Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

How to Steal a Story

Gerri Baker
©2003, Gerri Baker

use flee the country with your creativity in tow? Sayings like "There are no new plots" got you down? Tired of facing down plot points going awry? When a writer wants to start a new project, sometimes the hardest thing is deciding what project to do, and there's little worse than wanting to write and having nothing to work on. Fortunately, a tried and true method is available: stealing classical stories.

But isn't that plagiarism? Answer: No. Plagiarism is when whole passages are copied without giving proper credit to the original author. Other ways to plagiarize are changing the character names and keeping the rest the same, or rewriting the prose by changing every third word.

Instead, stealing a story involves figuring out what made the story into a classic in the first place, in elements such as plot, characterization, theme, setting, etc. Once those things are defined, take those basics and twist the hell out of them. Change the setting. Make different parts of the plot take place at different times. Find similar themes that shift emphasis. Change the sexes of all the characters, or, if appropriate, change the races or even species of the characters. Move everything around and see what comes up.

All that advice is easy to say and hard to do. Identify theme? Shift plot points? What? How does this happen? Here's an example.

Pick a favorite story, one of the classics. Shakespeare? Nawh. Too easy of a target. What about an adventure story? Gulliver's Travels? Nope. Too political, and the wrong kind of politics for most modern stories. Moby Dick? NO! No madmen on a quest after the Holy Grail of...errr....Did Melville steal that plot? Oh, dear... Something else then. How about Robinson Crusoe? The story has a straightforward plot to work with, some interesting characterizations, and one hell of a social theme that's old-fashioned, but still usable, especially if the setting gets changed. Hmmm. Ok. Sounds like a plan. (And may Daniel Defoe spin in his grave.)

Next thing to do is get a quick overview of Robinson Crusoe, just the basics. Robinson Crusoe was a sailor shipwrecked on an island off the African coast. As the sole survivor, he set about civilizing the land around him (an important theme) and creating a habitable, if semi-primitive lifestyle. He rescues a savage, Friday, from cannibals and sets about making the savage into a civilized manservant (again, the civilizing theme). Together, they figure out a way to chase the cannibals away and stay safe for over three decades until rescue comes.

Review over. Questions commence.

The first question to answer, simply because too many other answers come from this point, is "when and where is this new story going to be set?" Go for the obvious issue first: in order to be a castaway story, isolation and abandonment is key. So, wherever the story goes, no one can come the to soon-to-be character's rescue.

When becomes important, and brings up another question: what genre? Historical? Blah. Too easy, as well as making it tempting to follow Defoe's example too closely. Fantasy? Hmm. Maybe. How would fantasy carry the civilizing the world around him theme? But science fiction... hmmm... Plenty of opportunity here. Most of the stories in science fiction, especially colonization stories, have at the very least an undercurrent of changing the environment to suit the colonists instead of the other way around. And there's travel involved in space science fiction, which gives plenty of chances to strand our hapless character. Great!

So the genre is science fiction. The setting is space, perhaps a colony, or perhaps a wreck of some kind gets our new Crusoe there. But who will be the Friday? And what about those cannibals? Hmm. More questions to answer.

Go back to theme. "Civilizing the world around me." The environment stuff is easy to pick out. Dump the guy on an unknown planet with a survival knife and a canteen so he can survive long enough to civilize things. But then there's Friday. Another human he's got to convince to be civilized? We're not doing Lord of the Flies! The story has to have aliens -- no real way around it without playing with a lot of time line variables. Too much work.

What kind of aliens? Cute, fuzzy, lovable things that can easily be trained up to be loyal and faithful servants and civilized beings eventually? Gack! Not to mention 'where's the challenge?' No, these aliens need to have more substance to them. After all, they probably will need to be the cannibal's stand-in.

Another issue rears its ugly head. How valid for the era of political correctness is the theme of civilized man being forced to civilize a primitive land and people in order to survive? Especially the second thing, the people. Most Native Americans considered themselves civilized until the Europeans came along and enforced a different brand of civilization on them, by the sword and gun if necessary. Ooo. What if the aliens looked at the humans like a species that needed to be civilized according to the alien code, and vice versa? Conflict, anyone?

Now, there's a war. Each side wants to subjugate the other in order to bring the opposite species into "civilization."  There's an excuse to strand this poor sucker on a planet, with lots of avenues to do so. Is he shot down as he goes in for a survey mission? An advance scout for the colonists? Well, those ideas might work, except that either way he's going to have too much equipment to work with. This guy needs to be down to his survival knife and canteen. Hey, isn't that what they basically give military pilots? Ooo. That's settled. He gets shot down by the aliens. And it goes with the war thing! Two birds, one stone.

So lay out the pieces so far. Human military pilot goes down over a primitive but inhabitable planet, probably near the war zone so it's not on the list to be colonized any time soon. His buddies think he's dead, so they leave him stranded on the planet. He has to survive all by himself. Except we need Friday. Alien. Yeah. So we need to strand an alien down there. Heck, why not make the alien another fighter pilot with about the same amount of gear? That way, they don't have an advantage over each other.

