It Ain’t Stealing if it Twists

We’ve been examining over the past few posts how the disparate story elements came together into the finished product that became A Man at Arms. Last week we talked about a “Vulnerable Character”— specifically the mute, feral young girl, Ruth—and how she proved to be the emotional heart of the story.

Today let’s talk about stealing.

I’m a big believer in stealing. I stole the structure for The Legend of Bagger Vance from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. I can’t tell you how many other tales I’ve shamelessly ripped off. But as my old mentor Zoltan Medvecky once told me, “It ain’t stealing if you put a twist on it.”

 What did I steal from for A Man at Arms?

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit”

  Three movies:

 Paper Moon.

True Grit.

 And Logan.

(I could add News of the World, except I hadn’t seen it as a film before I started on A Man at Arms … though I had read the book.)

In all four of these stories, the male protagonist is a self-centered, ego-identified (often hard-bitten) loner. In other words, he fits the mold of the classic Western hero we talked about two posts ago as the central figure in this drama. 

In all four stories, the dynamic between the craggy, embittered Old Guy and the young Vulnerable Girl is a version of Father/Daughter.

In all four, the male makes his primal moral choice in the climax … and sides with/rescues/give his life for the girl.

I thought, Hell yeah, that’s a dynamic that works.

That’s A Man at Arms.

Further studying these four stories, I asked myself, “What is it about these youthful heroines that breaks through to the Crusty Old Guy’s heart?” In all cases, two elements seem to be primary.

One, moxie. The girl shows herself on multiple occasions to have tremendous spirit and unstoppable guts. In other words, though she technically is “vulnerable” in the sense of being small, young, unskilled in weaponry, and without material resources, in all cases she more than makes up for this in courage, resourcefulness, and “true grit.”

Two (and most important), love.

The girl-children in all four of these stories clearly and demonstrably come to love their paternal counterparts. That love may be prickly and feisty and often expressed in less-than-sweet ways. But it’s real. And it’s that love that produces the reciprocal response in the Craggy Old Guy.

I used these four stories as models for A Man at Arms. I borrowed their beats and their rhythms and their climaxes. 

I just put an ancient-world/post-Crucifixion/Telamonian twist on them.

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  1. Joe Jansen on May 5, 2021 at 4:12 am

    I’ll just echo: “Hell yeah, that’s a dynamic that works.”

    Another “steal with a twist” novel I’m fond of (read twice) is “Rule of the Bone,” by Russell Banks, which borrows from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (with some additional pilfering from “The Catcher in the Rye”).

    Always good stuff to wake up to on a Wednesday morning.

  2. Brian Nelson on May 5, 2021 at 7:30 am

    So I’m a little slow. While reading about the theft this morning, I think I FINALLY understand why genre is so important! Couple of weeks ago Steve wrote about a Western and for years I missed everything Shawn and Steve had written about genre. I think theft fits snuggly into the same reason as genre.

    I don’t think as readers we are ready for something totally new. An example from my own experience was when I saw “Pulp Fiction” for the first time. When John Travolta is killed so early in the movie, I was SHOCKED. In fact, I left the theater dazed and confused, I could not tell if I liked the movie or not. I went to watch it again the very next night–little bragging–I was in Garmisch-Partenkirken, Bavaria for an 8 week language training for the Army–so had all my evenings free. Yes, as beautiful as one could imagine.

    So the second evening, I was able to watch the movie without the seismic internal responses. I left the theater thinking, “If this doesn’t get the Best Picture, than the Academy is a fraud.” If I hadn’t been on an 8 week vacation/school for the Army, I would never had the available bandwidth to watch the movie again for weeks, maybe years later. Maybe I would have never watched it again, only remembering the ‘shock and awe’ that I experienced.

    My thought about theft is that we as readers, as movie-goers, hell, even as voters–are not prepared for something totally new. We need the familiarity of genre or hints at previous stories as scaffolding for the knowledge to be learned.

    Maybe the best art, the best innovations are never truly original, but are bootlegs with a twist.

    That King Solomon was correct 3 millennia ago, “…there is nothing new under the sun.”

    I’m just happy Steve doesn’t feel inappropriate guilt or shame for stealing, and that he continues. Steal away, we are all better off for it!

  3. Scott Mitchell on May 5, 2021 at 7:35 am

    I’m zeroing in on the phrase/concept “primary moral choice” in Steven’s post above. In an earlier post (or it might have been the Warrior video series, Steven addressed the same issue with this paraphrased comment: “When Telamon figures out that [spoiler plot twist], that’s the turning point in the middle of the story. Stakes are raised and Telamon must choose a side.” That’s the part of the story that sends chills up your back.

    • Bev on May 5, 2021 at 7:43 am

      Thank you for the spoiler alert!

    • Brian Nelson on May 5, 2021 at 7:51 am

      Great point. The entire read I was thinking about the courage to make that moral choice. Literally, the entire world was against them at that point. The beauty of a narrative like this–at least part of it for me–is to question/ponder if I’d have the Moxie to make such a similar choice.

