"Based on a story by my pal Shecky"
May 28, 2009 12:02 AM   Subscribe

How often are the stories of a comic, novel, play, TV series, movie, or song conceived by the writer's friend, relative, acquaintance, neighbor, mailman, dog, etc?

Writers get all the credit for their works (except in movies, where the director often ends up with a lot; and TV is often collaborative), but just how often is a given story entirely their own idea?

I remember some old anecdote about how Charles Schulz refused to accept story ideas from fans. And for legal reasons it's probably a smart choice for professional writers. But like a lot of people, IANAPW, but still harbor ambitions of coming up with the concept for the Great American Movie. (A lot of people in America, anyway.)

Not that I plan on hounding my friendly neighborhood screenwriter, but out of sheer curiosity, do you know of any instances where the premise behind a well-known show, movie, book, etc was conceived of in detail by someone other than the credited writer/creator... just an ordinary "civilian"?

A close example would be "Lost," which was roughly conceived by a then-exec at ABC, before being fleshed out by JJ Abrams and company. Now, if the general story arc of the entire series had originally been pitched to JJ by, say, his optician... that'd be even better.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing to Media & Arts (14 answers total)
 
The general vibe I feel, and get from other novel writers, is that ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone I know who writes seriously has more of their own ideas than they can ever flesh out in a lifetime, and finds it awkward to deal with when others try to pitch ideas to them; it's hard to be willing to put that degree of work into an idea that someone else is way more passionate about than you are when you already have your own that you're more passionate about. If you ever go to the webpage of some novelists you enjoy, chances are you will see some of them ask that you not send them book ideas, and it's for the reasons I just stated as much as the legal ones you've mentioned.

That's books, though, and not everyone is like that. The authors that write the novel adaptations of movies and whatnot are certainly comfortable writing other people's stories and ideas. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any books (aside from movie adaptations) where the idea was not the author's. I'm sure they exist, but I'd be surprised if they were all that common.

My guess is that there are a lot more instances of this in TV and film, given that those are very collaborative industries.
posted by Nattie at 12:11 AM on May 28, 2009


Writers get inspiration and ideas from anywhere, even if they don't admit it. Friends, newspaper articles, random overheard conversations-- it's common (and smart, in a way) to steal anything you can get away with.

It's the "can get away with" part that gets tricky, though. You don't want to steal something that someone else is legally entitled to, and you don't want to be unoriginal. So often that stolen idea gets twisted a little, or filtered through different characters or settings.

But yeah, watch a few films or seasons of TV produced in different decades, and you'll see stuff "borrowed" left and right. And not just for Campbellesque reasons.
posted by Rykey at 12:18 AM on May 28, 2009


Writers write other people's ideas all the time. They'll write to somebody's brief or in an existing universe or with borrowed characters. They will do this because there is money attached.

Writers get offered ideas all the time. Tell somebody at a party that you're a writer and two out of three people will offer up their great idea for a novel/film/play/tv show. They'll generously offer to split the profits 50/50, not realising that ideas are a dime a dozen. (And a large subset of these ideas are people saying 'Man, you should write my life story. I've had a helluva time. That would make a great movie!')

Basically all writers have lots of ideas. They're only going to write somebody else's idea if there's significant money or a pre-existing readership attached.

The non-movie adaptation examples you're looking for would be stuff like James Patterson thrillers and the Sweet Valley High children's books. In both cases, one person has the initial idea and the actual writing gets farmed out.
posted by the latin mouse at 12:41 AM on May 28, 2009


I've always thought that Ong's Hat was the clear inspiration for Lost.
posted by bunnytricks at 1:01 AM on May 28, 2009


do you know of any instances where the premise behind a well-known show

Any time you see a "story by" credit on a film where the credited person is not also credited as the writer is what you're talking about.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 3:18 AM on May 28, 2009


There are no original story ideas. Just new ways of telling the same stories.
posted by winston at 3:48 AM on May 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Rarely.

