How to Steal: Good Writers Borrow
Good writers borrow. Great writers steal. -T.S. Eliot *
This is great writing advice, but many people are wary about following it because they misunderstand what the terms “borrowing” and “stealing” mean in this context.
I’m here to clarify.
Borrowing is using something of someone else’s. Stealing is making something your own.
This advice means two things:
1. Don’t be afraid of reusing elements from books you love.
I’ve spoken before about stealing in How to Steal: Know Your Tropes. When you see story elements** in a book you love, don’t think that they’re now off-limits to you forever. Just because you love The Great Gatsby and it’s set in 1920s New York doesn’t mean that you can now never write a story set in 1920s New York. Just because you love I Capture the Castle and it’s written as the protagonist’s journal, doesn’t mean you can never write a novel that takes the form of the protagonist’s journal. Just because Scooby-Doo… you get my point by now, don’t you?
Take note of what you love in other stories.*** Remember those elements–the plot twists, character arcs, tropes, settings, etc.–and then use them to write a story full of things you love.
2. Make the things you steal your own.
Borrowing, in this definition, would be writing about a 1920s bootlegger in love with the girl across the way, trying desperately to impress her with his wealth. You’re stealing from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby… and making it no less F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story.
This example steals too much from one place. It’s too timid in it’s approach. it’s too afraid to take anything from the story, so it keeps everything the same. Anything that tries to be like Gatsby, but better is destined to fail. (Maybe a little like Gatsby himself. Just throw a bigger party, old sport! That’ll do the trick!)
The key to stealing is stealing from multiple things at once until it looks like your very own thing. Stealing is writing a novel about a gang of mystery solving teenagers in 1920s New York, told in the form of a journal the group takes turns writing in. (Because we’re going to add a splash of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants here.)
Stealing is saying: these story elements are mine now and I’m going to use them the way I like, combined with my interests. And you know what? By stealing bits and pieces from all of the things you love, you’re creating something unique and new and wonderful.
So go out there. And steal. Never borrow.
*This is commonly attributed to him at least. The internet tells me he definitely said something close to it.
**Obviously, this doesn’t apply to the words themselves. Never steal somebody else’s words. Basically everything else is up for grabs, though.
***You’re not limited to stealing from books. Steal from movies. From TV shows. From plays. From epic poetry. From that anecdote your neighbor told you last week.