How To Steal Your Way To Being A Better Writer

Contentious title? Contentious title. And “steal” is possibly the wrong verb, but so is “plagiarise” in this context.

What I’m talking about is often referred to as “retelling” or “modernising” or in post-modern circles occasionally mislabelled as a “pastiche”. It’s part of a very, very long literary tradition, and is for some reason now frowned on despite the basic acceptance of the idea that there are only very few actual plots in existence, into which almost every story effectively categorises itself.

Now there’s this writer, a historical fellow, greatly revered by a lot of Anglophones as one of the pinnacles of literature. Like most writers he’s not actually as much of an innovative lone wolf genius as we like to make out, but half of what sells a writer is the legend of what a tremendous trail-blazer they were and people get a bit uncomfortable if confronted with the idea that what most writers do is nick stuff. The writer in question is dear old Bill Shakespeare, who has written a lot of what might be called archetypes for future stories: the divided lovers, the deposed king (every third story in the Western canon of literature turns out to be Hamlet if you squint hard enough), the rebel prince taking his place as leader, the general who changes sides, the scheming wife who drives a murder plot, and the oft-overlooked but personal favourite of mine “that which ends in cannibalism and ladies with no hands”. I’m not saying everything he came up with has continued to be a roaring success. But his plots have been used and reused and told and retold, and he himself drew heavily both on history and mythology for his work.

I pick on Shakespeare not for shock value but because plays are a lot easier to dissect for plot elements than prose. They’re tidily divided up into Acts and Scenes, they’re designed to have a pretty clear structure for an audience of drunk people standing on straw to understand, and if you use Shakespeare instead of Stoppard you don’t have to worry about being bogged down with endless descriptions of setting and action beyond “A forest outside of so-and-so” and “Exit, pursued by a bear”.

The exercise

Take a play, by anyone, but probably The Bard. He wrote a lot of them, so you’re pretty much set for finding something that will serve your purposes. You will in all probability have already seen a film which is based on it: if you’ve seen Ten Things I Hate About You you’ve seen Taming of the Shrew, if you’ve seen She’s The Man (I don’t know why you would have done but you might) you’ve seen Twelfth Night, and so on. There are also an oodleplex of faithful and less-faithful straight adaptations, modernisations, and the like to work from: Baz Luhrman might do if you don’t like Kenneth Branagh, the BBC did a collection of “re-imaginings” of Midsummer Night’s Dream (execrable), Macbeth (passable), Much Ado About Nothing (admirable), and The Taming of the Shrew (delectable), and if you’re feeling the need for classic cinema there’s always the 1952 Julius Caesar in which Marlon Brando’s intense frown plays Mark Antony and the rest of him follows underneath like a confused and muscular basket beneath a balloon made of eyebrows.

My point is, take one of these bad boys, and have a look at the plot. What happens in each act? You don’t even need to figure that out for yourself because there are approximately ten billion summaries of every single play on the internet. You should be able to find a summary without any problems at all: what happens in each act? How does one thing lead to another? Who has which information when – how much earlier do the audience have the information than the characters themselves? Which decisions cause the characters the most grief?

Now you pretty much have the skeleton of a story. You can choose to lop off the pieces that you don’t like, or adapt them: Ten Things I Hate About You took “Bianca cannot marry until her sister has been married because girls are married off in the order of their birth” and turned it into “Bianca’s father makes a fatuous bargain designed to prevent his younger daughter from pregnancy and she takes it literally”; it’s quite possible to remove all kinds of apparently-essential points from the plot and have it still function as an idea. You can remove characters, scenes, concepts, historical eras, and run the same plot on radically different rails.

In fanfic, there is a great sub-section devoted to alternate universes, where the characters are re-imagined in a different setting and lead different lives, while still retaining the core personality traits and appearance which is believed to define them. There is race-bending, a brilliant reaction to the unnecessarily white predominance in characters in Western Media, where iconic characters are redrawn and rewritten as people with the same skills and rough storyline, but a different racial background, and all that their different experience of society would have changed. These acts of imagining when developing character are the kind of balancing acts that you need to take when working on your ability to plot.

Give yourself a new cast and a new setting, take a very familiar plot, and work out how it would run, given these people, and this world, instead of what was provided at the time. Myths and legends are great for this, but often the plot is vague or too short and lacking in subshoots to be a useful guide which is again why I tend to use Shakespeare as an example: there is no actual need to stick specifically to him, if there is another playwright you prefer who can be used in the same way.

One thing which is extremely helpful in running this exercise is seeing how long each scene and act takes to get through, which means watching an adaptation can be vital: it helps you to judge whether that section should have been longer or shorter, how important it was to the overall story, and whether or not it should be included, altered, or followed faithfully.

How does this improve your own plotting?

By giving you an idea of how a deeply successful storyteller has ordered events and where they place moments of crisis along the line of the narrative, you familiarise yourself with the ebb and flow of tensions inside a story, the push and shove of causality, and how to turn the inevitable into the dramatic. It’s also a great exercise in editing: given a critical look at the failings in the playwright, it’s possible to fill in his gaps, and assure yourself that a story with weaknesses (for example, important deaths taking place off-stage due to the constraints of Elizabethan theatre, perhaps) can be made stronger not only by throwing out the unnecessary or changing the faces of the actors but also by giving more meat and heft to pre-existing sections.

And please don’t feel that it’s an unproductive exercise: if you look, you’ll find plenty of published novels which are essentially reworkings of Shakespearean stories, Greek myths, and folk tales – there are, after all, only a few plots – and a good writer can stretch those few plots an awfully long way.

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5 thoughts on “How To Steal Your Way To Being A Better Writer

  1. …This post. The eyebrows. A+ material here, I am still laughing.

    Best part is that I think I could use this, it makes sense. I’ve grown to hate plotting. I keep get thrown off course on my new drafts to the point where I’m not even really sure what my stories are even about anymore, and endings are a bitch. Which mean, naturally, I haven’t properly finished anything in years, and I’m kinda doomed. …I may have to try this. I have to try something.

      1. Nonsense, you know you can resurrect fantastical beings as and when needed! I’ve got one ticking away in the background that STARTS with the premise that the main character is already dead. And by one I mean two.

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