How To Steal Like A Writer (And Get Away With It)

How To Steal Like A Writer (And Get Away With It) Part 1

Every writer wants to be original. Yet is that possible? Some say no; all authors must pinch from the books they’ve read themselves. This is a blog in two parts. This post will teach you all about what you can steal from other writers.

Part One: What To Steal

How To Steal Like A Writer (And Get Away With It)

The oldest story ever written is that of King Gilgamesh over four thousand years ago. Ever since then, writers worldwide have been coming up with more and more stories. But honestly, do you think you can reinvent the wheel? You can be nice about it and say that these are endless variations of master plots. You can also say that writers steal from other writers all the time.

This a blog post in two parts that tells you where to find inspiration and how to make other people’s ideas into something uniquely your own.

Today you will learn about what you can steal like a writer.

What Writers Can Steal

Writers are like scavengers. We roam literary beaches and use just about anything that’s washed up on our shores. Make no mistake: this blog post is not arguing that you should take passages from someone else’s writing and pass them off as your own. That would be plagiarism (here’s more on plagiarism). Plagiarism is a serious criminal offence. So don’t do it.

In this article, we’re talking about ‘stealing like a writer.’ The part about ‘like a writer’ makes all the difference. When you steal artist-style, you take an interesting bit that’s not your own and you use it in such a way that it becomes your own. That means you need to work on it! The second part of this blog will give you some ideas on how to do that.

Let’s start with some of the things you can snatch from other writers (with examples).

  1. Plot Structure

If you do this on a grand scale, then you use a master plot that’s been treated repeatedly (like The Hero’s Journey, for example). Folklore and legends fall into a similar slot. Basically, writers use a cast of characters, with their flaws and talents, and expose them to traditional conflicts. Voilà, you have the old story in a new guise. James Joyce, for example, used Homer’s Ulysses in this way. He even used the same title. It’s the biggest steal a writer can do.

  1. Characters

Here, the writer lifts a character off the page of another author and places him or her in a new setting. This can take many forms. Oscar Wilde, for example, drew heavily on Joris-Karl Huysman’s A Rebours to come up with The Picture of Dorian Gray. If you read the books side by side, you’d be astonished at how much Wilde was inspired. German writer Ulrich Plenzdorf did the same thing in Die neuen Leiden des jungen W (1973), where he took the protagonist and his love interest from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774). Plenzdorf also drew heavily on Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951).

  1. Setting

This could easily be the most common ‘steal.’ Just think in terms of fan fiction, or pastiches. There are just some stories that beg to be continued. If you like writing Sherlock Holmes stories, then your universe must include the bachelors’ apartment in Baker Street complete with a slipper stuffed with tobacco, chemical apparatus, and a deerstalker. If you’d like to get started on this, I recommend The Game Is Afoot, a collection of pastiches and parodies edited by Marvin Kaye.

The danger of snatching a characteristic setting from another writer’s book is that readers will notice this. The more characteristic that setting is, and the more recognizable it is in your work, the less lenient these readers will be if you don’t do the original book justice. The danger of annoying your readers would be highest in fantasy, or sci-fi because they rely so heavily on setting.

  1. Real Events, Real People

Take a story out of the newspaper and turn it into a novel. Take a person you know, and you’ve got your main character. Listen to a conversation at a family event and you’ve got conflict. It’s easy to use real events and real people as an inspiration to your story. It’s at the nexus of genres like memoir and (auto-) biography. But it exists on other levels, too. Did you know, for example, that the character of Sherlock Holmes is based on a real medical doctor, Dr. Joseph Bell? You can read it here.

The danger here is that if real people are recognizable in your story, then theoretically, they can sue you because you infringe on their personality rights and their privacy. The applicable laws on this are different all over the world (here’s an overview from Wikipedia). In the USA, for example, these infringements might be slightly easier to get away with but in Europe, and Germany especially, these laws are very strict. German yellow press can’t get away with half of what their colleagues in the UK or the USA get away with. The best advice is to use real people as an inspiration but to make them otherwise unrecognizable in your story.

  1. Themes / Motifs: This is so common that it’s hard to come up with just one example. A motif can be, for example, the main character using a Walkman to take him back to a time and place of happiness. This device has been used in the movies Footloose and Guardians of the Galaxy, and Guardians of the Galaxy even mentions that. It’s a small loving reference to the 1980s pop culture.

You can get much more literary than that. Let’s look at the genre of Utopian fiction. Essentially, they all go back to Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). All Utopian fiction is set in some remote location that is characterized by a society with strange rules. The main character is somehow transported there, experiences the society, and reflects on the country of origin. These leitmotifs are all the same, be it Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, James Hilton’s Shangri-La, or life on board the spaceship ‘Enterprise’ of the TV series Star Trek.

  1. Writing Style

Again, we come to the pastiches where artistic stealing has become an art form. In a pastiche, the author tries to recreate the original feel of a work of literature written by another writer. It’s one of the hardest things to do because such writers must assume another identity. There is, of course, a big debate about who wrote the best Sherlock Holmes pastiche. But if you’d like to read something very close to Conan Doyle, I suggest you start with Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Percent Solution (1974).

The Last Word

You’ve guessed it by now. Writers don’t really steal in the literal sense of the word. Whether we want it or not, writers (and all other artists) soak up all kinds of influences and use them as inspiration. But how do you turn them into something that’s uniquely your own?

In my next post, I’ll show you some of the techniques you can use to steal like a writer – and get away with it!

Further Reading

  1. ‘How To Steal Like An Artist’ – Writing Advice From Austin Kleon
  2. Why Writers Make Great Spies
  3. 10 Reasons Why Writers Must Be Expert Liars

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

More Posts From Susanne

  1. Why Writers Make Great Spies
  2. Digital Dialogue
  3. What’s A Beach Read & How Do I Write One?
  4. Kill Your Darlings
  5. How Travel Can Boost Your Creativity
  6. ‘How To Steal Like An Artist’ – Writing Advice From Austin Kleon
  7. Romancing The Book On World Book Day
  8. What To Do With Abandoned Manuscripts
  9. How Word Games Make You A Better Writer

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Posted on: 11th September 2023