Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for Stephen King’s Fairy Tale. I’m staying away from major plot points and being as vague as possible about the elements I do talk about, but I don’t want to be blamed for ruining anyone’s good time.

 

I’ve been reading Fairy Tale, Stephen King’s new book, which has generally been delightful. As is typical with his books, there’s a point where we stop being in the world we know and enter another. In this book, that transition is more literal than is usual for him, and when it happened it gave me a bit of a shock. Not for the reasons you might expect in a book by Mr. King, but because the scene strongly reminded me of a novella I started writing a year ago, and finished at least 6 months ago.

Both scenes involve a man stepping into a place he doesn’t know, and probably isn’t the world he was in before. Both have a dirt path leading through a field (tall grass in mine, poppies in King’s) that takes the protagonist to a house where a strange woman helps and feeds him. Shoes are an important plot point with the women in both works. Otherworldly wolves and butterflies feature prominently in both my story and King’s.

The similarities end there. They span only a chapter or two in a very large book that otherwise my novella in no way resembles. Obviously, as I’m a complete unknown in the publishing world, Stephen King knows nothing about my story. Likewise, I also knew nothing about his book when I wrote my novella. The styles, themes and overarching plots are completely different, it’s just this one little section that has disconcerted me with its overlap.

Just the same, it sent me into a panic of “Oh my god, did I copy this somehow?” I searched my brain, wondering if I had read a preview of the book, or watched an interview where King talked about it, or somehow accidentally snuck into his home and read his manuscript, and then forgot I had done so. Finding my conscience clear, and having read further along in King’s book to find that the plot veers worlds away from my own, the whole thing got me thinking about plagiarism versus inspiration.

In university, my archaeology professor spoke once about parallel invention, where completely unconnected civilizations create the same technologies to address similar problems. A popular example is pyramids – some people like to make a conspiracy of the fact that pyramids appeared in both Egypt and Mexico, but the simple fact is that pyramidal construction is a good way to build something large, so it pops up multiple times in history.

Inspiration can be like that. Stephen King and I both happened to be writing fairy tales featuring a man on a journey. Thanks to a shared mythological and folkloric culture, some of the building blocks for that kind of story happen to be fairly commonplace. There doesn’t have to be intent, malice or conspiracy for that to be true, or for stories to resemble each other in places. Genres, I think, are really just types of stories that have a common set of building blocks that its authors use. The trick is combining those building blocks in new and interesting ways, and bringing in some of your own unique elements.

Plagiarism is a real fear though. I know the line between inspiration and plagiarism can be a fine one. Several times in working on my novel I’d realize I’d unconsciously pulled from something else – the magic system was too close to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, or a name came from the Marvel Universe and I forgot until I rewatched a film. They were honest mistakes – my story needed an element and my brain pulled from things I’ve encountered that resembled it. I just failed to add that filter of my own imagination that makes it inspiration instead of copying. I’ve always changed those things as soon as I find them, and I try to be aware of it as I write.     

I do wonder now if trying to publish my novella will be more difficult because of the similarities to something so well known, even if it is just one small section. I know I wrote it independently with no knowledge of King’s book. I’m not trying to compare myself to a legendary writer like him, but fairy tales do have patterns and common symbols, and we used some of those elements in similar ways. In the end though, we’re telling very different stories and I’m hoping that’s obvious. I think I’ll still try to publish it, and leave it to the judgement of the potential publishers. Time will tell.

1 Comment

  1. Eric Whiteley

    You doing a good thing and I am sure you have nothing to worry about

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