Friday, July 29, 2011

How to Steal Without Plagiarizing

Shakespeare did it. Faulkner did it. Yes, even some of the most popular screenwriters of the age did and are doing it. So, to semi-quote one of my favorite bands, The Cranberries... if everyone else is doing it, why can't we?

Stealing is common practice in the writing world, and it's okay if I do it, too. Come on, now. Let's say it all together. Stealing is common practice in the writing world, and it's okay if I do it, too. Very good! Anyone ever told you there's only a grand total of, like, 6 or 7 stories in the entire world? And that every story is just some sort of spin off of those stories? Whether you choose to believe this or not is irrelevant to what you, as a writer, can accomplish if you 1) study what you love to read and 2) think of a new way to put a twist on that story. I'm talking about taking an old plot (or... not so old plot...) and weaving in your own original, wonderful, God-given writerly talent.

Take an interesting plot & weave in your own magic

Now, listen, folks. And listen good. You cannot just lift a plot and characters out of an original story and make it your own. That's a nasty word called plagiarizing, and you never ever ever wanna steal straight from somebody else's hard work.

However, you CAN take a seed from any given plot and filter in your magic. Switch characters. Steal a pattern (plot) and stick it in your world, then throw your characters into the mix. Turn stuff upside down. Get creative! Listen to what James Scott Bell has to say about mixing up genres:

It's very easy to take a Western tale, for example, and set it in outer space. Star Wars had many Western themes (remember the bar scene?). Likewise, the Sean Connery movie Outland is like High Noon set on a Jupiter moon. The feel of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man characters transferred well into the future in Robert A. Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Even the classic television series The Wild, Wild West was simply James Bond in the Old West. A brilliant flipping of a genre that has become part of popular culture.

Remember the movie Clueless? With Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash and, "oh my gah, as if!"? Jane Austen's Emma. Strong-willed, independent minded heroine plays matchmaker among her acquaintances and winds up falling in love herself.

Been shopping with Dr. Suess?

Think of the "star-crossed lovers" bit. Really, how many books and films have you read/seen with either the exact or at least some version of this concept? Romeo and Juliet, anyone? But where did good ol' Billy Shakes get his idea? Who knows? But here we are, over 400 years later, and that lovesick, can't eat, can't sleep, I'd rather die than live without you plot-line is still going strong. Think Tristan + Isolde, Ladyhawke, The Notebook... TWILIGHT, for pity's sake. All Romeo and Juliet-type plots with the respective author's own special twist.

So, next time you begin to plot out a book, think on the classics. Mull over what you've already read. Bet your bottom dollar there's at least three to five that flashed inside your mind just now. Then, figure out how you can make it your own, whether with plot or characters or both.

What other methods aid you when starting a new project? Do you perhaps read newspapers? Magazines? Do you study up on nonfiction? If you could steal anyone's story and make it your own, which one would you nab? I promise, I won't tell. :)

Peace, Love, and Junior Mints,



Samael said...

I agree that few original tales truly exist anymore, the trick is to take something familiar and make it fresh by adding an original or newer way to look at it.

Andrew Leon said...

To really narrow it down, there are only 3 conflicts that all stories narrow down to. Just 3. Or some combination of those 3.

And, um, I think scholars actually do know exactly from where Shakespeare stole R&J, but I'm not remembering, at the moment. I also don't feel like looking it up. I don't think he had any original stories. He just wrote them up better than anyone else.

Lynda R Young said...

I think that's why it's so important to read a wide range of stories. The more input we get, the more chance of making a story our own, rather than just rehashing.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Newspapers provide some great ideas for fiction stories, especially those tiny little articles hardly anyone ever reads. Many of them reflect odd or surprising stories that can really get a writer thinking about the why's.

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