Friday, July 29, 2011

Happy Writers: Steal Like A Pro

This was supposed to go up last week while I was gone, but of course Blogger didn't put it up. What is that about? I swear that scheduled posting thing has a 50% success rate.

Anywho, today Adam Heine has the HWS podium. Don't mind if I sneak to the clubhouse offices. I, uh, have a lot of planning to do for my 1000th Post on Monday!


They say great artists steal. Here's how.

Inspired by Ocean's Eleven, you want to write a heist story.
Unfortunately, everything you know about heists you learned in that
movie, so your first draft has a team of 11 con artists robbing an
underground casino vault in Vegas. A little obvious, right?

When you steal a story you love, you have to obscure your source.
Figure out what you like about it. Use that, and change the

Say they're not robbing a casino, but a museum. Heck, THE VATICAN
(they did a museum in Ocean's Twelve anyway). Instead of the head
thief trying to get his girl back, maybe the Cardinal is an old friend
who betrayed him (heh, maybe the Cardinal used to be a thief, too).
Now you've got a heist story with the elements you loved from the
movie, combined with your own take on things.

But is it enough to hide your source?

In writing terms, this means read books (and watch movies) of all
kinds and every genre
. The Vatican heist is a good start, but it's
still open to accusations of being derivative. What if we added a
romance? A gov't conspiracy? An ancient cabal of vampires? Any (all!)
of these can be twisted into our semi-derivative story to make it less
a clone and more like an original piece of art.

Should they all be used? That's up to you (the risk of a
kitchen-sink story is another
post entirely
). But if you can make it work, you will not only
have a unique story, but you will have hidden many of your sources as

Wait, isn't this plagiarism? Shouldn't we be trying to come up with
our own original ideas instead of stealing from others?

To the first question, no, it's not plagiarism (unless you're stealing
actual text from your sources, in which case I don't know you).

To the second question, two things. First, there are no original
(if you disagree, read
this first
). This is a good thing. Presenting the familiar in a
new and interesting way is a lot easier than thinking of something
that has never occurred to the hundred billion people who came before

Second, the fact there are no original ideas means every idea you
think is original happened to you at some point
. It might
have been a story you read or something that happened in real life
(which is more common than you think). Either way, you experienced it,
assimilated it, and it's now coming back as an idea. That's why it's
so important to live life and read widely, so you have as much
material to draw from as possible.

The point is don't worry about it. Don't feel bad about
stealing ideas. Don't be afraid that your ideas are "unoriginal." IT'S
OKAY. This is what artists do. Keep reading. Keep learning the
craft. And keep trying to find your own unique spin on your favorite

Because there is one thing that's original in this world: YOU.


  1. As someone who has wanted to write his whole life, but always floundered looking for an original idea there are a lot of valuable points in here! Thanks!

  2. I love this post because it's like one of those things i think everyone does, but no one admits to. Or maybe that's just me. You make a good point, though. There's a distinct line between using the word around you as inspiration, and just plain plagerism.

  3. Great post! I take ideas from a mixture of life, books, and TV and mix it with my own ideas.

  4. I agree but you want to cover your trail so that you don't embarrass yourself if you ever get caught stealing someone else's plot.

  5. Wow, that was really inspiring, especially the last part. Thanks for the great tips :)

  6. It's like the telephone game! You steal an idea that was stolen from an idea that was stolen from an idea, and the two end ideas don't look anything alike!

    I love that game...

  7. Aw! Great stuff - and so true. Its funny how when you start to make changes a whole new story can evolve. I love that. Great post! :)

  8. Great post! This needs to be said more often, because it's one of those "elephant in the room" kind of things that a lot of authors never talk about.

  9. Star Wars is a master example of this. If you steal from a number of sources, then it's called creativity.

  10. So great--I've discovered recently that I was stealing even more than I thought! Sure, characters were not the same--at all--but they happened to LOOK familiar... and this is not a good thing. Must work on this.

    The main thing is to make the work YOURS, in style, in dialogue, with twists, etc. I can give the exact same writing assignment to all of my students, yet they will all come up with unique ways to deal with the topic. We should be able to, as well.

  11. I love reading Happy Writers Society posts because they're so encouraging, and I'm always glad when I can help pay it back.

    The telephone game is a fantastic analogy, Valerie. I may have to steal it some time...

  12. I finally got this when reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. What is original in that? Only the way she mixes the familiar elements into her own story and if it was ok for JK Rowling I was going to relax about it.

  13. Good post. So what is your next book about? Do you have any other ideas you'd like me to steal, ahem, tell me about?

    I think I steal much more than I actually come up with anything. It's a lot of rearranging the little bits of stuff that get stuck in my head into some sort of narrative.

  14. Great points! Sometimes it can be hard to borrow just one thing from a story, though, if there are several elements that are amazing. :P

    Also, I totally regret wandering into TV tropes. I managed to restrain myself on your blog, but this time I definitely got sucked in and didn't escape until hours later...

  15. I am truly sorry, Linda. I know the danger of TV Tropes, and I used to not link to it at all, but lately I've been using it for story research as much as I use Wikipedia for the regular kind.

    Himbokal, my next story has a little Ocean's Eleven in it, actually. Plus some ninjas. Steal all you want. My ideas aren't that great anyway.

  16. Great post :-)

    And so true about how there are no original ideas left in the world. The only thing we can do, is present all these old rags in a new light.

    The fear that your idea is stupid/trite/cliché shouldn't stop you from writing.

  17. I think the only thing that saves anything from being derivative for me is a really nuanced character. Then I kind of don't care if I see shades of familiar plot elements because I'm so invested in the character and what's going on and seeing it through their eyes that I can put aside thoughts of, "Oh, that's so Ocean's 11." Instead I'm like, "This is even BETTER than Ocean's 11!" (except for I really like that movie a lot, but you see my point, yes?)