During “The Flight of the Conchords”, the short-lived, brilliant comedy series there was an episode where a girl falls in love with one of the main characters because she says that he looks like Art Garfunkel, who was supposedly her former boyfriend. Of course, he doesn’t. He gets into the act, even tries to adapt his looks, but by the time he does that, the real Art Garfunkel actually shows up at the door, and the whole thing falls apart.
Playing a substitute is always a balancing act, the benefits are there, but can possibly bring only a brief gratification. With all the negative elements surfacing at some point or other, like in one of the best The Who songs of the same name:
“ But I’m a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young, but I’m just back-dated, yeah.” (The Who: “Substitute”)
When writing and substitute, substitutes and substitution are brought in the same context as writing, the first thing that comes to mind is the ghost part of it — sitting down and writing somebody else’s story, ideas in your own words — turning yourself into a ghostwriter. Yet, that could not be the whole story. What if you use somebody else’s ideas, character traits, plots and turn them into your own, and not just your own words?
Of course, similar ideas, characters or plot sequences happen all the time, quite a few concepts in pop culture, particularly music and performing arts are based on the same premises, but with different end outcome.
On one hand, if that outcome is actually different, or actual elements used previously are strapped together to give them an altogether different outcome as a whole, there might be benefits for a writer to take a writing road that has already been taken.
But on the other, the pitfalls are dangerous and if that ’substitution’ turns into outright plagiarism the final effects can be more than damaging to a writing career.
So substitution can be a writing tool in the broad interpretation of the term but can be a very dangerous tool if not used lightly and correctly.
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