Great Writers Steal: How to Do It Well

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T.S. Eliot said great writers steal. But we’re all supposed to be original, right? The truth is in the middle. Careful theft can build a wonderful tale that’s all your own. You just have to know how to steal well.

Stealing vs. Plagiarism

Here’s the thing about creative theft: there’s “stealing” elements for your own story, and then there’s plagiarism. Plagiarism is bad. It makes for a disappointing read at best and a lawsuit at worst. Stealing elements from a story is very different than stealing the entire story.

For instance, if an author has a really great line, you shouldn’t repeat that line in your own work. Changing one or two words doesn’t change the fact that it’s plagiarism. Instead, go for the idea. What about the line caught your attention? Was it a new kind of simile? If you steal another writer’s technique of describing natural phenomena with terms generally used to describe something else (human anatomy, art style, etc.) that’s stealing well.

Steal What Speaks to You

The worst way to steal is to imitate what’s popular purely because it’s popular. Have you ever noticed how one new, innovative book seems to grow a dozen clones overnight? Sometimes, the stars just align for different authors to grow similar ideas at the same time. But often, other writers and publishers try to borrow the first author’s success rather than story elements that speak to them.

When you read, pay attention to what grips you. Is there a sound in a horror story you can’t shake from your inner ear in the middle of the night? Maybe you really, really like a POV technique for multiple characters.

Want to go big? Steal a whole plot. A lot of genre stories do. Genre conventions are essentially themes, characters, and plots stolen so often readers recognize them for what they are (and love them anyway). Tolkien’s work illustrates this beautifully. He borrowed stories, names, and themes from various mythologies to create Middle-Earth. His unique take on fantasy races (Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Ents, etc.) has been stolen so often you may not realize it’s a relatively new standard. And you see it everywhere. Dungeons and Dragons utilizes it. So do urban fantasy movies like Bright and video games like World of Warcraft.

Steal from Multiple Sources

Creativity is the work of blending things you’ve seen and heard into something new, and the more you see and hear, the more fertile your creative soil grows. Good stories always grow from multiple streams of inspiration.

Dig through history like George R.R. Martin and plunder sword and sorcery aesthetics to round out the scene. If you’re brave you can even name your inspirations in the world itself (we’re looking at you, Mexican Gothic). The moral of this little story? Stealing from lots of sources gives your work nuance and leaves gaps between fragmented thefts for your own style to shine through.

Put Stolen Material in a New Context

Many of the best ideas come from a pairing of “what ifs.” Neil Gaiman does this particularly well. The Graveyard Book is literally The Jungle Book paired with Gaiman’s more macabre interests. The plot barely changed, but the context sure did. Eragon and Star Wars: A New Hope follow the exact same story recipe – plus or minus dragons, lightsabers, and starships to taste.

So, what jewels are you ready to steal? What are your favorite genre conventions to plunder? Share your thoughts with other writers below.

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