Being a Better Writer: Knowing When to Borrow and How

Welcome back readers!

Yeah, I know. It’s Tuesday. I had a work shift on Monday. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. But, as always, that doesn’t mean that the post won’t be made soon!

So, diving right into things: knowing when to borrow and how.

This is a tricky question. Well, or it isn’t. There are some people who worry about whether or not they’re borrowing or copying too much … and then there are those that just shamelessly go for it.

If you’re one of the latter, this post is not for you. If you’re one of the former, well, I have talked about topics before that have spoken somewhat about this. Worrying about copying, duplicating, etc, is a common fear for a lot of young writers, and sands, even longstanding ones. Remember Is It Original or Is it Copying? Well … yeah, that article was written for a good reason.

But today’s topic is different enough that when I saw the request, I felt it did warrant its own post. See, the request wasn’t about how to avoid copying something, it was how to borrow something that worked from another work and use it for yourself without crossing that line.

And the answer? Carefully.

No, I’m kidding. I’m not short-changing you guys like that. But to expound on that, when it comes to borrowing, you should feel free to do so … provided you’re borrowing, and not copying. And you’re not building something whole cloth (or even largely) out of borrowing.

Alright, let me explain what I mean by way of analogy. Say that, for a moment, rather than a writer, you’re an automobile engineer. And you’re hired by a company to create … oh, let’s say a rally car. Your new employer, Highspeed Auto Inc, wants to get in on creating rally race cars.

One problem: They’re a brand new company. This will be their first car. And you’re one of the engineers responsible for it. Well, do you know what one of the first steps is going to be?

Buying competitors’ cars and examining them, actually, to see what makes them tick.

Now, if this sounds unfair or unethical, it’s really not. Car companies do this all the time. To see how particular problems were solved, or what weaknesses a rival’s design brings to the table, or even just to go “wow, let’s see how this handles.”

But they learn from it too. And, in a way, they borrow. Look at early automobile development and you’ll see cases of this everywhere. Someone would figure out how to overcome a specific problem or set a new record with a car, and everyone else would want to have a look at it. And if said car could be found to look at? Well … then folks would. And then they’d try to figure out how someone had done and—this is the really important part—create their own fix to the problem.

That last bit is key. While rally cars do show a lot of similarities, at the same time each one is wholly its own. A new car may come along, for example, that includes a rear spoiler that allows it to keep better traction under certain conditions, and competitors may add spoilers of their own after realizing what it adds.

However, those spoilers will not be identical. They will be positioned differently, shaped differently, and achieve similar but not identical effects. Because the engineers know two things. First, that their car is their car, and not their competitors. Shamelessly copying something is going to introduce all kinds of issues (for example, a rival may use something with a value of three because two plus three plus five equals ten, while your values may be different, and adding a three to a six and a three does not equal ten). And second, well, because whatever they’re trying to mimic is someone else’s creation, so directly copying it is the engineering equivalent of plagiarism. And that comes with legal issues and a uneasy burden of guilt. Oh, and a competitor who absolutely will take you to court if they suspect you’ve just bolted their solution onto your vehicle.

So instead, the engineers will work to find a way to build something similar into their own creation. Sometimes it doesn’t even work, but the act of trying to find a solution ends up aiding the engineers in finding a completely different way to solve their version of the issue. In the early days of rally racing, for example, once one competitor had “solved” a problem, a lot of neighboring companies engineers often found solutions of their own to the issue … even if the solutions ended up completely dissimilar. Often it was a case of knowing that it could be done combined with a case of working backwards. “We can’t do X because of Y … but could we do Z instead to make that work?” Repeat until it did work.

Okay, so I’ve talked a lot about cars, but not so much about writing. Let’s connect the dots.

Look, borrowing is something that you’re going to do as a writer. That you do anytime you write a story about a quick-witted thief or a damsel who turns the tables and becomes the heroine. Those are stories we’ve all seen and read before. So technically, the moment you start writing about one of them, you are in effect borrowing from an archetype that has existed for centuries.

