This time, I'm not really talking about the legal side (that has already been covered a few times here), but more about what the readers and the critics think.

The Inheritance Cycle rips off Star Wars, Lord of the Rings. And although many people love it, some critics have expressed a disdain (in a very unprofessional, as far as evidence is concerned, way) towards it.

So apparently, you can still make something good from a bunch of stolen things, however, it conflicts with what Amadeus said about good stories:

The answer to that is much harder work than becoming a good technical writer: You have to invent a good original story with something about it people (most of them) have not fully imagined before. Before JK Rowling, I would not have thought of a Wizard's school that would appeal to a children's audience. Before Dan Brown, I would not have thought of Christian artifacts, statues, buildings and manuscripts of having hidden clues to a major secret being covered up by the Vatican. Both of those are genius ideas, superb stories imperfectly realized.

These two contradict each other, and one of them is somewhat true and the other is factual.

So, even going against what's been established of popular but not perfectly executed stories, The Inheritance Cycle still manages to be popular. How did it do that and how can I replicate the trick?

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    Well the obvious and unrelated question is: why would you want to? Are you suggesting you can't come up with even a partially-original story? Sure, most everything has been done before, but you can at least re-imagine the old cliches in a different light if nothing else. – Thomas Myron Feb 7 at 18:41
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    @LameZeldaPun Long history of 'there are only seven stories' if I don't miss my mark. – DPT Feb 7 at 19:04
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    Notice one thing about Harry Potter - it is not actually that original a story, but people think it's original because it's original enough. By that I mean, so many stories feature a child who feels out of place and miserable and then is suddenly granted a magical opportunity to turn their whole life around. Cinderella and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come to mind. So it's a subtle thing. Why is Harry Potter accepted as original (and Star Wars for that matter, which lifted heavily from a Japanese movie)? – Todd Wilcox Feb 7 at 19:17
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    Related: The seven basic plots – mcalex Feb 8 at 7:38
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    Dan Brown just wrote a fictional story around Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Star Wars is basically The Hidden Fortress. (As @ToddWilcox mentioned). A Fistful of Dollars is an American remake of Yojimbo. Lion King is Hamlet, with lions. Romeo and Juliet is Pyramus and Thisbe. Most of art is interpreting certain re-occurring themes and motifs, but rather than going over what I think of that I'm just going to scroll down and read Mark's answer. – Michael Feb 8 at 16:31
up vote 29 down vote accepted

I think you're taking the wrong lesson from Amadeus' post. There were any number of kids' books about magic schools before Rowling, and the idea of secret conspiracies at the Vatican probably is as old as the Vatican itself. For that matter, The Lord of the Rings is founded heavily on old myths, and Star Wars is basically a fairy tale set in space. So that evidence alone argues against the absolute necessity of a wholly original concept.

There's an oft-quoted aphorism of uncertain provenance to the effect that "good artists copy, great artists steal." All artists and writers borrow from each other. But a derivative work makes you think of the original, whereas a great work makes you forget it had any antecedents.

What makes the difference? In my view, writing (or other arts) involves solving both technical and artistic problems. Plot is largely a technical problem --there are certain structures that work, and others that don't. And it's okay to imitate other people's solution of technical problems. But every great work of art also solves some artistic problem, and those problems --and their solutions --is what makes a great work of art truly unique. If your work doesn't have some artistic problem at its heart that it solves better than any other work ever did it, then people might as well skip your work entirely, and stick to the original.

The thing about originality is that originality is judged from the reader perspective.

A reader will only consider a story a retread if it's similar to one they already know.

You see this effect particularly strongly in YA novels, because young children, almost by definition, tend to be less well read than adults. Take, for example, the Inheritance Cycle. The series takes the plot of Star Wars, the magic of Earthsea, adds a Pernese psychic dragon-bond, and drops it all on a bog-standard Tolkienesque fantasy world. But the vast majority of the middle-schoolers who read the book have not read A Wizard of Earthsea, or the Dragonriders of Pern. So True Name magic and psychic dragons are new and exciting, even though the ideas that inspired Paolini are decades old.