Most non-writers don't have a strong grasp of what makes a good story, or mistake 'an idea for a story' for a story. However I have been pointed at incredible source material by friends quite frequently.
posted by unSane at 4:02 AM on May 28, 2009


Sort of side-related to your question, but as you mention authors refusing to accept story ideas from fans, you may be interested in Marion Zimmer Bradley. MZB wrote a series of novels in a universe she called Darkover, and after somebody wrote fan-fiction that overlapped a book she was writing, the entire novel was deemed unpublishable.

From Writer's Digest, March 1993 (as quoted on fanhistory.com)
. . .While in the past I have allowed fans to 'play in my yard,' I was forced to stop that practice last summer when one of the fans wrote a story, using my world and my characters, that overlapped the setting I was using for my next _Darkover_ novel. Since she had sent me a copy of her fanzine, and I had read it, my publisher will not publish my novel set during that time period, and I am now out several years' work, as well as the cost of inconvenience of having a lawyer deal with this matter.
There seems to be some disagreement as to whether this is the full story. Some versions (see the above article) say that she borrowed an idea from the story she read and that's where the problems came from; others say the overlap was pure coincidence. These days, authors who are okay with fan-fiction always add that they cannot read it for legal reasons.
posted by Georgina at 4:26 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ideas are a dime a dozen. Seriously.

Lost being pitched by an ex-exec at ABC? C'mon. Lost is Gilligan's Island turned serious. Their writers 'wrote' themselves into corners trying to have a 'twist.' Gilligan's Island is Robinson Crusoe played as a 'class' based comedy with a group.

It's not the 'story idea' that is unique, it's the craft of how to tell that same story over and over.
posted by filmgeek at 5:22 AM on May 28, 2009


As a TV writer, I have to say that I have never worked on an idea that was "conceived in detail" by someone else. I might have a producer approach me and say, for example, that he wants to pitch a pilot based in a specific world, or that might be "this show meets that show", but my role has always then been to take that vague notion and create the details of characters, storyline, and so on, myself. I've never been handed, for instance, a detailed outline and told "hey, go write this!"

I generally also don't introduce myself as a writer to people I don't know, because everyone on earth then says "Hey, I have a great idea for a show/movie/etc!" And, really, I have enough ideas of my own. It's the fleshing out of notions and creating something concrete out of them that's the hard part.
posted by OolooKitty at 8:14 AM on May 28, 2009


I write other people's ideas all the time -- they're the same people who pay me to write. And while filmgeek may be a film geek, he's wrong to discount the exec-at-ABC-as-being-the-genesis-of-Lost story. I'd say half of what I've worked on were original ideas I came up with, and the other half were ideas generated by a producer/exec/director. Often, I'll get pitched a kernel of an idea (dude trapped in a building overrun by terrorists) and then I'll come back with... lessee, uh, marriage on the rocks, New York cop in Los Angeles, bearer bonds, German bad guys, nerdy computer hacker, Yippee Kai Yay, barefoot, bad guy masquerades as civilian late in the second act, exploding roof... and so on.

Any time you see a "story by" credit on a film where the credited person is not also credited as the writer is what you're talking about.

This is not accurate. Someone might get a story-by credit probably because they wrote an early draft that established structure and character but then someone else came in and rewrote it enough that they got screenplay by credit. WGA-signatory movies have credits determined by WGA rules (as opposed to indie films, where credits are simply determined by the producers). The WGA doesn't look kindly on execs or producers or directors getting story-by credit, and they usually set the bar rather high for those people to get story credit. As has been stated above, ideas are not story.

Just as an example, I'm currently working on something where the director came to me with some images and thoughts, and I've put them together into a story. I'm willing to do that because she's established and has access to money to make the film and there's a clear path towards me getting paid and I've worked with her before.