      Could be another reason, in my thinking about genre/theft this morning, that we need models of behavior so much as humans. If we haven’t run the script in our head in different scenarios, seen that the outcome has just a narrow chance of surviving, then maybe we don’t make ‘solo or original’ moral choices.

      We produce this event running up and down stairs. It is BRUTAL. For years I’ve pondered why collective suffering/shared struggle is so effective as team-building, connection experiences. Why does Rocky or Rudy resonate so deeply with people? Rocky lost. Rudy only got in for one play. We don’t care as tears stream down our face and we leap from our chairs cheering.

      I think it is a model of sacrifice, the Hero’s Journey, the human story lived out in front of us. Without such, we’d stay in the cave, never take risks, never put others ahead of ourselves. We are mimicking creatures, we need the models to show us how to act.

      Another thought about witnessing/experiencing shared struggle. I’ve thought, “What is it that we actually see when we witness another human being push all the chips in and just go for it?” After about 10 years of thinking about it–I’ve come to the conclusion that what we see is the Divine Spark in another. When we witness that beauty–we high-five, fist-bump, hug, applaud, wrap our arms around it–we love it. We cannot unsee people after that. It is why athletics and military service vaporizes most prejudices.

      Got a little off topic–but Steven’s posts nearly always get my brain going in many different directions.

      • Joe on May 5, 2021 at 5:09 pm

        It’s a namaste moment, B.

      • Regina on May 13, 2021 at 12:06 pm


        Stealing from you! It’ll go in the compost pile to heat up first, I promise! Thanks so much for commenting here. Maybe you and the others don’t realize the impact you have… #colaboration


        • Regina on May 13, 2021 at 12:46 pm

          Tosses in that missing L in collaboration and and says three curse words to go with that “hump day” remark down the line. lol SP cusses…. must be ok.


          #Learningfemale. (um…watch out.)

    • Peter Brockwell on May 5, 2021 at 8:04 am

      I’m not sure that Telamon ever struggles with consciously having to make this ‘moral choice’, that Brian also mentions. I don’t recall that we’re ever shown a moment where Telamon is considering such a choice. It simply seems, in the text at a certain point, to have been made. Isn’t Telamon is like the samurai, whose code is to live as if already dead. Therefore T-dude doesn’t really have a choice. If he does feel any fear, it’s instantly subsumed by the knowledge of his responsibility to do the right thing. Quite a thing, of course, in a culture where might makes right.

  4. Sam Luna on May 5, 2021 at 7:50 am

    Very interesting. I once worked a freelance gig in James Mangold’s office  (director of “Logan”, one of the films you credit as inspiration.) His walls are covered in racks and racks of DVDs. There’s always a movie playing on the flatscreen, somehow related to the genre or production design of his current project. 

    It definitely isn’t stealing, you or Mangold. It’s putting your spin on something people already want and giving them your version. I remember around chapter 5 or so of a Man at Arms saying aloud “wow, he really did it.” It’s a very commercial and  extremely satisfying adventure story. 

    And as always you’re reading my mind (it’s uncanny how your columns always seem to poke whatever it is I’m ruminating on.) Just this last week I wrote “Wizard of Oz?” at the top of an outline. I realized I too need to steal and twist to make a current idea work.

    Great post, Coach!

    • Steven Pressfield on May 5, 2021 at 9:44 am

      Sam, a great book that might help you right now is “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler. It uses THE WIZARD OF OZ as an example of “the hero’s journey” and talks about a lot of other stories too. One of my own faves!

      • Sam Luna on May 5, 2021 at 11:25 am

        Much appreciated — thanks for the recommendation!

  5. Peter Brockwell on May 5, 2021 at 8:09 am

    “The girl-children in all four of these stories clearly and demonstrably come to love their paternal counterparts.”

    Wouldn’t it be intriguing to write a story with a reversal of these genders? There must be such examples in literature. Can’t recall any at this moment, hmm…

    I wonder if it’s by accident that that the Guv’nor has written a novel that is almost a reproach to our modern world. ie there is less superficiality, there is meaning and silence, and meaningful silence. The characters accept that there will be consequences for their actions. Some have a code of behaviour, and there is allegiance to comrades and loyalty to the truth. There is silence in the stead of chatter, and a willingness to die for a cause, and for adopted kin.

    Brain splurge.

  6. Chuck DeBettignies on May 5, 2021 at 8:10 am

    Seeing underlying structures and using them in our work is so powerful.

    As a non-fiction writer, I was taken by Steve’s mentioning in one of his books (I forget which one) that he used the Hero’s Journey as an underlying structure in the War of Art.

    I found this so profound, because it connects with the reader on an additional dimension. The reader gets useful content. But it resonates with something at a deep level. It resonates with a universal experience (Hero’s Journey).

