This question asks for help generating ideas for a very specific plot. It's an interesting question. It's specific (maybe so specific that it is too localize). It's writing-related. At the same time, it doesn't necessarily advance our goal of being the best site out there for writing-related questions and answers that will come up on search engines as the top answers and be a noted collection of expert advice. It does, however, help the author and could generate some interesting content.

I imagine similar questions could come up about helping generate character qualities (things like "How can I show that my character has a deep fear of heights in a natural way?"), setting details ("How can I illustrate that a deep evil permeates a city on my imaginary world?"), and so on.

How should we as a community deal with these questions? Are they on- or off-topic, too localized or broad enough to be helpful?

  • The specific question in mind is off topic as discussed here: meta.writers.stackexchange.com/questions/20/… This is still an appropriate meta question, however.
    – StrixVaria
    Dec 15, 2010 at 19:03
  • @StrixVaria - I'm not sure where we want to draw the line on "expert" questions. This question isn't necessarily one that requires police background or kidnapping experiences, I don't think. My concern was more with broader applicability than that someone wouldn't be able to come up with a good answer without specialist knowledge.
    – justkt
    Dec 15, 2010 at 20:56

2 Answers 2


The specific question, as worded, is probably off topic (or at least fodder for community wiki) because it is too specific to a single scenario. However, with a little rewording...

What are some realistic ways to handle a ransom drop / exchange in a story? What pitfalls should I look out for to keep the antagonist's escape from seeming too contrived?

...I think it becomes a solidly on-topic question, because the answers it generates are very likely to be relevant to other authors working on other stories.

Edit: Re: Specialist knowledge being off-topic, I think that my reworded version remains on-topic for writers specifically because it is too much about writing to be on-topic in a forum on the area of "specialist knowledge" (in this case, a private security firm forum, or a law enforcement forum).

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    @HedgeMage - I think you are on to something here - broad questions about plot devices seem like they ought to be on-topic.
    – justkt
    Dec 15, 2010 at 20:28
  • @HedgeMage: That brings us to this: Is it appropriate to ask questions on specialist knowledge areas? which basically says anything like that is off-topic. Like I said in that topic, if questions are limited only to technical aspects of writing and publishing, the group isn't going to become popular. It's going to have a couple people that drop by, ask a question, and are never seen again. Allowing authors to come in and bounce these types of questions around is what's going to make it the best place to come for writing advice. Dec 15, 2010 at 20:32
  • @justkt: How do we draw the line though? Who gets to decide that "Okay, her question is valid. But his isn't."? Unless you can come up with some objective way of deciding what's a broad question and what's too specific. Dec 15, 2010 at 20:33
  • @Ralph - I think we can determine a standard. That's what this question is about. During beta the community discusses on meta things like what should and shouldn't be on topic and we come to an objective standard. Please add your voice to that discussion. Reading over on blog.stackoverflow.com might help you understand what has worked for other Q&A sites in the past.
    – justkt
    Dec 15, 2010 at 20:34
  • Also, @Ralph - this is a Q&A site whose stated goal is to develop an expert body of questions with the best answer about writing. That means it has slightly different goals than a discussion board or forum, and it is suited to different things.
    – justkt
    Dec 15, 2010 at 20:36
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    I like your rewording, @HedgeMage. I voted to close the question in question as being too localized. The pitfall of your rewording is, that now you can argue it is a subjective question, too vague to answer specifically. Normally I tell people to be more specific, so I do not know, why I like your version more. (@all: please spare me "good subjective, bad subjective", would you? Thanks!) Could we summarise it with: We can't give you the details, we only can give you hints? Dec 16, 2010 at 17:23
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    I don't think "let's come up with ideas for caper scenes" is a good question, even after the rewrite. It turns into a bunch of suggestions (and the more specific and unique, the less reusable). Critique on a given scene would be on-topic, and "how do I avoid making an escape feel contrived" would be a great question, but anything starting with "let's come up with plot ideas" sounds less like answering a question and more like participating in a brainstorming session.
    – Standback
    Jun 23, 2011 at 9:30

I just say No. Why? Because it's about ideas, and if you take and use an answer, you can get into a hell of legal complications.

If it isn't clear, imagine someone answering with "The kidnapper (the question mentioned in the question is about that) does X and the Y". And the asker then using that. And the answerer then complaining about "he stole my idea".

It's why almost all professional writers do not read fanfic (at least not the fanfic playing with their worlds), and why they delete all mail unread (and often don't read their mail themselves, it's not just about being too busy) that mentions plot ideas.

Too dangerous. So... offtopic.

Also, frankly... if I wrote a book with a kidnapping, it would be my pride that would keep me from asking such a question. I mean, that's why my main job is there, "how does he get away"... and then "how do the police, or how does my hero, still get him despite the plan being perfect". cf Columbo :D

Edit: forgot the obligatory info that IANAL (I am not a lawyer).

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    @jae - that is an interesting point, but all content on this site will be under creative commons with attribution required as a license, which means the author can use it, but does have to attribute it.
    – justkt
    Dec 16, 2010 at 14:01
  • Still dangerous for actual plot ideas you can use in a novel. Just because it's under CC doesn't mean you cannot sue (and, depending on judge (/jury), even win). A minefield is the image that comes to mind. (Has "automatic license for forum posts" ever been tried/contested in court?) Dec 16, 2010 at 14:06
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    You cannot copyright an idea, which is why most "he stole my idea" lawsuits die. There is no such thing as an original idea these days. Everything you write is similar to something else. Writing a fanfic and then an author using that scene is a totally different thing then saying "hey, it'd be cool to see a story about a guy who did this" Dec 16, 2010 at 14:26
  • @Ralph There's an interesting word there. "most". I think you're right (haven't checked/seen any statistics, if there even are any). But I also think it's a question of how specific an idea is. One answer in the mentioned question is quite detailed... too detailed to just use directly, I think. But IANAL (and of course NAJ either) Dec 16, 2010 at 14:37
  • @jae: Believe it or not, there is established case law on this, thanks to the last sort of people you'd expect. A case came up a few years ago (I don't have the details at hand, this is the best I can do from memory) about a cloud-hosted business solution from one of those big players which had ToS granting them ownership of content created using their service. It stood up in federal court. Thus, we (and every other site doing the same) have precedent for our ToS imposing a CC license.
    – HedgeMage
    Dec 16, 2010 at 14:43
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    This whole discussion does bring up an interesting point about the possible need for pointing out the attribution point of our license in the "Ask Question" section, which I've heard we can customize once out of beta. Since people might be using the ideas in writing, it might be good to highlight our license.
    – justkt
    Dec 16, 2010 at 16:19
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    Taking a closer look...is there a reason we are cc-by-sa instead of cc-by? I can see that being an issue in a certain minority of cases. Also, why the 2.5 version instead of the current one?
    – HedgeMage
    Dec 16, 2010 at 18:12
  • @HedgeMage - I'd check over on Meta.SO.
    – justkt
    Dec 16, 2010 at 21:12

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