More specifically, you're talking about a civilian coming up with an idea that gets written by a professional, and that's common-but-uncommon and the civilian won't get much out of it. As unSane points out, though, friends and family often point us writers to invaluable nuggets floating in the transom.
posted by incessant at 8:23 AM on May 28, 2009


Friends, newspaper articles, random overheard conversations-- it's common (and smart, in a way) to steal anything you can get away with.

This is not stealing. This is using the world around you for inspiration.

I'm a teevee writer as well, and I'd just like to echo what the others have said. Ideas and input comes at a writer from all directions, including the other writers. If Writer A gives Writer B the key scene or idea that breaks his story perfectly, it's still Writer B's story. We all know that the writing is the hard part.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:52 AM on May 28, 2009


Thanks for the responses so far. I'm familiar with the notion that writers find inspiration from all kinds of external sources (I've relied on this as an amateur cartoonist). Same goes for the notion that no story is truly original, and they're all just rehashes and combinations of older stories. But I was hoping to hear some real examples of non-writers pitching general plotlines/story arcs, not just a vague one-sentence concept.

So, yeah... something like incessant's Die Hard example, only where some non-writer came up with the basic ideas for the wisecracking hero, the debonair bad guy, the earnest cop outside. And the major plot points. And maybe a hilarious one-liner or two. And then the pro writer filled in all the rest.

Or is it just a matter of writers rarely admitting that they got an idea from someone else? I'm sure it's common for writers to say they were given a "Movie X-meets-Movie Y" pitch by someone, but when has one said, "Most of this plot was just taken from a story my grandmother told me while she was drunk a few years ago" or "My son came up with this story for a grade school assignment and I just added enough material to make it into a two-hour movie"?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:56 PM on May 28, 2009


So, yeah... something like incessant's Die Hard example, only where some non-writer came up with the basic ideas for the wisecracking hero, the debonair bad guy, the earnest cop outside. And the major plot points. And maybe a hilarious one-liner or two. And then the pro writer filled in all the rest.

When I'm working with a studio exec, something vaguely similar might happen -- I've already written a treatment that includes a lot of stuff that's not just plot or story, like bits of dialogue, mood, tone, character backstories and arcs, and so on. The exec (and probably 80 other people) will brainstorm with me about all those things. "Hey, so I like the bare feet thing, but shouldn't he lose his shoes earlier? Like, maybe he's afraid to fly and he takes off his shoes because some guy told me once that bare feet calms anxiety. And also, can we make the cop downstairs a hot chick so that at the end, McClane has to choose between the wife and the new girl?" I'm going to take one of those ideas but not the other... and I'm going to have to figure out how to make the bare feet thing play, and feel natural, and integrate well into the story. That's quite hard to do, actually. I'm also going to have to argue my way out of making the cop a woman.

Here's a link to a blog post about the Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference that took place in 1977 between Spielberg, Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan. It gives you a good idea of the kind of free-thinking story discussions that go on during the development of movies. You can see that while Spielberg contributed extensively to the development of the story, he didn't take a story or script credit.

...when has [a writer] said, "Most of this plot was just taken from a story my grandmother told me while she was drunk a few years ago" or "My son came up with this story for a grade school assignment and I just added enough material to make it into a two-hour movie"?

If anyone has ever said this, it's been a lie. Stories people come up with don't have the shape or structure or texture that movies require. Also keep in mind plot and story are two different things, and plot is the very essence of what makes a 'good' script. If your grandmother told you a story that would make a good movie, it's still about six months of very hard work away from actually becoming that screenplay. She might have a good entry point into a script ("Did I ever tell you about the time your grandfather fought off terrorists while I was being held hostage in Nakatomi Plaza?") but by the time I'm done with it, she won't recognize the tale, I'll bet. If your grandmother told you a perfectly-structured story that hit all the plot points and led straight to being a great script, then I'd like to meet her... and get her drunk again.
posted by incessant at 1:04 PM on May 29, 2009


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