Why Great Writers Steal (and how you can too)

Write Craft with Sean and Johnny

Here's the audio version of the above video

You may not know who I am. That’s fine. For the purposes of this article, it only matters that my writing partners and I are professional writers who’ve been making solid full-time livings from our books — mostly fiction — for years. And that’s not because any of us hit the lottery with one huge breakout hit, either. Our company, Sterling & Stone has scores of published books, nearly a dozen authors working with us, and we’re currently publishing at least one book every week. We succeed because we’re prolific, in pretty much any major genre you can imagine.

Which means we write a lot. Every day.

But there’s a trick to this way of thinking. Sometimes, people ask us about writer’s block. Because after all, how can you “write a lot” if you get blocked? Where can an author mine ideas for the many stories she’s supposed to be writing so that she can find her voice, her audience, and possibly her career? 

We don’t believe in writer’s block because getting ideas is never the problem. 

The world already has all the ideas you’ll ever need. 

That right there is the big lie that so many writers seem to believe: that you need to invent something new. You do not need to come up with “something that nobody has ever done before” to be a legitimate, successful, or fulfilled writer. Your job as a writer isn’t to invent new ideas. It’s to find your own way of remixing, augmenting, and retelling the stories people have already heard. 

This is great news for most people. Changing your focus from “manufacturing totally unique stories that bear no resemblance to anything from the past” to “retelling existing stories in new and amazing ways” won’t just liberate you and crush your block; it’ll improve your writing flow, and ultimately make your work more relatable (and enjoyable) to readers. And this isn’t a cop-out, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s not a case of, “I guess I can re-use old stories if Sean is giving me permission … but it’s still a cheat compared to what a real writer would do.” 

It’s not true. At all. 

Using stories that are already in the zeitgeist is what real writers do, because that’s what readers want. 

Read a few of the best-selling books in any genre. They’re always different versions of the same basic tales. Familiar stories make readers comfortable, even if those narratives are filled with uncomfortable things. (Successful books fitting that last mold appeal to readers who are actively seeking discomfort — discomfort is what comforts them.)

Think about Harry Potter squaring off against Lord Voldemort. Doesn’t that remind you of Luke Skywalker squaring off against Darth Vader, Katniss Everdeen squaring off against President Snow, or Frodo Baggins squaring off against Sauron? 

What about Harry’s relationship with his mentor, Albus Dumbledore? Seems a lot like Luke’s relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobe, Katniss’s relationship with Haymitch, and Frodo’s relationship with Gandalf, right?

All four heroes start the story facing impossible odds against a force that’s more or less taking over the world.

All four fail in their quests before finally succeeding. 

All four are selfish or meek in the beginning … but grow into fully-realized versions of themselves by the end.

Start paying attention when you read, or watch great TV or movies. You’ll see what I mean, and you’ll see it everywhere. Vampires in successful narratives can usually be killed with a stake. There’s always an embarrassing and absurd misunderstanding in romantic comedies. The gruff old cop in those police dramas always has a heart of gold. And, of course, the cop nearing retirement is usually killed in his final days on duty.

Ideas aren’t single-serving commodities to be used once and discarded. They’re more like library books: available for anyone to borrow.

To tell Sterling & Stone’s millions and millions of words’ worth of stories, we’ve borrowed ideas from everywhere. 

We borrowed an entire gunslinger archetype for our fantasy saga, going so far as to name him Clint (after Eastwood).

We borrowed video game structure for our revenge story. Our main character fights in a rhythm of “battle-battle-boss” before leveling up to fight a bigger boss (after a few more small battles) the next time around.

Our literary novels steal elements from Vanilla Sky, Mulholland Drive, and On the Road

And our most popular series — now being used as the basis for an entire expanded universe — borrows classic “alien invasion” tropes so liberally that it’s almost a formula — a formula that readers go crazy for because it’s what alien invasion fans have come to love and expect. 

You don’t have to make up a brand-new story that’s never been told before to start writing. Frankly, you can forget about ever managing that goal; humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, and we’ve told all the stories that exist to tell.

What matters is that you give your own spin, your own voice, to those stories.

Because we’ve all seen the underlying story before — but we’ve never seen your personal take on it.

Now get out there and write!

If you like this post, you'll love Sean M. Platt and Neeve Silver's book Endless Ideas: Master Bottomless Creativity. Happy Writing!

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