I’m a Storyteller; My Job is to Steal
Not to create nonsense
When my friends and I started our own screenwriting group, I thought I had full freedom to write anything that amused me.
I had years of experience as an advertising copywriter. In advertising, you tell stories based on creative briefs. A creative brief tells you what to say and how to say it; it gives you about thirty seconds and expects you to be creative. It works wonders for the job. But you often feel restricted, unable to express your true creativity. You begin to fantasize about the masterpieces you would create if only you had more space.
Writing TV series sounded dreamy! One season lasted for 40 episodes for traditional Turkish TV, and each episode was more than an hour long. You could spend years writing it if you liked (before you sold your project and get paid, of course)! Your freedom was unlimited. Alright, it was Turkish TV, so no nudity, sex, or alcohol (be prepared to have them pixelated or, worse, cut). But other than those, the sky was the limit! Or so I thought.
For the first few meetings I attended, I wrote down the most imaginative ideas I could develop; plots full of surprising twists and turns. But when I told my ideas at the table, I saw confused expressions on my friends’ faces.
“But why?” they would ask me, “Why would (the character) even do that?” I would defend my idea by saying, “Not everything in life has a simple reason. We sometimes do things because we just feel like it!” I didn’t understand why every single thing had to have a reason.
Yet ironically, when someone else suggested something that didn’t make sense to me, I would also ask the same question: “But why?” We were trying to reinvent the wheel.
All of us were from advertising. We all loved stories — literature, cinema, TV, video games, gossip, Turkish politics, whatever. None of us had gone to film school, and only one person had experience in screenwriting. Thankfully, she made the final decisions.
As we discussed our ideas, she would refer to famous stories a lot. If I said, “The boy and the girl keep fighting; they both like each other but — ” she would instantly go “Moonlighting? Pride and Prejudice?” and I would realize almost every (reasonable) situation I came up with had been written before. If my idea was completely new, unheard, and unique, it didn’t make sense to anyone.
Soon, everyone in the group learned the rules of making up stories: all we had to do was steal from books, films, and other shows! At the end of the day, we would bring everything to the table the same way Oliver Twist and other juvenile pickpockets would bring wallets and pocket watches and sell them to each other.
A seamless patchwork
Okay, let me explain. Of course, we didn’t steal whole novels or films. We still tried to come up with our most original ideas. But when we found an idea, a usable piece for our puzzle, we would almost always recognize it from somewhere else: “Hey, this character is Nancy from Oliver Twist! She is a criminal, but she has a good heart. She loves the villain, but she is protective of the kids.”
If we couldn’t recognize a story element, even if it was brilliant, it would feel risky to use, and we couldn’t be comfortable with it — until we saw which familiar pattern it would fit into. But once we knew, we could make it ours, add an original twist on it, tweak it until it felt fresh. If Nancy was a thief, our character could be a computer hacker or a lawyer.
In the end, every story element either came from another story with an added twist, or it evolved into a similar one. These elements came together in surprising and unique ways. Often the real creativity was about combining them seamlessly.
Isn’t this plagiarism?
Many of us screenwriters working for TV push the limits of plagiarism. What matters is that we need to be honest about it and make it ours by working on it.
The thing is, we can’t avoid stealing even if we are dedicated to being completely original. Every story (that makes sense) is already written! If we accidentally use a storyline too similar to an existing one, someone will notice it and argue that we have plagiarized it.
We can’t say “we haven’t heard that story” because we have to know. We have to study our genre well enough to avoid using the carbon copy of an idea.
For example, Agatha Christie wrote so many plots in the genre of “whodunit” (Or as Blake Snyder calls “whydunnit”) that if you are writing murder mysteries, it’s impossible not to touch her. Even she had to steal from herself.
In three of her stories, an obvious target was narrowly saved from a murder attempt when someone else accidentally got killed instead, and the target continued to be the center of danger until the resolution.
