No, I’m not writing about college presidents and billionaire wives’ dissertations. I’m writing about plagiarism as plot in some of the most entertaining, commercially successful, and smartest novels recently written.

And not just any plagiarism, but the realization of a certain fantasy (completely unreasonable in the modern world) of a mediocre, and blocked, author in search of their next story coming across an unpublished hard copy of a brilliant manuscript whose author happens to be dead. In this fantasy, nobody has seen the brilliant manuscript, there is only one hard copy in existence, and the author nabs it, ‘improves’ it, ‘makes it their own’, and publishes it, becoming an overnight sensation and making millions of dollars. Of course, at no point does the author get away with the theft and the degree of punishment ranges from murder to professional disgrace, mental illness, suicide, and substance abuse.

You’d think there’d only be one of those books, right? I mean, it’s such a specific plot. But no. There are many. And all the ones I read are great, have sold a ton, and have been nominated and won awards.

But all this begs the question—are authors wandering around DREAMING of a moment when a fully realized, brilliant manuscript magically lands into their hands??? What the heck?

In case you would like to see for yourself, here they are, in no particular order of excellence:


Yellowface by R. F. Kuang

Boy, is this a fun read. Sharp, well written, and an absolutely pitch perfect description (indictment?) of the publishing industry, social media, the writing corner of social media, and the hunger some writers have for success at any means. All you have to do is look at some recent uproars about authors review bombing other authors, among other unsavory behavior to know this is all true.

The Plot

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

One of the most amusing novels I’ve ever read about being a writer. I’ve gushed about this one here before, and it’s worth repeating how good this book is. Did I mention of my friends almost set her house on fire while reading this? She put something on the stove, went onto her porch to read, and got so caught up, she forgot about the thing on the stove and her fire alarm went off. It’s that good.

Shrines of Gaiety

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

Although plagiarism is not the main plot in this super fun novel, it’s a subplot, and follows all of the rules laid out above.

Ladder to the Sky

Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

Not exactly about stealing perfect manuscripts, but definitely about plagiarizing stories to rise to the top. Excellent novel, great characterizations. Loved it


I’m kind of fascinated with this now. Why so many books dealing with this? And for extra credit, Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” has exactly the same subplot.

For fun, tell us what you would do if you came across a breathtakingly excellent unpublished manuscript that nobody has seen or heard of, by a deceased author. Go on. Tell us. We’re dying to know.


  1. I won’t attribute it to laziness because it sounds like these are all well-written, involving books. But I have to ask. Are we running out of plots? Is this plot in the air like a virus infecting authors? In any case, I’ve now added all of these books to my TBR list.

  2. There is a finite number of plots, but people disagree about what the actual number is. Polti said 36, but many are variations on the same idea. Victoria Lynn Schmidt updated Polti and suggested about 50. Whatever the number is, all writers within that constraint, where all you have is variable characters and settings with the same essentially similar events. That has always been true for as long as people have told stories. I have read the Atkinson (excellent) and Babel by R. F. Kuang, which I also found very good, so I will certainly look at Yellowface.

    I have also written a Black Orchid Novella Award-winning story that is about plagiarism. “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” appears in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the summer of 2017.

  3. One of my favorite movies of all time, “Deathtrap” (based on a play by Ira Levin) seems to have just such a premise–a washed up playwright has received a sure-fire hit from a former student (loner, orphan). He decides to bumped off the student, and steal it…at least that’s what you think is happening. In case you haven’t seen it, I won’t give it away.

  4. Thanks for the book suggestions!
    Do you think it works as a plot because it’s about someone walking around with a big secret? Built in conflict, right?

  5. Right away I thought of Deathtrap. It’s true I might be tempted if I came across something beautiful but I’d always feel
    like a cheater.
    Thx for these books, which i’ll check out? I love Kate Atkinson too, and somehow missed this one.

  6. In just exchanging an email with a fellow author, I was thinking that though we’d love the money and the fame, what we really want is to be read. Humans–all the several billions of us (or so I think)–after having enough to eat (which is how my recent protagonist starts out) want to be seen. Though perhaps at a much higher level, we want to serve a purpose beyond ourselves. So a plot of using someone else’s manuscript really doesn’t resonate. (I’m just watching *American Fiction*, which is mildly amusing about a writer stealing a zeitgeist.)

  7. I suspect the proliferation of this theme has something to do with AJ Finn’s Woman in the Window scandal.

    If I ran across a manuscript like that I’d run in the other direction. I don’t want the hassle.

  8. I just saw “The Lesson” on Netflix with essentially the same premise with a couple of twists ( trailer at
    I’m still undecided–enjoyed parts of it, but found other bits unconvincing.
    I agree with Keenan–either give credit or tuck it back into that dark drawer.

    On the other hand, what if one’s OWN ms shows up under someone else’s name, someone who’s milking it, but can’t explain anything about it????
    Now that’s conflict, quandary and motivation all in one….

  9. Plagiarism strikes again.
    Last night my wife and I watched one of the newest Father Brown mysteries (on Britbox), “The Quill of Oscric.”
    Plagiarism lies at the heart of the mystery.

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