Now, many of the kids reading Eragon were probably familiar with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. But how new something seems depends on more than just familiarity with previous iterations of the same concept - it also depends on familiarity with other things. A chihuahua and a poodle seem like totally different animals, until you put them in a lineup with a crocodile, an emu, and a walrus. Suddenly it become apparent how similar they are in the grand scheme of things. The same is true with stories. For a child, Eragon is a new twist on the story they loved in Star Wars, and it's not until they start to read other versions of the Hero's Journey that it starts to become apparent how little twisting it actually does.

The Familiar and the Strange

"The familiar and the strange" is a concept that I first encountered listening to the Writing Excuses podcast. The idea is that audiences need something that they can relate to, but they also need something new and interesting, and the key to keeping reader interest is to find the correct balance between the two.

The trick, though, is that every reader finds a different set of experiences familiar. If you divide up Inheritance like I did above as a combination of Lucus, Tolkien, Le Guin, and McCaffery, then for me Paolini is a mix of familiar, familiar, familiar, familiar. But his general audience finds this mix to be familiar, familiar, strange, strange. It's a good mix for them, and a terrible one for me. Meanwhile, the books that are a good mix of familiar and strange to me are going to lean heavily on strange to those kids. (Also, kids are drawn to repetition, and their balance of how much strange vs how much familiar they want is different, just as how they measure strangeness is different)

Any book that does as well as Harry Potter, Inheritance, or The Da Vinci Code is necessarily drawing the majority of its audience from people with less familiarity with the existing literature that they're built off of. That means that any book that hits the sweet spot of strangeness for millions of people is going to necessarily feel overly familiar to experienced readers.

There's more too it, of course

If I had some sort of magic formula for writing world-famous stories, I would not be going to work tomorrow. To be successful a story needs to tap into more than just a mediocre level of unfamiliarity. But I think that this explains in part why so often popularity and quality seem to be, if not opposed then at least tangential to each other.

  • True Name magic is a lot older than Earthsea though. – Orangesandlemons Feb 9 at 10:23
  • @Orangesandlemons To me, and presumably to Arcanist Lupus, True Name magic will always be Earthsea magic. Doesn't matter whether it was original. That's where I first encountered it, so that's what I will always associate it with when I encounter it somewhere else. – Arthur Feb 9 at 11:16
  • @Arthur fair enough, but the basic idea of true name magic dates back at least to classical Antiquity, so I personally find it odd to see a 20th century book as the source. – Orangesandlemons Feb 9 at 12:34
  • @Orangesandlemons You're right. I didn't read that part of the answer as "This is where it's from" but rather "This is where I know it from", and responded to your comment with that in mind. On second read-through, it does sound a bit like the former, though. – Arthur Feb 9 at 12:47

I am not convinced the Wizard's school is necessarily 'new' any more than any other story. Rowling acknowledges the Chronicles of Narnia as an influence, and the 'boarding school trope' is (was) a staple in British literature, it fell out of favor in the 1960s according to the link.

Perhaps she mashed these together in a new way, but it never seemed so to me.

Narnia itself is also derived - from the story of Christ. Much in the Bible is likewise built on previous works, such as Genesis being a creation myth patterned after others that came before it.

I was surprised elsewhere on the inter webs at the idea of a historical story of a vampire that did not wish to be made so, and how he lives to exact revenge on the vampire who made him. This idea and discussion was seemingly unaware of Anne Rice and LeStat (and Louis.)

Why do stories re-cycle?

These observations lead me to speculate that we resurrect our mythologies anew for each generation. (Zombies and vampires are now fading, because we just 'did those.')

How can you be successful?

Write a story about a discotheque, and a flash dancer, and a chorus line. :) Mash up all the dance stories that were en vogue in the 1970s and 1980s. They need to be trotted out again, for the next generation.