    So they love it and they may not even know why! But it’s because the structure harmonizes with, rhymes with, resonates with, a structure that’s deep within them, that they’ve personally experienced.

    They connect with/resonate with your work in a way that may be hard for them to put into words.

    That’s some magic there!

  7. Scott Mitchell on May 5, 2021 at 9:32 am

    Brian: Your comment on the shared experience of suffering got me to thinking – Telamon and his party — the girl, the apprentice, the witch – go through an incredible trek while being pursued by various predatory factions. In real life, that would bind the group together, as you observed. And that would be the basis for the mutual sacrifices in the future. So the story has psychological credibility.

    Peter – enjoyed your comments too. I tend to think that a fighter such as Telamon would consider carefully how much he is willing to risk himself for others. At the opening scene on the road, for example, Telamon refuses to dispute the passage with the bandits unless he’s paid by the other travelers. He has his moral code, but he’s also a survivor. So I think all during the trek with the other fugitives, he is processing how much he is willing to risk himself for these people who are clearly dependent on him. We as readers don’t see that internal struggle. And that’s the craft of Steven’s writing, where he keeps the POV generally outside of Telamon. We can only judge him by his actions. That saves Steven from having to write some self-serving internal dialogue for Telamon – we don’t have any thought-speeches like “‘It is a far, far better thing I do now, than I have ever done before.” etc. etc. We as readers instead discover this qualify of Telamon on our own, by observing him as the story moves forward. Even at the conclusion, we don’t know how deep this guy goes.

    • Peter Brockwell on May 6, 2021 at 2:57 am

      Great point! I hadna thought of that – that we aren’t exposed to Big T’s ruminations is both freeing for the author and enriches the possibilities for the reader. Keeping the POV char distinct from the focal char (plural in this case) is a valuable technique we can use in our writing.

  8. Joe on May 5, 2021 at 9:41 am

    Tribe… I’m a little short of time this morning, but I was trading emails w Peter, and had some thoughts that I thought would be good to add here.

    I’m really enjoying how the level of conversation seems to be on the rise in this space. People are interacting and engaging and building on each other’s thoughts. Our comments of “thanks” and “good reminder” are great (we all like knowing that something we said, posted, wrote, cooked, sang, sculpted, or crafted is being appreciated by others). But I love seeing how people are taking Steve’s essays and engaging each other more about story structure, or plot points in Steve’s work, or character development, or other elements of craft.

    Even greater, people are talking more about how stories are not just entertainment or tips on what to do with our own stories, but they offer us templates or models or at least ideas about how to move through these lives we’ve been born into for these short moments. And there’s a civility in here that’s sometimes hard to come by.

    That’s all I got. Gotta jump back into a project, but I wanted to say I appreciate Wednesday mornings and look forward to hearing what you all have to say.

    • Brian Nelson on May 5, 2021 at 10:42 pm

      I agree wholeheartedly. This little nook of the internet is a place of refuge, reflection, and connection for me. I am exposed to so many different perspectives and insights that I would never have gotten alone. When the Warrior Archetype videos ended, I was saddened – but there is also great value in scarcity. I look forward to Hump Day like never before.

      • Peter Brockwell on May 6, 2021 at 2:53 am

        I concur too. I’m a late joiner to the conversation, but WW seems to have crossed a phase transition. We’ve acquired a critical mass. In cellular automata (don’t ask!) this would be called ‘percolation’.

        Ice Nine!

        • Joe on May 6, 2021 at 5:30 am

          Vonnegut is from my hometown, BRO! (Cellular automata? No thanks, I had that for breakfast. But “percolation” is good all day.)

          Brian, can we still say “Hump Day”? I don’t want to step on any toes. My metaphors are already insufferably mixed.

          • Peter Brockwell on May 6, 2021 at 6:09 am

            Joe, great work! So glad you got the reference!

        • Joe on May 6, 2021 at 1:22 pm

          I’m not an astrophysicist turned copper, but I play one on TV (obscure cultural reference:

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  12. dan henderson on May 17, 2021 at 7:51 am

    Steve knows this world well. Every great copywriter has a SWIPE FILE. In the copywriters world, it’s not only accepted – it’s encouraged. Heck, you can buy Swipe Files from some of the top copywriters. We’ve been selling stuff for a long time and some of the best sales copy ever written was created in the late 1800’s. If we’re waiting around for a totally ORIGINAL idea or concept nobody’s ever had before, we could have a long, long wait. Personally, I’m to a writer … but I do believe the true value of reading what others before us have written is that some of it actually sticks and the muse brings it forth when we’re searching for just the right words and phrases.

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  17. bloxd io on September 8, 2023 at 1:48 am

    I tend to think that a fighter such as Telamon would consider carefully how much he is willing to risk himself for others. At the opening scene on the road, for example, Telamon refuses to dispute the passage with the bandits unless he’s paid by the other travelers.

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