When writing fiction, you want to be original; that is, your plot, characters, setting and ideas should be fresh or novel (no pun intended).
After all, to some degree, you decided to start writing because you had something to tell the world. This need not be some deep philosophical idea but could also be how you say it, such as being able spin the proverbial good yarn. If you started writing to simply retell others’ ideas and storylines, you’re only being imitative and are not much different than a painter who follows the master’s style. You may be skilled at replicating the master’s style, but you’ll always be in the master’s shadow.
Of course, as the old saying goes, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” so at least to some degree, your story cannot be entirely original. Many genres, for example, have conventions and structures that readers expect.
You also can “borrow” concepts from other writers – sometimes. Ideas or themes always may be used. However, discussing an idea or theme doesn’t allow you to use another writer’s wording; once you do that, you’re guilty of plagiarism.
Further, sometimes terms another writer uses can be adopted while at other times they can’t. The term can be borrowed if it’s in common usage, like “ray gun” and “space suit”; in fact, several writers have used the same term, and most people who aren’t science fiction readers know what they mean. But you’re being unoriginal and possibly violating copyright when you use ideas specific to an author or series; for example, “phaser” says “Star Trek” and “ego-likeness” says Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”
You also can still retell old stories, such as myths, legends and fairy tales. When doing so, however, give it your own sensibility. For example, what makes Robin Hood an interesting character in modern terms? Build on the tale, adding twists to it and making it relevant to modern readers. In addition, when retelling old stories, give it your own voice. For example, you wouldn’t tell “King Arthur” using the same diction as Geoffrey of Monmouth.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.