In one story, Hercule Poirot, in the other two, Miss Marple found out that the killings were no accident: the “obvious target” was the murderer who killed the seemingly “unimportant” character and faked their own murder attempts to mislead everyone.
These three stories all have different settings, motives, situations, characters, moods, etc. If you are not obsessed with the story mechanisms, you might not even notice the similarities.
The same plot was later used countless times in TV episodes of various police procedurals and murder mysteries. Feel free to use it too. As long as you have a new situation and different characters, no one will accuse you of plagiarism if the same things happen in your story.
Adaptations — obvious and in disguise
We were hired several times to write TV shows based on old novels, movies, or short stories. These stories weren’t “stolen”; the film rights were paid and all. We naturally intended to keep the project as loyal to the original as possible, but sometimes it wasn’t possible. In one case, a producer really wanted to re-make a “modernized version” of a historical Turkish novel to TV.
We had to add, change and omit so much that we could have easily changed the title; no one would recognize the novel. But the producer insisted on keeping the title, and as you can expect, the novel's fans wanted our heads on a stick.
A young producer wanted to adapt an old Turkish movie to a modern TV show and took her project to an older, established producer. They began to work on the project, but soon they had disagreements. The young producer took her project elsewhere, but she found out the old producer didn’t give up and hired many writers.
After a legal battle, the old producer kept the title, but the young producer still didn’t give up. They both produced successful shows based on the same old plot — a broken love story.
However, the old producer’s show was a male story with lots of crime and gunfights, whereas the young producer’s show was a female one with a heartbreaking romance. Both shows lasted for years, and they had no resemblance at the end.
One brilliant director we worked with visited our office one afternoon and said that he loved Les Miserables and he wished to adapt it to Turkish TV. We had a fun chat and talked about various possibilities of settings and characters. Why did the director like it so much? What kind of characters could represent Jean Valjean, Cosette, or Javert in modern Turkey? What kind of setup would we use, and what would the story ultimately be about?
That project never happened. But when I watched The Incredibles (2004), I wondered if it was a loose adaptation of Les Miserables too. First of all, the two titles are quite similar. Both movies have an extremely strong main character Mr. Incredible and Jean Valjean (the latter lifts a carriage to save someone trapped under it). Both main characters live undercover, and they are both hunted by someone from their past (Inspector Javert and Syndrome). Also, superheroes trapped in American middle-class life must be the definition of “miserable.”
The Incredibles (2004)
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has many adaptations. West Side Story and China Girl are the obvious ones, but there are many other forbidden love stories where you have to work it out, such as Titanic. The Lion King is Hamlet. We have a direct adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in Turkey called Asi, but some argue that half of the Turkish TV series are based on Pride and Prejudice, even though they have other topics and themes.
All that really matters
Blake Snyder says that “movies are emotion machines.” As storytellers, our job is to make our audience feel emotions. All the clever surprises, gimmicks, original or stolen plots are for creating a rollercoaster of feelings. We can do this only by feeling all of it ourselves first.
The tropes, archetypes, and story elements from great stories make sense because they have been tried and tested, proven to move audiences. But they won’t create the same effect if we don’t get into the characters and feel all those emotions.
Before everything else, we have to find our emotional connection with the story. Why do we want to tell this particular story? We need to feel it in our hearts before we can write it. If there is truth in it, it will connect with the audience, no matter how many times it has been done before.
You might have heard some version of this quote attributed to Steve Jobs and Picasso: “Good artists copy (imitate/borrow), great artists steal.”
If you want to “steal” something in this sense, take it and invest your time, energy, and heart in it as if it was yours to begin with. After spending weeks or years with an idea, you will forget that you stole it in the first place. It will have your soul and voice.
Adapting is like adopting! You can’t half-ass parenting or writing. And once your “baby” reaches a certain maturity, it doesn’t matter who conceived it in the first place. The writer who gave it their blood, sweat, and tears will ultimately own it.
Turkish copywriter and screenwriter, lover of stories, living in New Zealand