What would compel these two testosterone laden men...oops. Wait a sec. First of all, why do the aliens suddenly have testosterone? And why are they both male? Should this story stay that close to the book? Why not? Having a male and a female would throw far too many kinks into a story. No romances! Stay focused! With two women...Women might think differently about the world than men do. That kind of shift could yank the whole thing too far off course. Stay male; it's safer.

Two male fighter pilots who are crash-landed in dangerous territory on a primitive planet, and they can only depend on each other. They hate each other, but they need each other. So they become temporary non-enemies, then allies, then buddies. Great. That's a wonderful first half of a book. But where are the cannibals? And what happens to the tension between the human and the alien? They're friends now. Poof. Major source of conflict gone.

Apply Holly's method here. Kill one of them. The human is probably the character of contact for the reader, so he's necessary. Bye bye, alien. sniff  Miss you. So the cannibals get the alien, and then the human goes on the run...straight into a brick wall. Hello! Theme, anyone? Not much about civilizing another species when the guy takes off in Fugitive mode. Plus, the story loses its Friday without a replacement.

Replace Friday, add a different stressor/conflict, but one that still deals with the theme. Hmmm. Toughie. Does the alien have to die? Well, rescue is possible, but they haven't been gone long enough. Alien still has to die. Can we make him a her? Dying in childbirth is a time-honored death, one that's tear-jerking without being artificial. No! Still no romance! Bring in a new alien? How? Another space battle? Won't adding another downed alien pilot just retread the original half of the book? Having another human won't do theme any good, either.

Brick wall. Slam head. Where's the path? Back to the romance thing. Somewhere in this story, breeding needs to take place in order to replace the one dying. The likelihood of humans and another intelligent species being able to interbreed without a whole slew of highly advanced medical equipment is slim at best. So the alien has to be pregnant sometime before being in a fight. But there's still this whole male/female vibe that needs to be avoided.

What kind of alien is this, anyway? Eeek! Obvious question overlooked! But a perfect opportunity to make sure there's no nookie between characters. Assume a mostly-terran planet of origin, and the same spread of animal kingdom. What's the dominate species? Mammals run too much risk of being compatible. Insects? No! Next. Avians? Hmmm...maybe. But avians tend to be too delicate. Reptiles. Oooo...reptiles. Snakes and dinosaurs and stuff. Yeah. And the body parts don't match up. Cool. Oh, what the heck. Go all the way. Make the reptilian aliens hermaphroditic. Yeah, it's almost a cheap cop-out, but what the heck. As long as it's all established somewhere, it's good to go.

So, alien pilot dies giving birth to baby. Human pilot has to raise baby. Emotional attachment ensues; Daddy to alien hermaphrodite. And, of course, Daddy can't raise baby to be reptile. Daddy has to raise baby to be human. Possibilities abound for twists in there. But where are the cannibals?

Ok, they can't be cannibals. Modern audiences, even hard-core SF fans, aren't going to be fond of human or reptile flesh eating monsters who otherwise act as normalish intelligent species because they consider cannibalism reprehensible. There's the key! Reprehensible! What other kinds of people in the modern time period would be considered as awful as cannibals were in the early 1700's? Terrorists? Why would terrorists be interested in a primitive planet that had absolutely no political significance? Hmm. Slavers? That's a pretty hot button to push. Why would slavers be down there? There doesn't seem to be much draw to a planet that is so primitive and untouched–except there's all those natural resources waiting to be mined, and slave labor is cheap, esp. if the slavers use POW's.

And make the slavers human. That way, the baby, now a youth, gets taken to the pits and allows the adult human to be rescued by the slavers, then gives him an enemy to defeat in order to cross the final bridge between the two species. After all, both sides recognize parenting as a component of civilization. So maybe they aren't so far apart as they thought. The door is opened.

So, now here's the new story: Reptile and human fighter pilots shoot each other down over a primitive planet, and then end up depending on each other for survival. Loathing gives way to grudging respect, which gives way to true friendship. Hermaphrodite reptile gives birth, then dies, forcing human pilot to care for newborn. He raises the child in human culture, alone on the planet. Slavers come, return human to the military, take reptile child as slave. Human rescues child, and together, they create a bond between the two species.

If by now the story sounds familiar, it should. It's the story to the movie Enemy Mine, released in 1985, starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr., based on a short novel by Barry Longyear. The movie is an excellent exploration into what it means to be friends and parents to alien cultures, and what boundaries can, and can't, be crossed between the two. But underlying the obvious male bonding, friendship, and growth is the undercurrent of the struggle between two civilizations with very different ideas of what civilized means.

I don't know if Longyear used this method to develop his original story. Whether he did or not is moot for this particular exercise. The elements of Robinson Crusoe are all there, altered, rearranged, and, in some cases, outright changed.

The same process takes us from the Arthurian grail quests to Moby Dick, Dangerous Liaisons to Cruel Intentions, Taming of the Shrew to 10 Things I Hate about You. The process works. Break down the important elements; alter them in time, space, characterization, and theme until the whole thing comes together in an original form.

Then mail the muse a ticket back home. She's got work to do.