Will Someone Steal Your Idea?

writing craft | Writing for Children Blog | craft | writing for children and teens
September 1, 2016


Writers sometimes worry that someone will steal their idea. Though rare, this isn't a totally invalid theory. If a publisher sees an idea that suits their publishing line and is executed really well, it's rare for them to do anything but buy it.

But if they see an idea with amazing potential that isn't realized in the story -- well, it is possible to be unethical and go looking for an author who can make that idea blossom. Still, one of the best ways to protect your idea from creative theft is to execute it well. In other words, your hard work doesn't stop at coming up with a good idea. It begins there.

Premise is your initial idea. Often premise can be condensed down to a single question:

What would it be like if your family ran an animal rescue, for ghost animals?

What would it be like if you turned invisible every time you sneezed?

What would it be like if you found a runaway robot in your back yard?

Premise is usually the thing that gets you hooked on the story as a writer. Premise is very cool and very exciting, but it is not a story. It is not a plot. It is merely an idea from which a story might grow if you approach the idea like a writer. An idea can actually generate dozens of totally different stories, which is why premise isn't protected under copyright -- execution is.

Imagine if premise were protected under copyright. We'd never have seen a single Harry Potter book in print as there had been many books about dangerous magic school BEFORE Harry Potter and plenty more SINCE Harry Potter. There had been scores of books about young men with a destiny to fight a great evil before Harry Potter, and there continue to be books written with that premise every year. There have been lots and lots of stories about three person friendship teams who meet the challenges of the story (and, honestly, they're usually two boys and one girl). What made Harry Potter a unique piece was the premise married with the specific character, plot, and writing.

Premise needs plot. The plot is the particular problem or challenge that you create to fit inside the premise, and the ways in which your main character(s) deal with that problem or challenge, and the repercussions of those choices. Let's think a moment about the premise of my question above: what if a family ran an animal rescue for ghost animals?

Suppose I decide to make one element of my premise that all poltergeist activity is actually caused by ghost animals feeling abandoned and neglected and acting out. So I send my team in (which I'll make an adult brother and his two young siblings) to retrieve the ghosts and take them home. Naturally the ghost rescue center is going to be stuffed with ghost animals looking for homes.  

This is an interesting idea, but it's not a story. It doesn't really have a problem. What if the ghost rescue center is a rented building and the owner has decided to sell it? So the two youngest members of the team and all the ghost animals have to work together to discourage potential buyers. That could be a plot problem that would work out in that story, but it's an outer plot problem.

What if you need an inner plot problem, one for the characters to deal with emotionally? Maybe the older brother isn't that upset about losing the building, as he's secretly been considering leaving the business behind and go to college, shipping his siblings off to their ghost-disbelieving aunt and uncle. Now the young characters have double motivation -- external (don't lose the house) and internal (don't be abandoned.) That takes the idea from the land of cool premise and begins to take us into story.

Now, as I'm imagining plot, I have to create characters who work perfectly within the plot and who will be most inclined to do the work of the plot. For instance, if I create a young character who never liked ghost hunting and thinks his older brother is a bossy jerk and adores his aunt and uncle, he's not going to have any motivation to do the work of the story. He won't want to save the house. He won't want to change his brother's mind. So, instead, I need characters who love all their ghost animals, can't imagine leaving the home where they lived with their parents, and admire their brother. That kind of character is more likely to do the work of the story.

I'll also make my two young characters very different people so they can come alive on the page. Maybe the boy is allergic to virtually everything -- so ghost animals are perfect pets to him. He also loves all he can learn from the ghosts, as he's very science minded. But he's a people pleaser so it's going to be a little hard for him to really be mean to the people coming to look at the property. Now I give this boy a sister who is impulsive, brave, and maybe a little prone to run all over her brother's feelings. But she's also going to be good at plotting to save the house. By making them very different people, I'll automatically get different voices and actions and dialogue from them, bringing them alive on the page.

Once I have the problem and the characters, then I build the story with scenes. Scenes are specific moments in the story that we enter where the characters move the plot along. In every scene, something happens that either initiates change or brings us a consequence (or both). For example, suppose I open my book with a scene where the family is trying to track down a poltergeist in a big, scary haunted house. They finally accomplish the task (capturing a ghost monkey), but not before the oldest brother is covered in thrown food in the house's kitchen. The two young siblings are rejoicing in the successful mission, but the brother is clearly miserable and mutters about wishing his parents had opened a nice normal business so he'd never met a ghost in his life. This would be the first time the younger siblings hear him voice is discontent so flatly and it leaves them worried. If I open with that scene, I would introduce all the needed elements of the book and advance plot because this would be a moment of change -- the moment when the older brother finally articulates his real unhappiness with his life.

From there, every scene would move the plot along through change and action and consequence until I ultimately resolve the plot and settle the plot problems. And this is what you'll need to do with your great idea as well. A great premise will make an agent or editor really, really want to like your book, but it's a strong plot, well-imagined characters, and solid writing that ultimately makes the sale. So no one is going to steal your idea because it’s just a premise. Don't stop at premise. That's just your invitation to the work ahead.

Are you ready to take your ideas from a premise to a full fledged manuscript? Let ICL help! CLICK HERE.


Michele Casteel
September 18, 2016

If you are concerned, you can always mail a copy to yourself. When it arrives with a postmark dated, file it away unopened and you have proof of copyright. I believe songwriters do this with their original lyrics and or musical scores.

September 8, 2016

I don't know that one is safer than another. Literary theft continues to be quite rare; not nonexistent, but quite rare (and when it does happen, it happens most often AFTER publication through piracy.) The key is to submit to reputable places whether the submission process is postal or electronic doesn't much matter.

George Busby
September 2, 2016

A lot of my ideas came from reading other books, friends, writers, life, and ICL. So, when I read this article on the premise of an idea it made feel safe that I wasn't doing anything wrongful. But, my question is : Is it safer to mail in your manuscript then online and why. Or are we safer today with online ?

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Jan Fields is a full time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Take the free aptitude test here.

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