Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Steal Without Shame, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 3, 2014

[Don’t forget to check out the Great Black Irish Christmas Sale, featuring the brand-new, leather-bound, signed and numbered edition of The Legend of Bagger Vance.]

Continuing our 20th-anniversary look-back at the writing of The Legend of Bagger Vance:

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Franco Zeffirelli's film of "Romeo and Juliet."

We were talking last week about stealing the structure of works we admire. I was confessing that, for Bagger, I had shamelessly ripped off the premise and spine of the Bhagavad-Gita. Now let me admit a further theft and an additional bonus:

When you steal a great story’s structure you also get its characters. See Romeo and Juliet, Jesus of Nazareth, etc.

When I poached the structure of the Gita, I got as a bonus the two principal characters—Arjuna and Krishna—and I got the dynamic of their relationship: the mentor-protege story. I also got the story’s Villain—Arjuna’s internal demons of self-doubt and self-condemnation. (If we were stealing the structure of Romeo and Juliet, we’d get the characters of the two lovers and their personal and societal allies and antagonists, i.e., Mercutio, Tybalt, Friar Lawrence, and the full cast of Montagues and Capulets.)

In the case of Bagger, that meant I got as a hero the brilliant but self-tormented champion Arjuna … and, as his mysterious guide and mentor, Krishna—who also happens to be God in human form. Not bad.

And, even better for the drama, I got the idea that the character of the All-Knowing, All-Powerful Almighty appeared in human guise as a servant, as a humble charioteer (or, in his rejiggered form as the character of Bagger Vance, as a caddie.)

This gave me a dramatic element that didn’t exist in the Gita. I could write scenes in which Bagger/Krishna/God was condescended to and even abused and humiliated by ignorant, clueless characters—and I could have Bagger/Krishna/God respond. Not bad either!

(Oh, and by the way, lest we imagine that Shakespeare would never stoop to shoplifting prior material and that he invented Romeo and Juliet himself, let’s bear in mind that the literary canon circa 1584 was loaded with legends of Doomed Lovers going back to the ancient Greeks and beyond, the most famous perhaps being the love story of Panthea and Abradatas—my own all-time fave, which I cannot read without weeping—which ends with a tragic death/suicide scene almost identical to the climax of Romeo and Juliet. In other words, the Bard was as shameless a thief as I am and as I am urging you to become. And could we but summon his shade and beseech it for wisdom, I have no doubt that Will’s ghost would declare for us, “Forsooth! Purloin everything in sight, kiddies!”)

But back to me as a thief. I also make no bones about brigandizing three major scenes from the Gita. (Remember, it’s not stealing if you put a new and original spin on it.) And ya know what? It worked. It all worked.

And it was all absolutely conscious and deliberate.

Now you may be saying, “But, Steve, isn’t it dishonorable … in fact isn’t it cheating to snatch the throughline and dramatis personae from an existing work?” I will answer with two questions:

1. Is there any more original songwriter from the mid-20th century till now than Bob Dylan?

2. Has anyone stolen/borrowed/burgled more ideas, themes, musical genres from prior (and current) musicians than the aforementioned Mister D?

It’s not stealing if you put a new and inventive spin on it.

And remember, we’re not apprehending material and slavishly cloning it. We’re simply taking a work that came before us and using it as a model for our own new work. If you and I set out to build a bridge between Greenport, Long Island and Old Lyme, Connecticut, will we or will we not study the engineering blueprints for the Golden Gate and the Verrazano Narrows bridges? What if we have a footing problem with unstable soil close to shore? What if the Golden Gate faced the same problem and solved it? Will we ignore the engineers’ solution?

In any innovate enterprise, we the fabricators will run into problems. Wouldn’t it be great in those moments, my fellow screenwriters, if we could phone up Billy Wilder or Orson Welles and ask their advice? How much would it be worth to us, my fellow novelists, if we could reach out for counsel to Scott Fitzgerald or Fyodor Dostoevsky? We can, of course. We just have to read The Great Gatsby or watch Double Indemnity.

What happens when you and I borrow a narrative structure or a set of characters is that we get a template. We can use part or all, or we can reject it all. But how reassuring and confidence-inspiring is it to know we have that template, that we possess that road map?

For me, foolscapping Bagger, I was able before I had written a word to block-in the genre, the theme, the two principal characters and the dynamic between them, the inciting incident, the antagonist, and the climax—all lifted shamelessly from “the underlying material.”

And here’s the amazing part: in the end, of all the buckets of e-mails and letters that I got after Bagger Vance came out, it was not until way beyond the thousandth that one correspondent finally wrote, “Hey, Steve, am I nuts or is this book based on the Bhagavad-Gita?”

