Writing Tip: Steal Bicycles

Writing Tip: Steal Bicycles

In which my screenwriting professor gives me some interesting advice
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I’m a writer with dreams of working in film, so I took a screenwriting course this past semester. In addition to working on our own screenplays, every week we watched a new film and read the screenplay. And every week, my teacher asked us the same unusual question: “What would you steal?”

The first few times she asked us that question, I was very confused. Was she really encouraging us to steal parts of the movies we saw? Wasn’t that, well, copyright infringement? Also, wasn’t the point of learning to be a writer to train our brains to be original? Shouldn’t we avoid what’s been done before, for fear of being sued by a film company or of coming off as derivative and cliché to your viewers?

To explain herself, my teacher told us a story about a trip she took to Europe. I’ve forgotten what city or country she was in, but one day she went to pick up a friend for lunch, riding a bicycle there. She leaned her bicycle against the wall, took a few steps away to knock on the door and shout upstairs to her friend, and then returned to her bicycle -- but the bicycle was no longer there. It had been stolen.

My teacher tried to find her bicycle, but she quickly learned that in this particular city, bicycle theft was incredibly difficult to combat. People would take a bicycle, and shortly afterwards that bicycle would have been taken apart and mixed up with the parts of other bicycles -- a wheel here, a handlebar there -- with the result that several people would now be riding on bicycles that included a part of her bicycle, but there was no way to prove that they had taken her bicycle. Her bicycle, effectively, did not exist anymore. What existed now were several “new” bicycles, which had been made possible by an old bicycle.

This was how she wanted us to look at “stealing” from other people’s work: as using something old to make something new, something that no one could look at and say, “That’s identical to this old thing I saw before,” but something that wouldn’t exist without that old thing. What could we take from a movie or screenplay and work with to make it our own?

Stories are bicycles -- metaphorically, of course. They are the result of a collective experience, one that’s built up since before copyright was a thing, or before we even had developed the letters used to spell “copyright infringement.” If a story is going to mean something to someone, it has to be relatable in some way. A completely new story, if it is to be understood, must in some way come from the already-understandable world. And the best way to learn what can be understood is to look to other stories that have made it big.

Writers steal all the time, both intentionally and unintentionally. We literally cannot avoid what has been done before. To illustrate, let me tell a story of my own. My family just read the screenplay I wrote this semester. Now, I knew that I’d stolen some things: the repeated “We need to plan; we need to think” from "Thelma and Louise," the dramatic all-revealing rant from near the end of "Chinatown," and the emotional rather than beat-by-beat description of the battle between Jack Sparrow and Barbossa in the screenplay of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl." What I didn’t see coming was that when I read aloud the part where my villain refers to the heroes as “meddlesome kids,” and my sister chimed in, off-script, “And their dumb dog, too!”

We all laughed, and I truthfully insisted that it wasn’t an intentional reference, but of course I had stolen it. Where else would I have gotten that idea? This movie, which no one would look at and think is a total ripoff of "Scooby-Doo" (it’s not a mystery, no one’s in a costume, and there are no goofy chase scenes), would nonetheless not exist as it does without that old cartoon. My screenplay is a new bicycle, with a pedal from "Scooby-Doo," accidentally stolen.

Cover Image Credit: Clipart Panda

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With the AP exams in May approaching quickly, my AP Environmental Science class has wasted no time in jumping right into labs. To demonstrate the damage to the environment done by strip mining, we were instructed to remove the chocolate chips from cookies.

The experiment in itself was rather simple. We profited from fully or partially extracted chips ($8 for a full piece and $4 for a partial) and lost from buying tools, using time and area and incurring fines.

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We were fined a $1 per minute we spent mining. It cost $4 per tool we bought (either tweezers or paper clips) and 50 cents for every square centimeter of cookie we mined.

Despite the seemingly overbearing charges compared to the sole way to profit, it was actually really easy to profit.

If we found even a partial chocolate chip per minute, that's $3 profit or utilization elsewhere. Tools were an investment that could be made up each with a partial chip, and clearly we were able to find much, much more than just one partial chip per tool.

Perhaps the most disproportionally easiest thing to get around were the fines. We were liable to be fined for habitat destruction, dangerous mining conditions with faulty tools, clutter, mess and noise level. No one in the class got fined for noise level nor faulty tools, but we got hit with habitat destruction and clutter, both of which added up to a mere $6.

We managed to avoid higher fines by deceiving our teacher by pushing together the broken cookie landscapes and swiping away the majority of our mess before being examined for fining purposes. This was amidst all of our cookies being broken into at least three portions.

After finding many, many chips, despite the costs of mining, we profited over $100. We earned a Franklin for destroying our sugary environment.

We weren't even the worst group.

It was kind of funny the situations other groups simulated to their cookies. We were meant to represent strip mining, but one group decided to represent mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is where companies go to extract resources from the tops of mountains via explosions to literally blow the tops off. This group did this by literally pulverizing their cookies to bits and pieces with their fists.

They incurred the maximum fine of $45. They didn't profit $100, however.

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In the context of our environmental science class, these situations were anywhere from funny to satisfying. In the context of the real world, however, the consequences are devastating our environment.

Without even mentioning the current trajectory we're on approaching a near irreversible global temperature increase even if we took drastic measures this moment, mining and fracking is literally destroying ecosystems.



We think of earthquakes as creating mass amounts of sudden movement and unholy deep trenches as they fracture our crust. With dangerous mining habits, we do this ourselves.

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