The Difference Between a Ripoff and an Homage

“Who the hell is this?”

Everything has been done before. Accept it. Everything has been said before too, you can check Google for the transcript. Odds are your fresh blockbuster pitch is already on Netflix, and The Twilight Zone beat you to your fresh story by more than half a century.

A writer can only make so many variances to the same old tale. There are thirty-six dramatic situations, fitting into seven basic plots, told in three acts, following the same hero with a thousand faces. Do the math, show your work, or go ahead and copy off your neighbor because it really doesn’t matter.

My early efforts tried to break the formula by adding variables to the equation. I’d mix genres, combine my favorite characters, and play with dated one-liners. I thought it all added up to something unique, until my friends easily pegged the sources of my inspiration. My creativity was less than the sum of my influences. All of my additions amounted to a zero sum.

So I got abstract, bogging my screenplays down with themes I’d taken from dreams. My professor called them Lynchian, another apt comparison, pointing out that David Lynch was already on the road I was going down.

When I started writing horror, I trekked into obscene depths, searching for a story so grotesque no writer would dare tell it. I’ve mined the pit of human depravity only to find others had been there before me. The moment I thought I’d come up with an original concept, I’d find it’d happened in the real world and there was already a made for TV movie.

Like Chuck Palahniuk says, “You can’t invent a new sin.”

Turns out I’d read so many books and watched so many movies that I could never be sure if an idea was truly my own. Of course I could have gone out into the world in search of inspiration, but I grew up in Minnesota, it’s cold and it’s not good to leave your video games on ‘pause’ for too long.

I was down to a few options: plagiarize an obscure story and pass it off as my own, like a bad musician sampling without giving attribution, or show up to the party in the same dress as Stephen King and just tell everyone how I’m wearing it different (yup, that’s the analogy I’m going with, now it’s up to you to try to visualize it).

I decided if anyone pointed out that Mr. King was donning the same sparkling skirt I was vamping around in, then I would just say, “I know, my outfit is an homage to his.”

"It's not me you fool. That's the evil one!"
“It’s not me you fool. That’s the evil one!”

The Difference Between Fan Fiction and a Proper Homage

The biggest difference between fan fiction and homages is that fan fiction brings established characters into new situations, while homages bring original heroes into familiar ones. With an homage, it’s not uncommon for the setup to be the same as a classic, while the payoff might be completely different.

If you’re writing modern day characters the audience will assume they’re familiar with pop culture. You can’t introduce a vampire and pretend your characters have never heard of Bram Stoker. Dracula is the most filmed literary figure of all time. If your characters see someone sucking blood from a neck they better not say, “What the hell was that thing?”

If they do, we’ll be wondering if they live in an alternative reality where Nosferatu never happened. That kind of convenient naivety breaks the suspension of disbelief. It’s better to have one of them hang a lantern on your influence, draw attention to the similarities to let your audience know that your interpretation is going to be different.

Right now I’m working on an homage to Robert W. Chambers’s classic supernatural horror story The King in Yellow. In Chambers’ 1895 book, copies of a mysterious play have caused such widespread madness that the government has installed Suicide Chambers on every street corner. The banned text The King in Yellow resonates so powerfully with anyone who dares read it that they go mad from the revelation.

My story is about a modern private detective, investigating the death of a script reader who read an adaptation of Chambers’s fabled play right before setting himself aflame. The detective has to trace the cursed screenplay’s origins before it can claim another victim.

Now I know, Chambers isn’t that obscure of an influence to borrow from.

The King in Yellow inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s tome of forbidden knowledge The Necronomicon. Lovecraft also put a copy of the play itself in the Arkham Library appearing in many of his stories. He found Chamber’s story so inspiring that he included the titular character in his pantheon of cosmic beings under the name Hastur.

Director Sam Raimi borrowed the Necronomicon for his Evil Dead series, while John Carpenter used the concept of the deadly book in his film In the Mouth of Madness, ensuring that the universe shared by Chambers and Lovecraft expanded into other mediums.

The King in Yellow made the jump to TV when True Detective’s show runner, Nic Pizzolatto, incorporated names, symbols, and themes from Chambers’s book into the show.

Chambers himself borrowed the names Carcousa, Hali, and Hastur from Ambrose Bierce’s short stories An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Haïta the Shepherd. In his story, Chambers offered a mere glimpse of The King in Yellow play, but the setup bears a striking resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.

If a piece had a profound impact on your work, why not slip in a mention of it? Stephen King’s short story N, has a character slyly compare his situation to the plot of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (which inspired me to quote it at the beginning of my own novella).

The take away point here isn’t stealing is fine because everybody does it, it’s that influences are for everyone.

My evil clones never do any chores. They just taking over the couch and claim all the video game controllers
My evil clones never do any chores. They just taking over the couch and claim all the video game controllers

If Everything has been Written Before, Why Bother Writing Anything?

If after reading all this you find yourself having an existential crisis, then good. My work here is done. Until next week. I mean, wait.

So what if everything has been done before? It hasn’t been done by you yet. Those stories haven’t been told with your voice, using your life experiences. Your take is going to have some variances. An awareness of what came before will allow you to play with your audience’s expectations, a slight deviation will feel like a full on twist.

So what if your idea shares a setup with something else? Movies are pitched like that all the time. Under Siege is just Die Hard on a boat, Passenger 57 is just Die Hard on a plane, and Home Alone is just Die Hard with a kid. Isn’t it time you stopped worrying about being so fiercely original and wrote a Die Hard of your own?

10 thoughts on “The Difference Between a Ripoff and an Homage”

  1. I often have fits of self-doubt when writing, that unsettling sense of déjà vu, because the inevitable effect of reading or watching a lot of movies and tv is what you’ve just described. Thanks for encouraging writers to use their own voice.

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! 🙂 I’ve just learned to ignore the déjà vu until I have to refine my story in future edits. It’s more important that I get something down on the page first.

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    1. Thanks for reading. It’s a lesson that took me a very long time to learn myself. I’d always been stubborn, having to write everything ‘from scratch’. I started with all these crazy self imposed rules that only ensured I’d get writer’s block. Now I know better.

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