into a Mirror Earth where an alternate reality (a.k.a. better) version of you published their manuscript a few years early, a move which subsequently got their ‘unique’ novel noticed by Netflix and regurgitated for an original series.

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It’s happened to me twice.

Once upon a time, when I was a wee 13-year-old, I started my first novel-length story about this boy who goes on an epic journey to uncover a lost princess, not realising his travel companion was the lost princess all along.

To say I was proud was an understatement. At the time I thought my story (complete with an abundance of writing clichés and two-dimensional characters) was positively golden. It was going to be my magnum opus.

One day I came across a book my younger sister was reading, the first in a series called Deltora Quest, by Australian Author Emily Rodda. The book, recently released, was IDENTICAL to my story. Better by a mile of course, but the story line so eerily similar to my own that I was dumbfounded. My despair so deep I can still feel its shock waves permeating through the decades.

I hadn’t even read Deltora Quest, so how on Earth had I managed to mirror her so exactly? How could it be possible?

My best and only guess is that I must have tuned into Emily Rodda’s brain waves after reading Rowan of Rin a few years before. But really, who knows. It’s very unlikely that my sister recounted the story to me, as it turns out… she never read the book.

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My second journey into an alternate reality happened only recently.

About five years ago I started writing a novel about a ‘soul drifter’ who wakes up in a new body every time they fall asleep, usually a body close by to the one before. The soul doesn’t know who they are and how to stop the ‘body jumps’, but is able to access procedural memory of the host body (so you know, they can open locked phones and all that).

Does this story sound familiar?

If it’s reminding you of Every Day, released in 2018, then you’d be right. And no, I hadn’t heard of or read David Levithan’s novel of the same name, published in 2012.

I got my idea from two different sources, namely Just Like Heaven (2005 film), starring Reese Witherspoon and The Beauty Inside (2012 film).

Unsurprisingly, there are a few key differences. My soul can only access procedural memory of the host body and jumps anytime she falls asleep. Levithan’s soul is almost symbiotic in nature. It can access episodic memory and leave ‘impressions’ if it so desires. Another difference to mine, it usually remains in the host body for a strict 24 hours.

My soul has only been drifting for a few months and can remember fragments of her previous ‘real’ life. Or so she thinks. When she finally makes it home after jumping across the world, her body wakes up. For a little while, everything is right with the world even though she still can’t remember anything. When she goes to sleep that night, she wakes up in another body again. Racing back to her ‘real’ family that morning, she discovers the girl alive and well and interacting with her family.

So what’s going on?? Who is the soul if not the girl she’s been dreaming about?

No, she’s not an alien or a ghost. It’s the other option, time travel.

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Long story short, my soul was actually a consciousness sent back in time from the future to observe the past (she was sent back against her will as part of an experiment). A few complicated things happened – you know, quantum mechanics, the law of special relativity, the butterfly effect – resulting in her ‘drifting’ predicament.

There was a whisper of a love story too, where the guy she loved from the future drifted into the past to ultimately save her.  At the very end of the novel, she wakes up back home in the future – but the book cuts out before she interacts with anyone, keeping the mystery alive for Book 2!

But I’m not going to write a second book, simply because it’s too similar to Levithan’s novel. I’d be accused of… plagiarism I suppose? Being unoriginal??

I prefer Levithan’s idea as it works well as a fantasy novel, rather than a science fiction one which attempts to ‘explain’ everything. The idea of a consciousness drifting from one body to another definitely works better as fantasy! You can just sweep all that confusing quantum gunk under the rug and get on with the important stuff like character development.

I’m betting I’m not the only writer that’s gone through the same thing, thinking you’ve got a unique story in your hands, only to find out that it is very much not original! Brain wave entanglement in action?

 

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25 thoughts

  1. I think Elizabeth Gilbert discusses this concept in “The signature of all things.” The concept of parallel stories and discoveries within the same time period. Your voice is still individual, despite some possible similarities. You have an amazing imagination, Milly and your writing is great. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. A recent trope, it seems: Nothing knew under the sun (grin). Your theme of connections on multiple levels and through threads of transcendental elevation sounds like a novel concept in itself…
    Coming up with a truly unique story line is probably the hardest part of beginning a writing effort. Without conviction that one’s story is unique, how can you maintain the stamina to finish? “Oh, it’s been done – bummer.”
    However, in the world of success, completion and quality is how you win. If you begin a new Cinderella story, but actually complete it, edit it and its quality is outstanding — well, then, who cares if it’s not unique?
    Are we all just copying ancient campfire folktales?

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  3. This is one of the reasons I’ve mainly been working on fanfic; I haven’t really touched my book since NaNo. I play around with characters and other elements without worrying about plagiarism. Plus, fanfic gets me away from inserting myself into my writing, because I’m not writing about me. I’m always afraid of inserting myself too much.

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  4. Yes! This has happened to me. I’ll dream up these stories ideas and then somehow find a book that is the same plot or incredibly similar plot. Weird. I think that by reading constantly, we open ourselves up to more and more stories and we see how stories are being written and how to be more original ourselves. Not to imply that you don’t read enough; I have no idea.

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  5. Ha ha! I kind of found myself in this situation recently. If you haven’t watched “The Kingdom” on Netflix, you really should. It’s great. It is also somewhat similar to an idea I was considering for a book for a long while, a mix of Korean period historical drama and western supernatural horror. Now my story was about vampires, not zombies, but the basic concept is similar. Makes me wonder if it’s even worth writing that book now.

