Working for a company like IDEAS, you can’t help but be constantly mindful of story’s role in human society. It is the hallmark of our species’ intellectual capacity, the ability to organize our sensory intakes into meaningful schemas of cause-and-effect. In last month’s blog on poetry, I referred to human language as an invention akin to the wheel or the lightbulb. Story is to language, what the cart was to the wheel. It is an innovation that allowed our words to communicate more effectively and, most importantly, store knowledge for our progeny.
What began as the fireside oral tradition of our ancestors has evolved into an abundance of media that share the teleological goal of connecting humans through storytelling. In a marketplace of storytellers that range from news organizations to movie studios to tech giants, story has become multi-trillion-dollar commodity. As a highly enterprising species, we have found myriad ways to make stories a limited resource like food and water through such legal provisions and copyright law. As a writer myself, I am completely in favor of protecting the ideas and works of storytellers in all media. Still, when story becomes a good to be sold, it also becomes a good to be stolen.
From Picasso to William Faulkner, artists of every ilk have suggested that great creators steal from one another. While likely said tongue-in-check, I find this a very cynical perspective, particularly among storytellers. Story is a process of accretion. Storytellers amass information from their experiences in the world (whether first-hand or vicarious) and distill them into character, plot, and other narrative devices that serve as communicative vessels. While the resulting novel or film is uncontestable property of the creator, their inspiration is not.
No two humans experience the world in the same way, but we perceive it through the same five senses and react to it with a similar set of emotions. Well-told stories integrate these commonalities so strongly the audience feels that they are living the described events themselves. As a result, they share the experiences of the creator, making the story as much theirs as his. One needn’t look beyond the bustling aisles of Comic Con to see how profoundly humans can identify with a good story. But are these cosplayers and larpers, really thieves? What about the fanfiction writers/filmmakers inundating Reddit, Tumblr, and YouTube? Better yet, what about those professional artists lifting beats from their favorite works for their own?
If the aim of a good story is to connect with people, then its audience is vindicated of any form of thievery outside plagiarism. Any good creator hopes his work will, even in some small way, transform the lives of his readers, listeners, or viewers. Whether it’s an oft-quoted one liner or powerful a moral example, there is no greater testament to the effectiveness of a story than its regular reference in society. That effect is what stories were created to accomplish. There is no storyteller in history (except maybe the very first one) who has a proprietary claim to how their work impacts and manifests in others, including other storytellers. In fact, when an artist integrates his inspiration into his own work, he participates in that oral tradition that has allowed human knowledge to pass from the Neanderthals to Netflix. It is not theft, it is procreation.
So, in conclusion, storytellers should “steal” and do so fearlessly. A Latin proverb says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” The human life is a finite thing, and its stories are merely a piecemeal amalgam of our species’ shared experiences. As chroniclers of the mankind’s journey through time, it is indeed the responsibility of storytellers to be stewards of the stories that have inspired them and perpetuate them through their own works. Through this, they keep fertile the soil of human progress for future generations to sow.