The Art of Theft

I’m a thief. I admit it. But to be fair, most writers are.

You see every story starts out as an idea. An idea is the barest, most fundamental element of a story. And there really aren’t that many of them. Over the course of human history, pretty much every original idea for a story, when broken down to its most basic structure, has already been used.

That might seem like a bad thing, but luckily for us, copyright law doesn’t protect ideas. It only protects expression of ideas – big difference.

So let’s say I write a story about a detective. Well, clearly, there have been thousands, probably tens of thousands, of those written. What about a wisecracking homicide detective with a sexy partner? Been done too. What about that same tandem in a fantasy world with an element of noir and a heavy dose of the chuckles? Well, that might have been done too (I’m not sure), but we’re finally starting to approach the realm where an idea is growing into something more – the expression of an idea.

At this point you may be wondering to yourself, so how exactly are you a thief? Writers always use other stories as inspiration for their own. You can’t steal ideas. Well, unfortunately, there’s something I forgot to mention.

I like to write comedy.

If you think of writers as borrowing liberally from their peers, think of comedians as brutally efficient safe crackers who are actively robbing you blind.

For those of you not familiar with the subject, there are a couple things you need to know about comedy. The first is that different people find different things funny. The exact same joke, to four different people, might seem funny, tired, confusing, or offensive. The second thing to know is that there’s no way to predict how a joke might affect an audience without trying it.

If you’re a stand-up comedian, you can test a joke out by telling it to a crowd. If it falls flat on its face, you never tell it again. But what about someone who aspires to write funny scenes? You’ve really only got one shot. Once you publish a piece, the jokes and skits you write are out there forever.

So what’s a writer of comedic stuff to do? Simple. Steal. From anyone and everyone. Not blatantly of course – that would be rude. But you do it constantly. If I read something in a novel that makes me chuckle, I make a mental note of it. Every time I snigger at something in a TV show, have a laugh with my buddies, or smile in response to a Facebook post, I try to archive that moment for later use. (It helps to have a good memory in this game.) Every time I encounter something that strikes me as funny, I try to store it for later, so I can whip it out in a story when the moment is right. I might modify it a bit from its original form, whether intentionally or unintentionally – really my memory’s not that good – but it’s pretty much the same bit that made people laugh the first time I encountered it.

So I really am a thief, or at the very least a surreptitious archivist and distributor of humor. I just hope to be sneaky enough about it that nobody will ever notice.

So with that said, please forget everything I just wrote. Thanks.

Image credit: Featured image by Tiago Daniel (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr.

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