Stealing is not Plagiarism . . . or How to Abstract a New Story in Seconds

Adron J. Smitley
10 min readJun 27, 2020

“Bad writers plagiarize, good writers steal . . . and great writers abstract.” T.S. Eliot said something along those lines, and I concur (especially since I added the ‘. . . and great writers abstract’ bit).

Are you at a loss for story ideas? Staring at a blank page but with no musing words to fill it?

Make a list of ten of you favorite movies then describe them in one sentence each. Try to pick a different genre for each one. Pretend you’re sitting with a friend who hasn’t seen the movie yet and you’re attempting to intrigue them into watching it for the first time.

These are ten of my favorite movies from off the top of my head, in no particular order (except for the first two because Unforgiven and Untamed Heart are the bomb-diggity and my all-time favorite two movies):

1. Unforgiven: a notorious though reformed gunfighter takes on one last bounty to feed his starving kids.

2. Untamed Heart: a lonely dishwasher with a diseased heart saves his beautiful coworker from being raped then experiences true love for the first — and only — time in his life with her before dying.

3. Shaun of the Dead: two best friends weather a zombie apocalypse together while trying to save their friends and family by rescuing them to their favorite drinking pub.

4. Let The Right One In (original Swedish version is best version): a bullied boy makes friends with a mysterious girl who is really a serial-killer vampire.

5. Fight Club: an average guy fed up with the normal trappings of his boring life starts a fight club and becomes a domestic terrorist leader against the society that sickens him.

6. The Matrix: a computer hacker prophesied as ‘The One’ learns he can warp reality and leads the war against the machine overlords enslaving all of humanity.

7. First Blood (Rambo): a veteran Green Beret is forced by a cruel Sheriff and his deputies to flee into the mountains and wage an escalating one-man war against his pursuers.

8. The Postman: a nameless drifter dons a postman’s uniform and bag of mail as he begins a quest to inspire hope to the survivors living in post-apocalyptic America.

9. Old School: three friends attempt to recapture their glory days by opening up a fraternity near their alma mater.

10. Big Trouble in Little China: a rough-and-tumble trucker helps rescue his friend’s fiance from an ancient sorcerer in a supernatural battle beneath Chinatown.

Now let’s go back through our list and see if we can’t spice things up a bit through a little innovative abstraction, shall we? We don’t want anyone to recognize our creative thieving.

1. Unforgiven: “a notorious though reformed gunfighter . . .” Hmm, I like the whole dark past vibe, but let’s modern the gunfighter part up a bit. How about: “an ex-con (what was he/she incarcerated for? who knows, but that adds mystery to the endless potentials, and right now I’m thinking car thief) “. . . takes on one last bounty to feed his starving kids.” Okay, that’s good. So he’s doing something bad to earn something good. But let’s change “starving kids” to handicapped sister. But why? “to pay off his handicapped sister’s overdue mortgage before their family home gets foreclosed.”

From this: “A notorious though reformed gunfighter takes on one last bounty to feed his starving kids.”

To this: “An ex-con and car thief returns to the world of crime that earned him a 10 year stint in prison for one last job to pay off his handicapped sister’s overdue mortgage before their family home gets foreclosed.”

2. Untamed Heart: “a lonely dishwasher . . .” Hmm, lonely is good because it tugs at our fluttery feels, and dishwasher is a relatable job, but let’s change ‘lonely’ to divorced and ‘dishwasher’ to, uhm . . . cashier. “. . . with a diseased heart . . .” How about . . . “a divorced cashier with terminal cancer . . .” And I like that last bit about true love, but lets swap the genders, so now we have: “a divorced cashier with terminal cancer saves her handsome coworker — ” Wait! Cut the music and cut the coworker bit. Let’s make him her boss, and he’s miserable to be around because his cheating wife wants a divorce but he refuses to sign the papers out of spite, and instead of raped — because that’s so rare for a man to suffer — we’ll change it to: “. . . saves her curmudgeon boss from being beaten to death by pretend muggers who were actually paid by his cheating spouse.”

From this: “A lonely dishwasher with a diseased heart saves his beautiful coworker from being raped then experiences true love for the first — and only — time in his life with her before dying.”

