Have you ever had a moment where you realised that an idea you had—one you thought was brilliant and original and entirely yours—turns out to be someone else’s? And I don’t just mean someone beat you to it. I mean you actually got the idea from another person, then forgot about it?
In a story I’m writing I have been planning a pivotal scene: one where two characters finally kiss. I’ve had an idea for a romantic setting for a long time and I thought this might be the opportunity to use it.
It goes like this: two characters swim through some underwater tunnels and surface inside a rocky cave full of dark watery pools. The female character is showing the male character the way. The cave walls are shimmering with glowworms and everything is lit with this magical blue light. They swim around and marvel at how pretty it all is. They end up in a particularly beautiful pool and have the obligatory gazing-into-each-others-eyes moment. Then they kiss (replete with starry backdrop of glowworms).
Okay, I described it in a very simple cliché way, but that was the basic gist of what I was intending.
Then last week when I was looking up information for my previous post, I stumbled across a hauntingly familiar image. It’s the one at the top of this post, from the 1992 Australian animated film FernGully.
I loved this film as a little kid. I must have watched it dozens of times. Still, it was so long ago I only really remember the title and the basic premise of the story. I had completely forgotten about this scene:
The scene with the two characters. In the glowworm caves. Kissing.
I re-watched it. What I had planned was in essence this scene, minus all the Disney-ish cutesy-ness and the love song and the mullet.
I haven’t actually written the scene yet. This was just one idea out of many and I still don’t know if I’ll actually use it or not. But if I hadn’t done that search for FernGully, I might have used it without ever realising I was borrowing from one of my childhood favourites.
Copyright-wise, a similarity like this wouldn’t have been a problem. Disney doesn’t own glowworm cave scenes (as far as I’m aware). There have, however, been similar situations with far more serious consequences. The whole case of Larrikin Records suing Men at Work appears to have been a result of one of the band members unknowingly using a familiar tune. In the song Down Under the flute plays what is allegedly part of the melody from the children’s song Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree… a connection that was only made many years later by the game show Spicks and Specks.
If my story did end up having some romantic cave scene similarities, I doubt anyone would make the connection, let alone care.
However, what was fascinating about this moment was that it made me realise how my mind had retained and been subconsciously influenced by this scene. My conscious mind had completely forgotten it. Other parts of my brain clearly hadn’t.
I often scoff when people talk about subliminal messages or the importance of childhood influences, but moments like this make my scoffing less pronounced. How many things have I been I influenced by that I’m not even aware of?
From a little researching I did online (apologies to any psychology majors – feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) it seems this was an implicit memory: a type of long-term memory that doesn’t require conscious awareness. As a child I watched this scene over and over, and this experience primed me to associate romance, and more specifically a romantic kissing scene, with caves and glowworms and swimming. It was only later, when I saw an image from the film online, that I actually became aware of what I’d been influenced by and it became an ‘explicit’ (i.e. conscious) memory.
I’m sure everyone gets moments like this… but what’s weird to think about is that for all the times we realise what we’ve been influenced by, there will be dozens of times when we won’t.
I guess from now on every time I get an epiphany or a scene idea, I’ll always be wondering if it’s just my childhood-self serving up rehashed scenes from 90s films.