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  6. People having similar ideas simultaneously is nothing new. It might be an alternate explanation for the “Edison stole Tesla’s ideas” conspiracy theory. More than one scientist connecting the dots in nearly the same way is quite possible. I think insights are like genealogy; if you could trace back your inspiration and that of the other authors, we might find common source(s), maybe just in pop culture generally. I thought I was being so original writing a story about Laika, the Sputnik dog; then I found several other versions already written, including a graphic novel. I wrote my version anyway, but gave it a uniqueness, which was telling the story as if the dog were narrating in real time. I say write your stories, but give them a uniqueness that is your own. That’s what will make fans of YOU and your storytelling style.

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  7. This is a real thing. I remember reading about it once in a discussion on the history of religion/evolution of religion. The article used a term for a theory that I can’t recall now, but it was something *like* collective consciousness. I tried looking up the term just now and there are other names for it, but not the name I first came across in that article. Multiple Discoveries, Simultaneous Discoveries, Heroic Theory, … even Zeitgeist and Synchronicity are terms that could apply. The point is you are not alone. You are not imagining it. Humanity cannot exist independently of humanity. Everything that came before us influences what comes after that. Without the past, there would be no present. … That kind of thing.

    To put this in context of the article I read on the subject, the claim that the story of Jesus is original doesn’t hold water against the evolution of civilization because of too many other religious traditions from that same time and region hold similar concepts. For example, the concept of Heaven and Hell in Abrahamic tradition was preceded by the concept of a places of judgement and reward in the Zoroastrian tradition.Yes, they are slightly different. And by being different, maybe you can call both concepts unique because neither is *exactly* like the other. But there is no way Abrahamic tradition could have been isolated enough from Zoroastrian tradition to have come up with its base concepts all alone. As a collective consciousness the creators of those traditions shared time, geography, trade, language, culture, etc. Similarities make it obvious that one idea influenced another. We may not understand why or how we share similar ideas, but since we share the same world, it is impossible to say, “This idea is mine and mine alone because I live in an isolated bubble apart from the rest of humanity.” It’s the equivalent of the English sailing to the “New World” and saying, “Look what I found!” Meanwhile, other people found it first. So, no, it’s not *your* discovery, actually. (Not to start any controversial debates about these topics; I’m just offering context for how the human collective works psychologically and philosophically, as well as physiologically.) Everything that exists right now is the result of something that came before it, and we can’t escape each other enough to be making ownership claims about ideas and discoveries … not technically.

    So, what about literature? Same story. There is nothing new under the sun. Western literature generally has only three plots. That’s stunning when you think about it. Every piece of literature you’ve ever read fits into one or more of only three plots: man against man, man against himself, man against nature. That’s all there is. And yet, look at the millions of books we’ve published and stories we’ve told through other various media. 🙂 This is why it’s pointless to look down on tropes. Overused elements of literature? Perhaps. But so are archetypes. You can’t avoid archetypes. They’re essential elements of literature, just like plots. One of the things I do as a writer is study folklore from various parts of the world to compare and contrast shared elements. And you’d be amazed at how much cultures that are on opposite ends of the earth physically have in common just among their folktales! Never mind other aspects of culture. Every culture has its hidden folk, its little people, its vampires, and its goblins. They go by different names, have different appearances, and have different traits, but the core of what makes them what they are is strikingly similar. And the closer in region you get researching folklore, the more blatantly similar these concepts become.

    A professor of mine once said the purpose of literature is to teach us about the human experience. But the human experience thinks and acts in cycles of reinvention, both as a collective and as individuals, especially when speaking of new generations rediscovering or reinventing concepts their ancestors shared. But at the same time, our individual experiences are what make events, ideas, and stories feel unique to us. As long as you are lending your unique voice to the stories you write, they will be new branches on the family tree of human storytelling. As long as you are not intentionally plagiarizing, you can always twist and change old, similar ideas into new stories that feel fresh, different, and unique.

    Sorry for the long ramble. LoL … just a subject that has always fascinated me. ^_^

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  8. We write what we’re interested about, so it makes perfect sense that great ideas will overlap every once in a while. When I first started writing, most of my work was modeled after The Twilight Zone. As a result, my stories all had a “sounds familiar” tone to them. Great article.

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  9. And here I was, thinking that you because a celebrity overnight. Not that you’re not one already, but… you know…

    Have you ever seen “Travelers”? – a TV show. (I think the last season aired recently.) It’s about people from the future being thrown into present time people’s bodies. Quite interesting.

    Anyway… yes, I started writing a novel back in my early teen years (tweens?) and never finished. Now there’s a bunch of stories just like that. I could have been sooooo famous.

    That’s why I’m so anxious about my current project. I want it to get out so I can be “the first”. Although, I’m sure there probably are similar things out there.

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  10. The thing is, it’s probably impossible to find a completely, 100% unique story these days. Someone somewhere, published or not, has probably written a story with the same basic premise as any story idea you might come up with. However, when you’re writing a story, you’re making it YOUR story. You’re telling it with your voice, in your way, and the nuances are your own. The differences you described in your recent story vs. Levithan’s story is a starting point for something all your own, and not a copy (unintentional or not) of Levithan’s. I for one would read it, it sounds fascinating, plus because of the differences in it, your audience would be different from Levithan’s.

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  11. I had this happen to me! I was writing a novel… my friends were reading snippets and someone said ‘Hey- this reminds me of Cassandra Clare’s new series’ and I was like ‘Who?’…. yeah… sure enough her series was similar to what I was writing (though different but similar concept) and mine would have come across as fan fiction… when I wrote my story and than eventually saw the television show (and loved it by the way) … I shelved my book. It is so funny how people can have such similar ideas.

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