To this: “A divorced cashier with terminal cancer saves her curmudgeon boss from being beaten to death by pretend muggers who were actually paid by his cheating spouse, then she experiences true love for the first — and only — time in her life with him before dying.”

3. Shaun of the Dead: “two best friends . . .” Nah, let’s inject some conflict by making them: “two warring neighbors . . .” There we go. “. . . weather a zombie apocalypse together . . .” Nah to this, too; been there, seen that too many times. How about instead: “weather an alien invasion together . . . while trying to save their friends and family by rescuing them to their favorite drinking pub.” Hmm. That last bit just doesn’t sit right. So let’s change it by injecting even more conflict — small spaces always work. “. . . while trying to keep their bickering families from killing each other in the small bunker they’ve trapped themselves inside.”

From this: “Two best friends weather a zombie apocalypse together while trying to save their friends and family by rescuing them to their favorite drinking pub.”

To this: “Two warring neighbors weather an alien invasion together while trying to keep their bickering families from killing each other in the small bunker they’ve trapped themselves inside.”

4. Let the Right One In: “a bullied boy . . .” Let’s make him the bully instead, and we’ll give him an abusive alcoholic mother to explain why he’s such a bully. “an abused bully . . . makes friends with a mysterious girl who is really a serial-killer vampire.” And lets nix the vampire part. Serial killer is good enough. “An abused bully makes friends with “ — and let’s add that conflict — ”with his favorite torture victim whom he’s secretly in love with (or she him? or mayhaps both?), a mysterious girl who is really a serial killer.” And let’s inject one last twist. “. . . and together they plot the murder of his alcoholic mother.”

From this: “A bullied boy makes friends with a mysterious girl who is really a serial-killer vampire.”

To this: “An abused bully makes friends with his favorite torture victim whom he’s secretly in love with, a mysterious girl who is really a serial-killer, and together they plot the murder of his alcoholic mother.”

5. Fight Club: “an average guy fed up with the normal trappings of his boring life . . .” This is good, but let’s make him a Prince living a spoiled life. “A pampered Prince fed up with his spoiled life . . .” But what makes him so fed up that he would surrender a life of luxury? Hmm . . . a tyrant father could do the trick, and let’s force the Prince into action. “A pampered Prince blackmailed into joining a secret rebellion against the tyrant King becomes its leader after a change of heart and ends the oppression of his people by murdering his own father.”

From this: “An average guy fed up with the normal trappings of his boring life starts a fight club and becomes a domestic terrorist leader against the society that sickens him.”

To this: “A pampered Prince blackmailed into joining a secret rebellion against the tyrant King becomes its leader after a change of heart and ends the oppression of his people by murdering his own father.”

6. The Matrix: “a computer hacker prophesied as ‘The One’ learns he can warp reality and leads the rebellion against the machine overlords enslaving all of humanity.” Let’s change “computer hacker” to . . . oh, I don’t know . . . “a YouTuber” since everyone and their mom has a YouTube channel these days. And let’s spice it up a bit, too. “a ridiculed YouTuber infamous for his conspiracy theory videos” There we go. And we’ll cut the whole “prophesied as ‘The One’ “ part because it’s too cliche. “learns he can warp reality . . .” Let’s switch this with “learns all of his fantastic conspiracy theories are actually true” because wouldn’t that be dandy? “and leads the rebellion against the machine overlords enslaving all of humanity” we’ll change to: “when the government arrests him” And we’ll have them scrub his identity because why not? If he runs away and tries to tell anyone, he can’t even prove he exists! “then recruits him as a secret internet agent.”

From this: “A computer hacker prophesied as ‘The One’ learns he can warp reality and leads the rebellion against the machine overlords enslaving all of humanity.”

To this: “A ridiculed YouTuber infamous for his conspiracy theory videos learns all of his fantastic conspiracy theories are actually true when the government arrests him, scrubs his former identity from existence, then recruits him as a secret internet agent.”

7. First Blood (Rambo): “a veteran Green Beret is forced by a cruel Sheriff and his deputies to flee into the mountains and wage an escalating one-man war against his pursuers.” I like the “veteran Green Beret” part because it presents a variety of skills at the protagonist’s immediate disposal. But the “is force by a cruel Sheriff and his deputies to flee into the mountains” bit we’ll change to “discovers his PTSD delusions are possessing people” But how? By: “turning them into cannibal demons only he can see.” I also like the “one-man war” part but we’ll give it a creative twist. “wages a one-man holy war against the Devil” Plus, let’s make him an Atheist because of the religious ‘demon possession’ and ‘Devil’ twist so that he eventually adopts new faith because why not have a great character arc? “an Atheist veteran Green Beret.”