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    Your last paragraph actually sounds like excellent advice! I mean... no bad idea. Not worth the effort. Tell you what, I'll fall on my sword and write those stories and let you know how it turns out. – Todd Wilcox Feb 7 at 19:18
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    Make it good, @ToddWilcox we can use some toe-tapping music in this day and age! – DPT Feb 7 at 19:21
  • If Narnia pleased audiences as well as Harry Potter, it would have sold 450 million copies, instead of 100 million copies. And it had about a forty year head start, and is still selling, and has also had movies (that did not earn as much). Perhaps you liked it better, but clearly a third of a billion people disagreed with you. Perhaps CS Lewis's word choices are too esoteric, or sentence structure, or social setting. Perhaps the centrality of the sport Quidditch speaks to children better in our sports obsessed world, or it's Hermione. Your argument dismisses the actual results. – Amadeus Feb 8 at 11:12
  • @Amadeus Cheers, my efforts were clumsily geared around the idea of presence/lack of newness. "How can a ripoff still be good..." I've edited my answer to clarify. – DPT Feb 8 at 14:43

Ah, the myth of originality. (Hi @LaurenIpsum! Waves.)

No one in the publishing industry wants originality. Not publishers. Not readers. The only people in the orbit of publishing that claim to value originality are snarky internet trolls and bad tempered newspaper columnists. And these people, of course, are the least original people in the whole system since complaining about lack of originality is the oldest (and cheapest) way of drawing attention to yourself by creating tempest in a teapot controversies.

Another industry that has no interest in originality is the fast food industry. When McDonalds or Wendy's introduces a new product, what is it? A slab of protein between two slabs of starch with some token roughage and a more or less spicy sauce. It is not original. It is a variation on a popular theme.

Random House and Penguin value originality about as much as McDonalds and Burger King do. Which is to say, not at all. Want to pitch your book? Tell me what other books it is like. And why? Because readers don't want originality. They want the same burger they had last time.

So why bother publishing new books at all? For the same reason that Burger King cooks new burgers every day. Because nobody wants stale burgers. What we want is not originality, but freshness. Hot off the presses; hot off the grill.

Books grow stale in a different way from hamburgers, but they do go stale. Their references grow outdated. The causes they pander to go out of fashion. The particular fad they belong to gets old. Out with the emo vampire lovers, in the with emo cowboy lovers! Would you like mustard or mayo on your burger?

Rowling did a masterful job or reheating the leftovers of a century and a half of English children's literature. There is everything in there from the long tradition of boarding school stories, to train stories, to magic stories. (If you want to know the roots of Harry Potter, read E Nesbit. It's all in there.) It's leftovers, but it is a masterful reheat, and if you didn't grow up eating those meals you would never know the difference.

If you want to be a successful author, don't even think about trying to be original. Think about making old stories fresh again. It is all about old wine in new skins. Same old plonk. Brand new label.

And there is nothing dishonorable or cynical about this. This has been the task of the storyteller from of old: to retell the old stories for a new generation. We preserve by remaking. Because without remaking, the old stories would become incomprehensible. Originality is not our job. Our job is faithful retransmission of the ancient tales of the primordial campfire. The essence of our craft is not originality, but freshness.

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    In writing, "Freshness" IS originality, in the sense it has not been done before. Again, this facile dismissal ignores the results. if Potter is a rehash of previous stories, Narnia or Nesbit or whomever, why did THEY not capture even an approximate equivalent for their time of 450 million copies sold and billions of dollars in sales? This first-time unknown writer worked on her novel for five years, plenty of time for better known authors that could command larger marketing budgets. They failed and she succeeded, with original writing buyers liked better and recommended to friends. – Amadeus Feb 8 at 13:55
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    @Amadeus Your argument assumes that originality is the key to high sales volumes. It is not. It is not about the originality of the idea but about the freshness of the telling. The iphone was not an original idea. Why did Apple so vastly outsell Blackberry in the smartphone market? A fresh design and a pitch to a ripe market that Blackberry was not interested in serving. You are arguing popular, therefore original. Nothing in the marketplace bears out that argument. Packaging and timing is 98% of that game. BTW, have you read E Nesbit? – Mark Baker Feb 8 at 14:22
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    @Amadeus Again you are arguing that all differences constitute originality. You can if you like, but you are bending the language to fit your argument rather than addressing the issues at stake. What matters is what kinds of differences, in what domain, led to the success you are studying. Merely saying "originality" tells us nothing. – Mark Baker Feb 8 at 15:51
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    @Amadeus, which puts you right back to saying that the definition of original is popular. Again, such a definition of original is useless for our purposes since it amounts to saying that the way to be popular is to be popular. Arguing about whose definition of the word wins is not productive. What we need is a way to discuss which factors make works popular. Saying popular because original and original because popular contributes nothing to that discussion. – Mark Baker Feb 8 at 16:18
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    @Amadeus " but massively popular and record-breaking does prove it contains something original" It would prove, in any case, that it contains something perceived as original and marketed the right way so you notice it is there. Whether it is actually original or not can't be extrapolated by sales figures and/or reaction, but with that level of reaction it can be assured that it is perceived as original ('cause we humans like shiny new things (even when they are not actually shiny and/or new)) – xDaizu Feb 8 at 17:21

