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Thread: How do you tell if a concept has already been taken?

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    How do you tell if a concept has already been taken?

    One of the things that bugs me the most about writing is trying to decide if an idea has probably already been done; or, if it has, if mine is sufficiently different enough to remain viable and to not be thought of as an example of lame derivation.

    How do the members of this forum deal with the issue? Surely I am not alone in this struggle. In fact, it is most problematic when a simple Google search fails to come up with a concept you just know is out there.

    As an example, I wanted to write a story about a group of people who are all using GPS systems to get to their respective addresses of choice, only to all be brought together in the same wrong place -- essentially, a LOST via GPS. Only thing is, that has to be out there. I also assume a search engine that returns results from the future is already out there as well.

    So, are there any suggestions for keywords to use when trying to find out if an idea has already been used? As an example, are there any specific phrases that can be attached to any plot description that is sure to return an informative result?

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    Senior Member Hearing Voices ozmosis7's Avatar
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    I've often heard everything has been done before. I don't know if I completely agree with this, but it does seem to ring true often. However, I am not sure if concepts are fully protected by digital millennium rights. I do know they are covered, but I think as long as there is a different approach to said elements, you are okay. I think concept is more protected to prevent plagurism more than anything. For instance, if you wrote a story about a monkey's paw that gave you wishes, it wouldn't go over well. If you wrote a story about a monkey's paw good luck charm a guy kept dangling from his rear-view mirror, than I don't see any issue with that. When I come up with an idea, I don't scour the internet looking for similar ideas. As long as you are writing your own story, with your own ideas, you should always be okay. Hope this helps, and good luck.

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    Senior Member Receiving Daily Medication C.W. LaSart's Avatar
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    What Oz said! Just write your tale I have only once had an editor tell me my story was like a recent horror movie he had watched. I hadn't seen the movie so we both laughed and shook our fists at the Heavens because it was an awesome story. I wouldn't worry about it

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    Senior Member Involuntarily Committed Nik Houser's Avatar
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    The thing is, an original concept will draw more attention than a thematic re-tread, but what will make your truly stand out, of course, is good storytelling: compelling characters, strong narrative voice, etc. So don't sweat if your concept has been done before. Uniqueness of voice has the potential to garner more attention from editors and readers than uniqueness of situation (though capturing both is the ideal, naturally). Good writing is what's going to make it stand out more than anything. I'm probably telling you something you already know, though. This is a drawn-out way of agreeing with OZ and CW.

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    Senior Member 1st Electroshock Session TerryE's Avatar
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    I wouldn't worry either. Have you been to the movies in the past few years? Outside of the work of Charlie Kauffman, have you seen anything that you would consider a new concept? I would suggest writing your story. If it's too close to something already out there, your editor will let you know.
    "Dance until your feet hurt. Sing until your lungs hurt. Act until you're William Hurt." - Phil Dunphy ("Modern Family"), from Phil's-osophy.

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    For me, it usually helps that I read A LOT and have a pretty good memory of what I've read, so if an idea for a story hits me, I'll scan my library and see if anything sparks my memory. If that doesn't work, I'll ask around with other writers or people that generally read a lot to see if the concept hasn't been done to death, or done at all.

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    Senior Member 1st Rubber Room Confinement Ben Staad's Avatar
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    I'm certainly not an expert here but I think everyone had good points. I wouldn't worry about story originality as long as you the writer do not know that it's a blatant take from someone else's story. The key is really to write the story you want and keep the narrative and characters fresh. I think almost everything anyone writes has hints of themes from other stories. It's hard not to because as a writer you've probably read a ton of material and that is constantly circling around in your subconscious somewhere screaming to be let back out in some shape or form.

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    Senior Member Receiving Daily Medication Kealan Patrick Burke's Avatar
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    Word of advice: Don't get bogged down in worrying whether or not an idea has been used before. It probably has, but it's up to you to come up with a unique take on it. That's what'll make it stand out. Look at zombies, for example. Can you count the number of books, video games, movies that use the tired old "people trying to escape a city full of zombies" nugget? Doesn't matter. Because then someone comes along with a startlingly original take on the whole thing, like Tony Burgess' PONTYPOOL CHANGES EVERYTHING. And sometimes it's the format. Who knew telling the same story as a bunch of historical interviews, a la WORLD WAR Z, would make it noteworthy?

    Point being, you can worry yourself out of writing anything, but the only affirmative action worth taking is sitting down and writing it. And if, when you're done and published, someone says: "Hmm, reminds me of Stephen King's IT", will you really be bothered? Because there's a sentence that rhymes with that that's a lot less pleasing to the writerly ear, so the onus is on you to write, write, write, because ideas are common; how we process them as creative types and how they ultimately emerge, is not.

    Kealan

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    Quote Originally Posted by JJ123 View Post
    One of the things that bugs me the most about writing is trying to decide if an idea has probably already been done; or, if it has, if mine is sufficiently different enough to remain viable and to not be thought of as an example of lame derivation.

    How do the members of this forum deal with the issue? Surely I am not alone in this struggle. In fact, it is most problematic when a simple Google search fails to come up with a concept you just know is out there.

    As an example, I wanted to write a story about a group of people who are all using GPS systems to get to their respective addresses of choice, only to all be brought together in the same wrong place -- essentially, a LOST via GPS. Only thing is, that has to be out there. I also assume a search engine that returns results from the future is already out there as well.