From this: “A veteran Green Beret is forced by a cruel Sheriff and his deputies to flee into the mountains and wage an escalating one-man war against his pursuers.”

To this: “An Atheist veteran Green Beret discovers his PTSD delusions are possessing people and turning them into cannibal demons only he can see, so he wages a one-man holy war against the Devil while discovering new faith in God.”

8. The Postman: “A nameless drifter dons a postman’s uniform and bag of mail as he begins a quest to inspire hope to the survivors living in post-apocalyptic America.” Hmm, I’m liking the nameless drifter part, but let’s inject some conflict by making him blind. “A blind drifter dons . . .” Ugh to dons. How about steals? “A blind drifter steals a postman’s uniform and bag of mail as he begins a quest to inspire hope. . .” Inspire hope? Naw, let’s make it a horror and have him instill some terror. And since he’s blind we’ll up his abilities with oversensitive hearing. “A blind drifter with oversensitive hearing steals a postman’s uniform” — forget the bag of mail bit — ” and instills terror in a peaceful community . . .” But why? maybe he’s resentful. Hmmm.”. . . the peaceful community that shunned him as a child by killing their children off one by one in the dark.” We’ve cut the whole “post-apocalyptic America” part, too, because a blind killer with oversensitive hearing is interesting enough if he does his killing in the dark.

From this: “A nameless drifter dons a postman’s uniform and bag of mail as he begins a quest to inspire hope to the survivors living in post-apocalyptic America.”

To this: “A blind drifter with oversensitive hearing steals a postman’s uniform and delivers mail by day in the peaceful community that shunned him as a child while he instills terror each night by killing their children off one by one in the dark.”

9. Old School: “three friends attempt to recapture their glory days by opening up a fraternity near their alma mater.” Liking the friends recapturing their glory days vibe so we’ll keep it, but the whole fraternity thing can hike it down the trail — get outta here! And we’ll switch the bland description of just “friends” to “former high school football rivals” so now we have: “two former high school football rivals attempt to recapture their glory days by . . .” Hmm, but how do they do it now that they’re older and out of shape? We’ll make them coaches. And what are the stakes? Oh, I know! They’re both married to their high school sweethearts (and let’s also make them rivals as well to increase the conflict) and the loser has to divorce his wife! Now dems sum stakes!

From this: “Three friends attempt to recapture their glory days by opening up a fraternity near their alma mater.”

To this: “Two former high school football rivals coach opposing teams in a high-stakes football game with the agreement that the loser coach divorces his wife.”

10. Big Trouble in Little China: “A rough-and-tumble trucker helps rescue his friend’s fiance from an ancient sorcerer in a supernatural battle beneath Chinatown.” Let’s keep the “rough-and-tumble trucker” part for starts, but change the “helps rescue his friend’s fiance” to “discovers a sex trafficking ring among his trucker friends” for added twist and conflict, and we’ll change the sorcerer and supernatural” bit to something more sinister though still supernatural, like, uhm . . . vampires!

From this: “A rough-and-tumble trucker helps rescue his friend’s fiance from an ancient sorcerer in a supernatural battle beneath Chinatown.”

To this: “ A rough-and-tumble trucker accepts a new job only to discover a sex trafficking ring among his trucker friends who are really vampires.”

See how easy that was?

Ten stolen plots abstracted into ten new stories ready to be written!

If you’re fresh out of ideas then just take one from someone else, apply your own unique creative twist and viola! You’ve got yourself a new story aching to be written and nobody’s the wiser that you borrowed it because you’re a crafty thief who abstracts instead of steals or even worse plagiarizes. And the best part about this method is that there exists an endless variety of movies and novels from which you can pick and choose then abstract to your little writerly heart’s content.

Happy Writing!

adronjsmitley.blogspot.com

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Adron J. Smitley

Blog for writers on everything plot, character, and story structure architecture at: adronjsmitley.blogspot.com