Good Writers Borrow; Great Writers Steal (Politely)

by The Magic Violinist | 13 comments

Writers are thieves. Intentionally or unintentionally, we steal from other artists all the time. You might have heard this paraphrase of T. S. Eliot's words: “Good writers borrow; great writers steal.”

5 Ways to Steal (Politely) From Other Writers

5 Ways to Steal (Politely) From Other Writers

We can’t help but be inspired and influenced by the stories we consume. However, we can steal productively by borrowing from other works in a conscious manner. Here are five ways.

1. Ask yourself, “what if?”

This is one of the easiest ways to twist a well-known tale. What if Cinderella didn’t have her fairy godmother? What if Romeo and Juliet had gotten a happily ever after?

One little kink in the original plot and you have yourself a whole new story to explore.

2. Set it in a different time and/or place.

Taking a classic story and setting it in modern times is a common trope, as seen in many versions of Shakespeare’s works. You can also put a modern tale in the past, or in space, or under the sea. Mess around with different ideas until something sparks your interest.

3. Change the genders of the characters.

One of my NaNoWriMo projects was a Sherlock Holmes retelling, except Sherlock and Watson were young women. That, along with various other twists on the characters, was enough to make familiar people fresh and intriguing.

You could do this with every character in the story, or just a few, or maybe only one person. See how the dynamics change.

4. Change the ages.

What happens if the adults in a particular situation were teenagers instead? How about the opposite? What if the teenagers became elderly people? It’s another deceptively simple tactic that can put a whole new spin on things.

5. Borrow from song lyrics.

Often times a three or four-minute song tells an incredibly complex story. If you dissect the lyrics and expand on the plot, add more characters, and bring out the heart of the song, you could have an entire short story or novel waiting to be written.

I’ve done this countless times, and I’m always pleased with the outcome.

Don’t Forget to Make Your Story Your Own

The caveat to all of this is you can’t take one of these strategies and expect your story to be perfect. You still have to make it unique, otherwise you run the risk of plagiarism or lazy writing.

All of these tips will get you in the right direction, and from there on out, let your imagination run wild. How can you turn that “stolen” art into something new and exciting?

Have you ever “stolen” from other writers? Let us know in the comments!


Take one of your favorite stories (a fairytale, a Shakespearean play, a classic novel, etc.) or a favorite song and use one of the strategies above to give it a new twist. Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, share the result in the comments, if you’d like. Don’t forget to give your fellow writers some feedback, too. Have fun!

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The Magic Violinist is a young author who writes mostly fantasy stories. She loves to play with her dog and spend time with her family. Oh, and she's homeschooled. You can visit her blog at You can also follow The Magic Violinist on Twitter (@Magic_Violinist).


  1. Sebastian Halifax

    Fifteen minutes isn’t enough for the stories I could write using these techniques. But I’ll do my best.

    She panted, the weight of her armor driving her knees deeper into the mud. Her strength robbed by the leather and metal upon her, as well as the arrow protruding from her shoulder.
    Armored boots stopped in front of her. She raised her head, her eyes meeting those of the man she loved. His gaze was cold, unfeeling eyes laid upon her. She noticed he carried a spear.
    “I…love you.” she said between breaths, ignoring the increasing pain. “I’ve always loved you.”
    He lifted the spear, plunging it through her armor, the blade biting through flesh and into her innards. Blood flowed from the wound, coating her armor red. Red as the sky she saw before darkness clouded her vision.

    • Sebastian Halifax

      A song.

    • maria

      which song ?

    • Sebastian Halifax

      “Confess my love”, by LEAH. She’s a symphonic/celtic metal artist.

  2. C. Michael Stewart

    I am writing a novel based loosely around the inspiration I received from Jim Morrison’s poem American Prayer.

  3. Azure Darkness Yugi

    Yun forced her self up.Her martial arts Gi torn, covered in her own blood. She can barely see the so called immortal god in front of her.Due to blood in her eye and felt her life slipping away. She can almost see a band of angels. Coming after her. But there aint no grave can hold her body down. Tightening fits and took up her fighting stance. Spiting out blood she said with a confident smiled to the white-haired monster “There aint no grave can hold her body down!”

  4. Julie Mayerson Brown

    Point me in the direction of a story, and I will run with it until it takes my breath away! Great tips – thanks!

  5. Fabio Salvadori

    I stole from a song, Change by Blind Melon.

    How many days. Five. Six. Mya can’t remember last time she left her room. She moves the curtain, just a fraction to check if the sun is out. Gray. Like yesterday. And the day before.
    She whispers to someone invisible “I don’t fill the sun coming out Today”.
    She waits for an answer that will never come. He’s gone. Him and his “it can rain forever” attitude. They are both gone, and now it looks like it will rain forever.
    She looks around at her room. It’s a small place, a studio on the last floor of an old battered building. From outside it looks like it may collapse any moment. And inside it’s not much better. But she loved this place even before seeing it. And it’s close to the ocean. She misses the ocean. She used to spend hours throwing questions to the waves and listening to their answers. But that was before. Before she started hiding between this four walls. Hiding, this is what she’s doing. She wants to go to the beach, but that would mean to walk on the streets. Pass by the cafés, cross the square with all the stalls, meet people. Like last time. She still can feel their eyes on her skin. And then the murmurs and whispering between them. “Look at her, poor girl. I’ll never live that way.”
    She doesn’t hate them. She’s just sad for them because they are foolish. They are just scared. Scared of life, scared of what she represents, scared of themselves. They are afraid to change. She’s not. Mya has been changing all her life. Maybe she has the opposite fear. She’s afraid to remain the same.
    Still, she doesn’t want to go out. She’s tired, and she doesn’t want to feel their eyes crawling over her skin, again.

  6. Tanya Marlow

    This is great! I actually am working on a creative retelling of four biblical characters who wrestled with waiting. It brings the themes alive, and is a great alternative way of doing Bible study. It’s been fun to write, too – it immerses yourself in the Bible stories

    • Sarah

      So glad to hear you are doing this! I feel like the Bible is so full of incredibly complex and fascinating stories that are stuck in “Bible-story-Sunday-school-mentality” of rather dry characters and skimmed over stories. When you really dig into them, they are full of complex characters and situations (and occasionally a little scandalous too!). Would love to read your retellings.

  7. Sol

    There was a writer who lived next-door to me. I lived in a area where it was ‘a must’, that you keep your windows open. It would reach over 100 degrees in the summertime. I would gab with my sister with private jokes, and sayings only we knew. Well, long story short, this ‘lady’ used my terminology, jokes, personal stories for her so called “memoir” book I found accidently on kindle. She also coined me as “the crazy lady” to the entire neighborhood because she said I was “always crying.” I guess she didn’t get the memo my mom passed away, and I suffered another loss when my 17 year old cat died. These are very good reasons to cry. Well, I was good enough to steal from for her book for a “crazy lady.” Her analogies were uncanny! Everything I talked about was used verbatim. This is just a heads-up that if you befriend or live near a desperate writer, that is out of his/her/they/them ideas, they will be crass. They will use yours in a heartbeat. She taught me to keep my windows closed, protect myself, and not to trust anyone that is insecure. I do see her as a blessing now, I have since moved and used these as life lessons. BTW, as the old saying goes, you do not know what anyone is going through in their private life, and you have no idea what it takes for someone to look half way presentable to face the world everyday. We have all felt losses, severe pain, and we don’t need any additional judgment on top of life’s hardships. #BeCompassionate #BeKind #WritersWhoSteal



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