Has this ever happened to you? You have been reading a book or film review and the reviewer interjects that this work is “astonishingly original…sui generis…other obnoxious phrases that suggest untutored genius”?
Is there anything more intolerable than someone who can produce what has never been done before? I could give examples, but a) they certainly don’t need endorsement from me and b) it would cut against the thesis of this post. This is not coming from a place of hate or even envy; what would be the point of hating ________, when I could not write their amazing book ___________ if I was given a thousand years and a thousand monkeys (I subcontract out all my typing)?
Fortunately, there is no money in being startlingly original. Last year’s top selling book in the United States was a sequel to one of our most beloved books of the 20th century, Go Set a Watchman; second place went to a retread of 50 Shades of Grey from the POV of the man, Grey. The show position went to a Hitchcockian thriller, The Girl on the Train. Fourth was for the Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See, which is post modern in construction and not sui generis. 5th is The Martian, which is Robinson Crusoe on Mars, then a slew of Grishams, Sparks and Kings. Reviewing a list of the most unique books of all time reveals books more widely admired than widely read.
Which, actually, is the point; we complain about Hollywood movies aiming for the lowest common denominator by giving us films we have literally already seen before, but then we flock to watch those films – if they are well done. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was such a retread of Star Wars that everyone knew exactly what was going to happen before it happened. It did not prevent it from being the most watched film and the most beloved film of the year.
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9 (King James Version)
(Ever notice how many times the Bible has been rebooted for a new audience? Wikipedia lists 157 complete or incomplete Bible translations into English)
I am sure you are like me because Ecclesiastes 1:9. For that reason, a part of you despairs that your ideas are not mind bogglingly original but instead are more like, ‘you know what would be a cool zombie movie concept? What if we combined 28 Days Later with Die Hard, where Alan Rickman infects an entire city with rage virus just so he can loot the Nakamura tower in peace or whatever? And only Bruce Willis can stop him, cause all the other cops are fighting zombies. And Bruce dies hard, but he has to sleep for 28 days afterwards from all his injuries.’ (Feel free to steal that.)
I am here to tell you to EMBRACE your nature and reboot everything. There are only a handful of stories, anyway: six, seven, nine, ten, it all depends on how one defines terms. If there are a single digit number of stories, then your new idea has been done hundreds, even thousands of times. So don’t sweat unoriginality; it is not only not expected, it is not respected. We want to hear the same stories address the same themes in terms that make sense to us now.
However, one needs to have a sense of decorum about these things; stealing willy nilly is not only tacky but counter-productive. One wants to steal while preserving a sense of freshness about the enterprise. Therefore, here are some rules that you can use to steal your favorite book; steal it hard, shamelessly and without mercy.
The First Rule of Fight Club is: You Do Not Talk About Fight Club
I am participating in the NaNoWriMo challenge this year and yes, I am shamelessly stealing the entire plot of _________. Never reveal your source; if I told you what I am basing it on, you would say, oh, that scene is this scene here and this character is that character.
The way to do this is to take your model and transpose it to an unexpected time and place; done correctly, it becomes hard to spot that your story is a bald faced rip off of something else. For example, West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet in 1950s New York; Outland is Gunfight at the OK Corral combined with High Noon set in space; Pale Rider is Shane combined with High Plains Drifter; Star Wars is The Hero With a Thousand Faces combined with The Hidden Castle with some rehashed Eastern spirituality. This seems reductive, but when the plots are handled well it is easy to elide past the signposts that point to other films.
When you open your mouth and admit, yes, my novel does combine 28 Days Later with The Big Short: a handful of misfits predict a zombie apocalypse and make billions in profits they cannot spend in a dystopian wasteland, then you are taking all of the fun out of it for the audience (Feel free to snatch that right off of the shelf – topical and ironic).
Couching your book in familiar terms reassures the audience that they know what is going to happen. Of course you are not going to do anything of the sort and they actually don’t want you to. They want you to subvert their expectations, but they don’t know that. They want to go on a rollercoaster ride but they want to zig where the last coaster zagged.
The Second Rule of Fight Club is: You Do Not Talk About Fight Club.
Maybe I’m not explaining this right. Let’s do the exact same thing in a completely different way, shall we?
Outland is literally about a new sheriff in town, except the town is a mining station on the outskirts of Jupiter in 2750 or whenever. We’ve seen this movie a thousand times. What makes it different is a) combining sci-fi elements with the classic Western and b) making corporate greed a major plotline. The mining company is getting their miners all hopped up on drugs that let them work very hard but eventually they turn psychotic and die horribly. The sheriff’s investigation of this ties into a prevalent theme of the times when the film was made, which was rampant paranoia and the realization that our institutions did not have always have our best interests at heart. Which means that it shares DNA with The Parallax View, The China Syndrome, and All the President’s Men, among others: all films about the beginnings of the breakdown in American society and institutions.