    So, are there any suggestions for keywords to use when trying to find out if an idea has already been used? As an example, are there any specific phrases that can be attached to any plot description that is sure to return an informative result?
    I would say there's no such thing, otherwise there's no point in writing at all. How many vampire stories have there been, but yet there seems to be a constant flow of new vampire stories every year. So long as you're not writing something cliche, for instance, the very first story I ever wrote for submission (coincidentally to CD back in 2000-01) you should be fine. We should all be trying to write something unique even when it's something familiar.

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    Thanks for the replies. My apologies for not responding sooner; I'd like to be on the board more frequently, but it will be admittedly difficult for me to do so because of my schedule. Anyway, I will do my best to take everyone's advice: just write and not worry about duplication of concept (for the reasons that have been stated).

    What makes me paranoid is what I'm reading about today: Harlan Ellison is now suing the creators of that new movie -- I think it is called In Time. He says they ripped it off from his Repent Harlequin short story. I read that a while ago; excellent piece of work. But, in my opinion, he has no case. Then again, I never understood why James Cameron had to give Ellison a credit on the original Terminator film.

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    Senior Member Hearing Voices ozmosis7's Avatar
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    Sounds like someone trying to make an easy penny to me.

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    Senior Member 1st Electroshock Session TerryE's Avatar
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    Ellison is a great writer, but has a huge, huge ego and has proven in the past that he's ready to sue over any perceived slight or copying, intentional or not. The studio gave Ellison a credit in Terminator, because of a plagiarism lawsuit that came about after the initial release. Ellison sued saying the entire movie was a ripoff of his Outer Limits episode Soldier (and to a smaller extent Demon with a Glass Hand), in which a soldier from the future who knows only how to fight and kill gets sent back in time. Apparently the Cameron still considers it to have been a nuisance lawsuit and didn't agree with the studios agreement when the suit was settled.

    And I think now we have an answer to your initial question. Write your story, and if Harlan Ellison sues you, then it's been used before. But remember again that you can't plagiarize something you've never seen. If you're not overtly stealing or paying tribute to something you've read or seen, then any similarities are purely coincidental.
    "Dance until your feet hurt. Sing until your lungs hurt. Act until you're William Hurt." - Phil Dunphy ("Modern Family"), from Phil's-osophy.

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    Senior Member Involuntarily Committed mlouisdixon's Avatar
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    Did anyone hear ever read Brian Keene's The Rising? It's a story about a guy trying to get to his kid during a zombie uprising. He travels across a couple of states and meets some people along the way that help.
    Did anyone hear ever read Stephen King's Cell? It's a story about a guy trying to get to his kid during a zombie-like uprising. He travels across a couple of states and meets some people along the way that help.

    MLD

    Edited to add: I talked to Brian about how similar King's book was to his own. He basically responded that he does not believe that King borrowed from his story at all. Things like this just have a way of happening.
    Last edited by mlouisdixon; 10-04-2011 at 04:32 PM.

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    Senior Member 1st Rubber Room Confinement Ben Staad's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TerryE View Post
    If you're not overtly stealing or paying tribute to something you've read or seen, then any similarities are purely coincidental.
    Quote Originally Posted by mlouisdixon View Post
    Did anyone hear ever read Brian Keene's The Rising? It's a story about a guy trying to get to his kid during a zombie uprising. He travels across a couple of states and meets some people along the way that help.
    Did anyone hear ever read Stephen King's Cell? It's a story about a guy trying to get to his kid during a zombie-like uprising. He travels across a couple of states and meets some people along the way that help.
    Great point and example. Concepts are all over the place but each and every piece is special as long as it's writing with the writers original and true voice.

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    There's a show on cable now with this same Zombie concept where the sheriff wakes in a hospital and finds it over run with zombies and goes out in search of his son (and spouse) and meets some people along the way, called, The Walking Dead. Gee what a
    fresh idea?

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    Senior Member 1st Electroshock Session TerryE's Avatar
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    Yeah, but one thing I didn't like about Walking Dead, is that the opening with him waking from a coma alone in the hospital was almost identical to "28 Days Later". I know that scene came straight from the comics, (and I don't know if 28 Days or the Walking Dead comic came first), but once the film of "28 Days Later" was out there, I think the "Walking Dead" people should have come with a new twist for the TV series.
    "Dance until your feet hurt. Sing until your lungs hurt. Act until you're William Hurt." - Phil Dunphy ("Modern Family"), from Phil's-osophy.

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    I just think this whole zombie resurgence is getting over played and somewhat tired. Meanwhile I write a zombie story as we speak
    and I'm trying to throw a different spice into the soup.

  18. #18
    Senior Member 1st Electroshock Session TerryE's Avatar
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    Ooohhh, how about adding some angsty teenage vampire spice. That's not played out.
    "Dance until your feet hurt. Sing until your lungs hurt. Act until you're William Hurt." - Phil Dunphy ("Modern Family"), from Phil's-osophy.

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    Well, he might sue movie producers, but I can't imagine him going after a writer who's sold a short story for $40 or $50 to a magazine.
    Every story out there has already been told, it's just your unique take on it. You could say the movie "In Time" sounds a lot like Logan's Run for that matter.
    But the story concept, GPS devices bringing many different car occupants to the same location is basically the same setup as say Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None," getting a group of random (or not so random) strangers assembled in a meeting place before the story starts, perhaps when an ulterior motive is involved.

    But what makes the story special is your unique execution of said idea, and not so much the "original idea".

    Cheers,

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    I agree. Just try and write a ghost story that hasn't already been done. It's damn near impossible to be completely unique.

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