How to steal like an artist (storytelling version)

3 techniques to come up with unlimited, original story ideas

When I was 12, I saw down to write my first book. Eragon sat on the desk next to me as I typed away. Now, this may shock you. My book ended up with dragons, dragon riders, and a big evil bad guy… quite a bit like Eragon.

That’s how to not steal like an artist. Don’t be like 12-year-old me.

But my problem wasn’t getting inspiration from a book.

My problem was getting inspiration from just one book.

After talking with 100s of authors, creators, and other storytellers, I want to share how they ‘Steal Like an Artist.’

Thief insight 1: Keep a ‘theft’ journal

Before you become a master thief, you’ve got to know how to keep track of your prizes.

In Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist (which inspired this piece), he recommends a ‘theft’ journal. It’s brilliant.

You can make one by sectioning a journal into the categories that make sense for you. Mine are:

  • Quotes

  • Best hooks

  • Best endings

  • Favorite lines

  • Character names

It’s become a gold mine for writing this newsletter, writing for socials, and writing books.

I used to fight writer’s block each time I put my fingers on a keyboard. Now, when I’m dealing with that old enemy, I flip through the journal. Works wonders.

Point: Save everything that appeals to you. Figure out why it appeals to you. Then apply those lessons to your own work.

But where do those ideas come from?

Thief insight 2: Look beyond your field

The obvious place to look is direct competition. But that’s a bad idea. If you take from direct competition, you risk becoming like everyone else.

Instead, take a look outside of your field.

  • When you’re scrolling Twitter, what catches your eye?

  • When you read fiction, what parts of the book can’t you put down?

  • When you watch a show, what gets you to watch ‘just one more?’

Then figure out how those ideas can improve your own stories. Take it from a legend…

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so.

Stephen King

Point: What’s interesting elsewhere will likely be interesting in your field, too.

Thief insight 3: Get inspiration from many sources

Quality inputs lead to quality outputs. So before you get to scouring for inspiration, a word of warning:

Curate your inputs ruthlessly. Yes, look wide. But if something feels off, scrap it. Don’t follow 5,000 people. Follow 500 high-quality thinkers.

I like Kleon’s way of phrasing this:

“You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life.”

Back in the Eragon example, I got inspiration from one book. That’s called plagiarism.

But Pierce Brown took inspiration from The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Enlightenment poetry, ancient Roman history, and many other places to write Red Rising. That’s called a NYTimes bestseller.

The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.

T.S. Eliot

Point: The more sources of inspiration you take from, the more original your ideas and stories become.

Add your story to borrowed elements. Weld something new.

– Nathan

Want to go deeper on storytelling?

1. If you want a practical way to improve your storywriting in less than 25 minutes daily, check out StoryWork (200+ students).

2. Grab time with me for a 1:1 session on newsletters, storytelling, audience building, or anything else.