But what about more direct borrowing. What about writing a story and wanting to borrow something a bit more … detailed? Say you really like the way another writer resolved a scene, or the tensions they had between two characters and want something like that in your story? Can you borrow that?

Yes … and no. If you’re thinking “Well, let me just cut and paste that segment into my story and change a few details” then NO. And hold still while I send a busload of nuns with long rulers to your address to penalize your knuckles.

But perhaps you’re thinking “Well, I’ll just leave this story open and look at it for ‘inspiration’ while I rewrite most of it into my story.” Again, no, though not as severe as the last one. That still isn’t really borrowing. It’s copying.

So then if you know a scene or an element that really works in another story that you’d like to have in your own, how do you “borrow” it? The same way those engineers do: by reverse engineering it and then creating your own version.

How do you “borrow” something that works from another book, be it a scene or characters or an interaction? By breaking down why it works. By studying it. Is the emotional exchange between two characters meaningful because of what’s being said? Or is it the history of the two characters that the reader is invested in? Is it both? Or is it a third reason? What did the author do that makes it a good scene?

You reverse engineer it. Figure out the separate parts, the pieces, the bits that make it tick. You learn why you kept reading that action scene, that break-up, that awkward meeting with a protagonist’s boss. You work backwards, just like an engineer would in learning how a competitor’s new part would. Take it apart, examine it from all angles. Ask questions.

Then, with the knowledge of how that author created their scenes that work, figure out how those pieces can fit into your own story and how you can shape your own. For example, with my work it’s very clear to me that I borrowed good fight scenes from the RA Salvatore books I read growing up. But what I mean by that isn’t that I copied some of the fights from his books whole cloth, or even that I wrote stories and scenarios that were just “somehow” similar to Salvatore’s.

No, what it means is that I started breaking down what made his fights work, and from there began working at applying that knowledge to my own. The result was that I wrote fights that were entirely my own … but using techniques and approaches that I’d “borrowed” from Salvatore (and other authors).

Let me use another analogy: How many movies improved or used in their own way the spinning slow-mo of The Matrix after it came out? Sure, a lot of films did a quick parody, and some did it as a quick cash-in, copying it completely, but after that? There were a whole host of films that asked “Hey, why does that work, and what could I do with it?” This resulted in a bunch of new film techniques as filmmakers “borrowed” liberally from The Matrix that in the end, honestly went far and above it.

You could pick a lot of films and make the same comparison. Film does something cool with cameras or techniques, other films say “Hey, what if we did something like that?” and borrow the technique, breaking it down and rebuilding it in their own way.

So, you want to borrow from the greats? Then do! But “borrow” in the sense that you reverse engineer and create your own creation from the components you’ve understood. Don’t simply dress another’s work up in new paint. Borrow the tricks they used to make it work and apply them to your creation. Figure out how that author made you feel suspense or dread for a certain character. What made a tense scene tense. Then apply those lessons to your writing.

And … that’s pretty much it.

Okay, no it’s not. I have one last thing to say. On a different kind of borrowing. The “referential” kind of borrowing.

There’s a Schlock Mercenary strip (which I will not take the time to archive-dive and link at this time) where there’s a footnote that unabashedly states that the author ‘borrowed the punchline from one of their favorite books.’ I don’t believe it was an actual punchline there, but I may be wrong.

In any case, references can be seen as a form of “borrowing.” After all, they are a deliberate use of something from another work, often as a lampshade for humorous purposes or even as just a case of “Hey, I really like this, and wanted to show that be referencing it in my own work.”

This is generally seen as all right to do. Most people don’t mind being referenced. At the same time, some will, and worse, a reference borrowed at the wrong moment can really pull your audience out of things.

In other words, use sparingly if at all, but a good borrowed reference, like a parody of a famous theft or dropping a joke that’s similar to another series can be used to great effect.

At the same time, it can be an unwelcome distraction for some. A referential moment of borrowing can be jarring or off-putting for many readers.

In other words, use carefully.

But either way … Good luck. Now get writing.

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