Can you own a plot?

“Not another story-within-a-story!” said I to myself, said I. Why am I suddenly reading so many novels with that particular structure? Must be something in the water: a plot by some nefarious organization.

By this point you’ve realized that it’s neither a plot of land, which of course you can own, nor a secret plan, which might be the topic of a suspense novel. It’s the plot of a story, of course. And legally you cannot own that sort of plot; you can’t plagiarize a plot any more than you can plagiarize a title. Nevertheless, plagiarizing a plot is—sorry about this—the plot of The Plot, a suspense novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz.

It’s hard to avoid spoilers here, but I’ll do my best. The Plot is a novel about a novelist—there’s nothing novel about that idea—and how he deals with accusations of stealing a plot from an unpublished novel written by one of his students (now dead). Since every word that Jake wrote was original, all his own work, no plagiarism was involved. But he feels both guilty and vulnerable because he had claimed that not only the words but also the plot came out of his own head. Regardless of the legal issues, the guilt and vulnerability are very real, especially since the book turns out to be a best-seller, and…

Well, I’d better stop there before I commit a spoiler. Let’s just say that The Plot kept me riveted, not only because the reader wants to know how Jake deals with this trauma but also because of the continuing suspense of who it is who keeps sending him ever-escalating threats to reveal that he is a thief. The suspense is effective, even though there are some readers who claim to have figured out the ending a third of the way through. I don’t believe them. Go read the book and decide for yourself.

Categories: Books