Many writers are terribly worried, to the point of paranoia, that their ideas will be stolen. My eldest stepdaughter, Kitty, is also a writer, and whenever we’re both in the hearing of someone who tells us an interesting story, we ‘dibs’ it from each other, squabbling over who has more ‘right’ to incorporate it into our writing. We’ve never come to fisticuffs, but maybe one day …
In actual fact, only a tiny fraction of the anecdotes I hear make it into my stories, and even when I’m convinced a tale will make for a fascinating plot twist or short story, it inevitably changes and evolves in the process of writing into something quite different, sometimes unrecognisably so.
With some notable exceptions – a boy stuck on the open sea in a life raft with a tiger – ideas are not terribly original. It’s the treatment of them which renders them so. For example, years ago, I was with a bunch of writers (anyone know the collective noun?) and we’d just been discussing a true story over drinks; every year in South Africa, around 20,000 men and women take part in the Comrades Marathon, a gruelling 56-mile running race, which alternates each year uphill between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and downhill in the reverse direction. I’ve heard on good authority that the downhill race is the toughest.
The Comrades pays out serious prize money, not just for the Top 3, and awards cash prizes and medals to runners depending on their age and running class, and if they pass certain checkpoints by certain times. In 2013, Sergio Motsoeneng placed eighth, a highly impressive achievement which earned him a gold medal and around $1000 in prize money. Pictures subsequently emerged which showed that Sergio had switched his watch from his right to his left wrist at various points in the race and had developed a scar or two which hadn’t existed at the start line.
Sergio had an identical twin, Fika. Not as talented a runner, it is true, but good enough, and freshness counts for a lot in an endurance race taking place under the African sun. The two of them had switched outfits, running bibs and shoes at a strategic point in the race, perhaps several times.
We discussed what a fascinating story this would make if rendered into fiction. People have cheated in races throughout history. Why do they do it? Obviously for the kudos, the prize money, simply for bragging rights in the pub. Would it make a difference to your treatment of the story if you knew that the brothers were from an impoverished village, and the prize money was life-changing, not only for them, but for their family and whole community?
The bald story is ‘identical twins cheat in race.’ Not one of us would have written it in the same way. Whose POV (Point of View) would you adopt? Triumphant Twin 1? Or perhaps Twin 2, eaten up with resentment as his brother basks in glory. How about another competitor, who had trained for months, even years, only to have their dreams shattered by a pair of low-down cheats. Perhaps their mother could tell the story. Her pride in her boy turning into horrific shame when the deception comes to light. Her soul-searching, when she agonises over her appalling parenting; where did she go wrong? You could turn the twins into women. You can change the details of the race, the setting, the country, even the planet if you wanted to. Your story could be set it in the past or the future … the possibilities are infinite. Perhaps your twins are caught and banged to rights, whereas mine get away with it. Maybe someone else’s twins get away with it too, but one or both of them give way to guilt and remorse, resulting in a fracturing of their previously sound relationship. What if the prize money earns them nothing but enmity and envy in their home village, and a previously harmonious community descends into backbiting and bickering? I won’t bang on anymore: you get the point. I don’t worry over much about my ideas being stolen.
Fiction writers are not the only ones who frame their stories. In Stalin’s time, one of the British ambassadors to the Soviet Union was a former athlete. One of Uncle Joe’s henchmen challenged him to a race. The Brit was a clear winner, but the report in Pravda may be paraphrased as follows: ‘Our glorious Russian comrade came second, and the pathetic Englishman came second from last.’