Stealing Your Movie Plot Is Actually Pretty Smart (and Original)

'Ocean's 11'Credit: Warner Bros.
It's not easy coming up with all the beats, but what if someone else already has done it for you? 

I've written almost 20 feature-length screenplays on my own, and each one was hard. There are no easy scripts to write. But when you have a lot of them, the hardest one is always the next. You wonder if you're ever going to come up with another movie idea again.

Trust me, I've been there. I'm there a few times a year. Writer's block is an absolute train wreck. But one thing I did recently that helped was give into the worry. I stopped writing. And I started watching a bunch of older movies. So I could steal them. 

I devoured everything on the Criterion Channel. I reached the annals of Amazon Prime, and even the odd classic on Netflix. I went deep into Tubi and even consulted my Blu-ray shelf. The result was an idea that felt like a pastiche of Coens, De Palma, and Jane Campion. I sat down, and suddenly I had the ability to write dozens of pages a day. It wasn't that I had given myself time to rest, which definitely helps. It was that I gave myself the freedom to steal what I needed to get ahead. 

It was that I allowed myself to get rid of this delusion that everything has to be original and new. 

I let myself steal. 

Django Unchained, Body Heat, Body Double, The Big Lebowski, Inglourious Basterds, Stranger Things, etc. all are ideas done by some of the greatest working writers and directors. And all of them use ideas we've seen before. They lean into the adage, "Great writers steal."

See, Inglourious Basterds takes liberally from The Dirty Dozen. The Big Lebowski has almost the same plot as The Big Sleep, and Stranger Things has taken from Jurassic Park, E.T., The Thing, and many other popular culture icons in its four seasons of television. Google the other titles I mentioned and you'll see the same thing. 

As writers, we want to feel like we crafted every single beat. But one thing I've come to understand is that imitation is the highest form of compliment. So what are some movies you love and respect? I made a list and then realized that they were all way too current. 

That's why I wholly endorse going back to the golden age of cinema and stealing what you can. Classical Hollywood movies had excellent plots and structure. Could you take all the beats out of them and then add your own characters? Form a new setting? Change a twist? 

The reason I think going into the past is a great idea is that many executives haven't seen those films. So you can come off across as original. and the ones who have, you can tell them it's a pastiche. We've covered it before. It's a smart way to jumpstart your own engine. 

This is still original writing. It's you saying, "I know this has been done but this is what I have to say about it."

So say something loud and personal and weird and memorable. Stealing is just climbing the same ladder a different way. It can be evocative and pure. Just do it and make sure your imprint matters. 

Have you tried this? I'd love to hear from you in the comments. And to the rest of you, go steal everything you can find. Happy writing!      

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The Star Wars shows do this too. Mandalorian S1 E4 Is heavily inspired by Seven Samurai. Boba Fett S1 E2 is inspired by Lawrence of Arabia.

In fact Star Wars in general was just a remix of some of George's favorite film ideas from Kurosawa, Flash Gordon and the work of Joseph Campbell.

January 13, 2022 at 7:31AM, Edited January 13, 7:31AM

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