Vision: A Resource for Writers
to Steal a Story
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
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.
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.
that advice is easy to say and hard to do. Identify theme? Shift plot points?
What? How does this happen? Here's an example.
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.)
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
over. Questions commence.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
mail the muse a ticket back home. She's got work to do.