Earlier this evening, I went to see a play at the Seattle Bathhouse Theater–a small community theater on Greenlake where tickets are by donation and the majority of the shows are put on by drama classes. This theater has a wonderful tradition of either commissioning plays to be written specifically for the acting troop in their classes, or allowing the class members to come up with the story on their own.
The play I saw tonight, The Island [of Everywhere], was one of the latter. The entire story was built off improvised settings and characters that the kids (ranging in age from 10 to 13) came up with, and then the plot just kind of grew from there. One of the most striking elements of the play was the way that characters would unknowingly start counting backward from five down to one before reciting a line from the Tempest and then disappearing.
If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because you and I are part of the same fandom. The idea of people counting down backward to their own deaths was used in an episode of Doctor Who, “Flesh and Stone,” where the Weeping Angels famously ceased being even a little bit frightening. In the after-show Q&A, the kids admitted to stealing the idea from Doctor Who (much to the surprise of the program director). The thing is, even though it was a blatant rip-off, I think the kids did it better. Aye, there’s the rub.
There’s a fairly famous phrase among writers on this subject: “good writers borrow; great writers steal.” (sometimes attributed to Pablo Picasso, but who the hell really knows) This is so true it ought to be carved in stone, but I think a lot of people misunderstand its meaning. It’s not about copying ideas, though that’s pretty much unavoidable at this point. There pretty much isn’t anything left when it comes to original ideas; everything is re-combination anyway, so might as well combine things that are excellent, right?
But here’s the thing. If you’re going to steal an idea, you have to make sure that you’re using it in a way that is better than the original, or else people are going to notice. And complain. If you do it well, very few people seem to care. A good story is a good story, and a bad story is imitative, derivative crap. The goal is to take the base concept and expand and elaborate in such a way that the concept becomes yours, because you have done it so much better.
In the play that I mentioned, some middle school-ers did the counting-backward better than Stephen Moffat, by making it central to the plot and studying it as a phenomenon in and of itself rather than crowding it out with angels and time cracks and spaceships and shit all over the place. Much more elegant, and a much better use of such an eerily creepy concept. As a result, even those of us who were familiar with the material the idea was stolen from, like me, didn’t give a flying fuck. Do it better, and it’s yours. Don’t copy–steal.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to come up with your own ideas, or that you should just hunt through other people’s work in search of things to carry off. Just that if you see a cool idea someone else did and you have a way to do it better, don’t be afraid to try it. After all, most of Lord of the Rings is stolen from Nordic mythology; even “the greats” were basically petty larcenists when it came to storytelling.
“If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research.” -Wilson Mizner