How many times have you read a book, seen a movie, or watched a TV show that bore an uncanny resemblance to others you've encountered? I'm not talking about those endless remakes. Nor am I talking about deja vu.
When a story line follows another so closely that you recognize the plot, does that mean that the author as stolen the plot form someone else? Probably not. could it be synchronicity? Google defines synchronicity as the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.
Although both suppositions might be true, the more reasonable explanation has to do with the reinvention of a successful formula. That's right--a formula. Okay, you may not be surprised, but I was shocked. I had no idea that most fiction writing could be boiled down to a formula. When an agent described my urban fantasy as following the typical formula--protagonist receives powers on her birthday, finds a mentor, falls in love, and battles a villain, I wanted to cry. I thought it was a bad thing. Turns out everybody does it. Why? Because it works.
From the age of understanding, we've been influenced by every story we've ever heard, every TV program or movie we've ever seen, and everything we've ever read. Of course we've picked up on the winning formulas that make up a good story. And, the plots that go into our stories reflect the history, science, and technology of our time or the era that interest us. How often have you heard about some technological breakthrough or strange occurrence and gotten an idea for a story?
How many others do yo think had the same idea? I can't even begin to guestimate--millions, billions? All those people probably aren't writers. But, of those who are, the ones who've been exposed to the same information and think it would make a good story will undoubtedly have different story ideas. We all have our own unique style of writing, our own voice, and our own sense of plot.
Stories like Cinderella have been told over and over again with a unique and creative twist. Look at the movie Pretty Woman. You have Cinderella/the amiable prostitute, treated like trash by "polite" and "not-so-polite" society. The prince/businessman takes his time recognizing her worth, but in the end, comes through, and she lives (one supposes) happily ever after. Julia Roberts' character was quite a different protagonist from Cinderella, but the basic formula flows through the two stories.
Now, let's look at mysteries. Mysteries, in general, consist of a dead body or two, a sleuth, suspects, red herrings, danger, and a satisfying conclusion. Mysteries, like all genres, can be divided into sub-groups, each with its own formula. Use keywords like "mystery types" or "mystery genres" to find the various categories. Some examples: Genres of Mystery and Crime Fiction, Hard-Boiled to Cozy: Types of Mystery Novels, Murder by 4: Thirteen Types of Mysteries.
Some of the sub-genres can be broken down again into more specific types. One of my favorites under mystery is cozy. Cozies feature amateur sleuths who have a compelling reason to solve the crime. There is no gratuitous blood, sex or gore--think Agatha Christie. Once you decide to read a cozy, the next step is to decide what type of cozy you want. These books are often broken down into household categories having to do with hobbies, crafts, pets, or cooking. Sometimes the book is based on the sleuth's employment. Again, use your search engine to discover books based on specific criteria i.e., "knitting mysteries", "gardening mysteries", or my first choice, "psychic mysteries".
Today, the internet makes it easy to find what you want. You don't have to despair if you run out of books by your favorite author. An internet search sill bring up other books, similar to those. You may find that some stories come very close to those we've previously read. Does that mean one author copied another/ "Yes" and "no".
For instance, take this scenario. One author, specializing in gardening, has her protagonist find dead bodies in the gardens of homes where she works. How many other ideas might there be for our gardening detective to discover the victim? Probably not a whole lot of choices out there. Therefore, the plot might mirror others you've read.
Check out how many books are out there with a green-thumb sleuth. It stands to reason that you will see plot overlap. The major differences will center around the author's voice and the characters. And, of course, the plant genus.
Think synchronicity, formula, overwhelming tide of writers, and underwhelming possible scenarios. the next time someone tells you that your manuscript, short story or book is suspiciously like the latest best seller or movie, lift up your head, smile and say, "Thank you." It means you've followed the formula to perfection.
And, remember, keep writing.