It’s not stealing if you put a new and inventive spin on it.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

12 Responses to “Steal Without Shame, Part Two”

  1. December 3, 2014 at 6:39 am

    Dear Steve,
    It occurred to me while reading today’s entry that stealing isn’t as accurate as I thought last week.I think of it more as translation today. Let’s say there are a finite number of truths–I don’t know, maybe 30-50. The Bible identifies 10 of them numerically, then another 20-30 in story.

    Fundamental truths must be restated, retold, rehashed for each generation, each sub-generation, each culture so that the meaning can be understood.

    Not many 15 year old kids are going to read ‘Gita’ for fun, but they will certainly watch ‘Bagger’ on Netflix. While you may not love the movie, it none-the-less gets the truth that we must find our authentic swing into the minds of everyone.

    That truth will need to be told to an individual another 100 times as the seed germinates, the teenager struggles to find his/her own values, becomes an adult, falls into society’s trappings, then maybe–remembers that he must be true to himself.

    While I like the language of theft–it is crystal clear–I was thinking this morning that story-tellers are really ‘truth-sayers’. Shining light and understanding on the human condition for those of us caught up in the drama of life, we can be reminded in current language & culture, what the truths really are. Story tellers translate universal truths, dramas, insights into the human condition–so the rest of us can understand this eternal wisdom.

    I lied. I said I was going to read Gita this weekend–I started, but then chose to open my Stocking early…read a couple of the e-books from your present. What a tremendous value! Thanks.
    bsn

    • December 3, 2014 at 12:07 pm

      You’re right, Brian. I’m pushing the limits of the word “steal,” partly tongue in cheek of course. Like you say, all in the interest of trying to “tell truth.” Glad you liked the Holiday Package!

  2. December 3, 2014 at 6:53 am

    Steven, this really hits home. A little while back I spent two weeks in a residential novel writing workshop where we worked on novel outlines.

    One tip our teacher emphasized was what she called “stealing the spine” of another work, exactly what you’ve discussed here, transplanting the spine into a different setting, era, genre etc.

    The hardest part of doing this, I think, is overcoming *resistance* to the idea of appropriating a story or plot from another source. Because Resistance (in the War of Art sense) wants to convince us that we must be utterly brilliant in our originality, rather than putting our own spin, our own voice, our own take on a story spine which has endured.

    Thanks for another eye-opening, inspiring post!

  3. December 3, 2014 at 7:49 am

    Thanks for another glimpse behind the curtain. Insightful and inspiring.

    If you ever decide to do a foolscapping workshop, live or online, do let me know.

    • December 3, 2014 at 12:09 pm

      Gary, Shawn and I were just talking the other day about doing something like that. No worries, we will let you know when the time comes.

  4. December 3, 2014 at 8:00 am

    I’d argue that a familiar structure is even more important for the reader, because the reader needs to feel safe that this path reaches its destination, so they can focus on admiring the scenery. The scenery is what we’re selling as writers, not the path.

    Further proof that it’s not “what you do,” it’s “how you do it.”

  5. December 3, 2014 at 11:48 am

    So true.

  6. Dick Yaeger
    December 4, 2014 at 12:13 am

    I propose that it’s impossible to write without “stealing.” If our minds were magically wiped clean, we couldn’t begin to create a story. Now there’s a plot for you.

  7. December 4, 2014 at 1:07 am

    Loved the last 2 posts Steve!

  8. December 4, 2014 at 2:52 am

    If there is such a thing as “absolute truth” or “fundermental truth” then it is something that doesn’t (really) change but the stories we use to state or restate the truth are bound to change. We all steal from Truth and then shape it with our individual stories. You Mr. Pressfield are a Legend. :-) Thanks for Turning Pro.

  9. December 5, 2014 at 7:58 am

    Since reading these two posts I have been trying to find a story similar to mine and there are quite a few!

    Remember that our efforts may improve on previously told stories too!

  10. Nik
    December 7, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    As far as “stealing” goes, I think Steve made an important distinction when he wrote that it’s not tantamount to copying as long as you put your own spin on it. I’ll admit that, coming from a journalism background, it feels unnatural to me.

    A thing I’ve always struggled with: How much should you immerse yourself in a genre before working within that genre? If you’re writing a science fiction book, ideally you’d want to have a foundation by reading the classics and masterpieces, right? You’ve got your Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, Banks, Reynolds, Hamilton and so forth. But by reading those authors, you’re also making a mental sketch and sort of setting boundaries about what really constitutes genuine SF. You can also fall into the trap of driving yourself crazy trying not to tread the same ground as those authors.

    Sometimes I think it’s better just to dive right into a genre without reading the classics, so you’re starting off without any preconceived notions about what the story should look like. But then you run the risk of accidentally retreading a classic, which can get you written off immediately. It’s a tricky business.