Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Great Writer Steals!

Okay, I can hear all of the English Teachers and College Professors yelling at me from here. And let me assure them before their blood pressure rises any higher that I'm not talking about Plagiarism which is described as "intellectual theft". I'm not talking about stealing another writer's work. That I utterly deplore. What I'm talking about is the common and essential practice of every writer of stealing people's ideas! Here is an old joke that I found in an old magazine that will show you what I mean.


The Paradox of Writing

  • If you steal from only one author it's called plagiarism.
  • If you steal from two authors it's called literary contrast.
  • If you steal from three or more authors it's called "masterful discernment and mastery of the literary form and narrative techniques."
  • If you steal from a hundred authors and no one recognizes it then it's called a NY Times bestseller.
It's the elephant in the room every where that every good writer steals the ideas from everyone else. Whether they are plot points of the movie they saw last night, the argument that they overheard on the bus to work, or the conversation where a colleague will say, "hey, you know what would make a great story?". Everything that a playwright puts in a story is little stolen tidbits of life that will make up an "original play". 

Why do we do it? Possibly because there are no original ideas anymore. There are only so many things that human beings can do, so many permutations of words or deeds that we can perform on each other that the idea of creating something that no one has ever seen before is practically impossible. How many plots have you ever seen that remind you of a Shakespeare play you read in high school? A book you read last week? A movie you just watched? 

So what makes an original play? It's taking all of those stolen bits and putting them in different orders or executing them in different ways. How can you do a romance in a different way? How can you make conflict in a new way? What is different about the ways your characters interact?

In fact I believe that it makes the playwright's job a lot harder. We have to take things and tropes and situations that everyone has seen before and make them believe that they are watching it for the first time. Look back at all of the good stories you love. You can probably see that all of the great parts of the stories can be found somewhere else. It doesn't make the story any less good, does it.

As a playwright I encourage you to steal hard and steal often. The main idea is that you have to take the story and STEAL it. Chop it up and rearrange the parts. It's when you don't take pride in making the story yours and only "borrow" it that you've let the rest of us down and committed a crime against all of the arts. Please steal and steal well. And as always have fun!

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