My short answer to the question is: no, I don’t check to see if another book has a similar plot. Because chances are very good that another book does. There are, after all, millions of books out there. And television shows. And movies. And honestly, even if there isn’t another book/movie/TV episode out there that is highly similar YET, by the time my book is released, there will, without fail, be at least three other books with freakishly similar set-ups.
At the end of the day, I believe that ideas—be they premises or general ideas about how your plot might progress—are cheap. I think that, when you start writing, there’s a tendency to put this premium on the IDEA. How cool the idea is, how original it is, and so on and so forth.
Value Placed on Idea vs. Execution Early in My Career
Over time, however, I’ve come to do that less and less. And the less emphasis I’ve placed on the ideas behind the book (the premise, the general idea of the characters, the idea of the plot), the less I’ve worried about “being original” and the more I’ve concentrated on the particular alchemy between the premise, the characters, and the plot.
Value Placed on Idea vs. Execution Now
For me as a reader, the important thing is not that a plot feel original, but that it feel organic to the characters and the world of the story I’m reading. I try to take that same position as a writer. Do the characters’ emotions make sense? Do their actions fall out of complex and interesting motivations? Does the conflict I’ve selected give me maximum mileage for exploring who my characters are as people? Is there, inherit in the plot, a large number of highly emotional moments/crises/confrontations? Am I putting my characters through things that will force them to grow and change in interesting ways?
It is my opinion that in the best books, premise, plot, character, and world do not exist as individual elements. Rather, they are integrally interwoven with each other. The world your character grew up in affects who they have become. Who they are affects how they will react in the face of conflict. The conflict and stakes fall out of the characters’ actions, or are designed for maximal effect on those characters. Everything is PERSONAL, and everything is tied together.
In my day job, I study the science of fiction. Philosophers and psychologists have spent a good deal of time debating why it is that some people like to re-read, why it is that some people like spoilers, why it is many of us repeatedly consume fiction within genres even after we know, quite well, the conventions of that genre. Why read at all, some philosophers ask, if you already (on some level) know what happens?
One answer that has been proposed is that story and genre conventions actually help guide readers through the story, as a sort of cognitive puzzle. Another answer is that we like seeing the way that pieces of fiction both conform to AND defy genre expectations—a mix of predictability and the unexpected may actually be more satisfying than a work that is wholly one or the other. And a final answer may be that there are simply many, many reasons to get involved with a story that have nothing to do with finding out what happens.
Perhaps the most prominent psychological theory, currently, about why we like fiction so much—why it’s so pervasive and why we invest so much time and money and emotion in something we know is not real—is that fiction taps into a more general interest, built into the human brain, in PEOPLE. Some scholars suggest that fiction co-opts a preference for gossip. Others think that fiction actually serves to hone our abilities to read social situations and social others. But the thing that is constant across these theories is that fiction is essentially social. It is about characters and their relationships with each other and their emotions and their thoughts and beliefs and desires and personalities.
Viewed from this perspective, I’m not sure it makes sense to really stress about whether or not your plot is original. A better question might be whether it FEELS real. Whether or not someone else has done it before, in my opinion, matters far less than whether or not the plot keeps the book moving and the characters changing. The surprising twist at the end of a book is only as good as the emotional whammy it carries with it.
Or at least, that’s what I try to tell myself!