This does answer the OP's question: As I said in my answer, and added P.S. and P.P.S, and comments later, the only requirement is that something (significant) be original, which can include characters, plot, setting, etc.

Superficial generalities of Rowling's work versus others does not change the fact that she DID have original characters, her own plot, and writing accessible to an adolescent market. There is a reason she has sold more than all that went before her, literally billions of dollars worth of entertainment, and that is not luck: The ones to which she is "similar" obviously failed to captivate a billion dollar audience, they published years before her (she worked on her novel for five years).

As I explained in the earlier answer, you cannot market your way to selling on the order of half a billion copies of anything; 85% of that market will not buy just because an ad tells them too if critics and other readers are saying the work is crap. The only way to sell 450 million copies is if they are reliably pleasing to the intended audience, in her case both adolescents AND their parents as suitable reading material.

The fact that Narnia did not do the same is all the proof you need that Rowling did not just rip off Narnia and do it again, she may have been inspired by Narnia, or mythology, or history, but she simply must have done something original with that inspiration that made her work better in the eyes of the audience than Narnia. To think otherwise is ludicrously implausible.

The answer is, yes, you can be inspired by Star Wars, or Rowling, or Stephen King, or Dan Brown, but you need to bring something original and compelling to the story in order to not be reviewed as a pale imitation of the master. You need original characters, OR setting, OR a connection to current social issues, OR a plot the original has not used, OR just plain better and more immersive portrayals than the original.

Because few publishers will purchase a novel, and few people will buy, a book that is routinely panned as virtually identical to The Da Vinci Code with different names for the characters.

My answer, with the P.S. and PPS and comments, stands as written.

  • I almost jumped on the earlier answer with examples of previous work (Jill Murphy, anyone?), but you're right - the answer stood as this one stands, and I knew I was just taking parts of it out of context. [Funny, though - I still can't entirely resist seeing a sentence that includes the words "Dan Brown" and "master" as bait...] – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Feb 8 at 8:45
  • @ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere First, thanks for having a name longer than 15 characters, it helps a lot with circumventing SE's defenses, second, I think that feeling of yours has something to do with the author in question being the namer of an inaccuracy trope, with a whole page of examples dedicated to him. – Mephistopheles Feb 8 at 9:06
  • @LameZeldaPun - no circumvention intended, and I'm already a bit too guilty of considering the phrase "excrement is brown" as a commutative operation. As such, it's good when people remind me - as Amadeus did when taken in context - of what Dan does well. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Feb 8 at 9:38
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    @Amadeus yes, the new work had something in it that the others did not, but if you are going to argue that any difference constitutes originality then you are devaluing the word. Our task here is to discern what we need to do to be successful writers. Write something different from other writers, while technically true, is not helpful. If we want to talk usefully about what contributes to literary success we need a more confined definition of original than merely different. And we need a definition that allows for other properties to be examined and their relative importance weighed. – Mark Baker Feb 8 at 15:48
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    @Amadeus My position was never that there is nothing original about bestsellers. My position is that originality was not their outstanding virtue, and that the pursuit of originality as the preminet virtue of a story will only lead writers away from the main vein of story which flows in the human psyche. Excellence of execution, not originality of concept, is what will get you on the best seller lists. – Mark Baker Feb 8 at 16:43

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