All of which is to say that, because Outland combines themes and tropes of paranoid 70s thrillers with the sci-fi and Western genres, it ends up being a fairly unique film. When you rip everyone off, it’s the same as not ripping off anyone.
The Third Rule of Fight Club: Someone Yells Stop, Goes Limp, Taps Out, Then the Fight Is Over.
Be very careful about what you snatch. You’ve decided to snatch 28 Days/Die Hard? Congratulations! #AllTheMoney However, there are set pieces, sequences and dialogue so unique to those films that to lift them would be to give the game away. If you have a scene where one of your bankers is pretending he wasn’t bitten and is immediately slaughtered by Christian Bale, you are rehashing things the audience has seen and expects. Never forget: we are giving them what they want by not giving them EXACTLY what they want (because that’s not really what they want).
Audiences need to understand the stakes at play here: being bitten leads to zombiefication within 20 seconds. To do that effectively in this context, you are going to have to innovate. That doesn’t mean we have to be original; heaven forfend! It just means we have to take something cool from something else. Have an alarm go off that indicates someone was bitten and then seal off those individuals and test their blood a la John Carpenter’s The Thing. #DoneAndDone
Or put everyone in jackets and make them take off their coats and hold them to the light. The person who has a bite mark hole in the jacket of their arm gets blasted. Or steal a page from The Deer Hunter and make them play Russian roulette with a weapon that only kills zombies. But whatever you do, do not steal iconic moments and scenes or dialogue from the model you are stealing from. Rip off Casablanca, but NEVER say, “Play it again, Sam”. Because once that happens, you are liable to be hacked to death by a vengeful audience. (I suppose you could, of course, create an entirely original plot device and use it here instead, but where is the fun in that?)
The Fourth Rule of Fight Club is: Only Two Guys to a Fight
Die Hard was a startlingly original heist film. Working from within long established genre conventions, it proceeded to upend most of them in fresh ways. And, while it did not invent it, it certainly popularized the shorthand of X meets X. In the case of action heist films, it was Die Hard on a _____: Boat. Plane. Air Force One. Mountain. Forest Fire. With a nuke. Train. Air Force One again. The 90s became a noun, a verb and Die Hard.
This works exceptionally well because it is easy to see how one thing can be fitted into the concept of a second thing. Harry Potter meets How To Train Your Dragon, for example: obviously the story of a bullied dragon who gets sent to dragon boarding school and learns the proper way to say wingardium leviosa? (Whatever. Figure it out, steal it and start banking paper.)
When you start getting into multiple influences, though, you risk losing the power. If your book is going to be Cinema Paradiso meets Les Miserables, that I can wrap my head around. But if it is going to be equal parts Cinema Paradiso, Les Miserables and Caddyshack, I start losing it. Is it primarily about poor people and the transformative power of movies, or is primarily about poor people gaining a measure of revenge on rich golf snobs?
It is perfectly fine to have a Paradiso/Miserables book with a Caddyshack subplot. But it remains at heart a mashup of the first two elements. Bear in mind that one of these ideas powered a work of art all on its own and adding a second helps you make your idea feel fresh and distinctive. Adding more primary sources is too much: themes get diluted, character arcs are dulled and the plot gets derailed.
Fifth Rule: One Fight at a Time Sixth Rule: No Shirts, No Shoes.
When you import your ideas into this new context, there will inevitably be things that no longer apply; deep six that stuff immediately. The Hidden Castle is about a powerful samurai who is trying to rescue a princess and his sidekicks are two fools who provide the comic relief. When Lucas stole that for Star Wars, he turned one of the fools into a beeping robot; he didn’t need two talking robots.
Seventh Rule: Fights Will Go On As Long As They Have To.
Do not feel constrained by what you are stealing. If you are snatching The Great Gatsby and The American President (in which a man becomes president so he can impress a former girlfriend? And then gets assassinated for covering up a car accident and no one goes to his funeral? WTF?), you will no doubt have to (Oh yeah, totally steal this one; I’d buy this train wreck in hardcover) come up with a work around because Gatsby is so short at 160 pages or thereabouts. You can extend it with original plot devices as well as plot devices from the other concept. What happens when the President asks a married woman out on a date when he should be working on his crime bill? Inquiring minds need to know!
And the Eighth Rule of Fight Club Is: If it’s your first night at Fight Club, you have to WRITE.
You see what I did there? No, seriously, you get it, right?
Usvaldo de Leon, Jr., is a screenwriter who lives in Tucson, Arizona. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for his screenplay Let Us Hold Hands and Sing Folk Songs. Most of these statements are true (Usvaldo is so obviously a fake name).