Plagiarism Versus Inspiration

What is the difference between plagiarism versus inspiration? I think there is a huge difference. First, let’s try to look at it through simple definitions. According to Merriam-Webster, plagiarism means to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas. Fair enough, no one can argue with that.


Inspiration, on the other hand, according to Merriam-Webster again, is something that gives someone an idea about what to do or create or a force or influence that inspires someone.

Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” Voltaire

How do you know when you are writing a story whether you are being completely original? Well, sadly, it’s highly doubtful your plot line is completely original. According to Christopher Booker and his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots:Why We Tell Stories, there are only … well, seven basic plots. They are:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

So, I guess with only this many original plots, what’s an author to do? Well, that’s where inspiration comes in. If you copy a book word for word, or make small changes like substituting a name that is like the original, but close enough that it is recognizable, you are plagiarizing for sure. But if you take a story you admire, and base your own on it, then you are drawing on the original for inspiration.

In actual fact, plagiarizing is quite difficult if you set out to write a story. Try it. Take a novel you wish you had written and begin to copy it. Change the names of the protagonists and the setting and begin. Within a page or two you will find that your story has taken off and your characters have achieved a life of their own. What you thought was plagiarism was inspiration.

It’s actually very difficult to imitate someone else’s writing style since we each have our own unique voices. Take the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I loved reading that series. Sadly, Robert Jordan died before he could complete the last two books, which were finished by Brandon Sanderson who did a phenomenal job. But … there was just something missing – that indefinable stamp that gave the books that came before that je ne sais quois. That’s what I mean – it’s extremely difficult to copy anyone.

Do you agree?


2016 Creative Writing Classes at Beyond-The-Lamppost

Tues. afternoons January 12 – March 29 in Oakville “Shaping Your Story”  

Wed. afternoons January 13 – March 30 in Oakville “Get Your Story Finished”  

Thurs. afternoons January 14 – March 3 in Oakville “Almost there: Revising & Rewriting Your Manuscript”  







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