Recently I’ve decided to check out the miniseries The Story of Film: An Odyssey. You know, because I’m into movies and shit. I’m only a few episodes in, but the third episode (about early world cinema) got me thinking about something that is talked about pretty consistently in writing: cribbing from others.

I don’t mean it in exactly the way most “writing gurus” mean it. When they say it, they mean to actively write in someone else’s voice and steal someone else’s characters and premises in order to learn how to create your own. That’s fine. I still find myself writing like Ray Bradbury, just not nearly as well (that motherfucker could write, is my point).

What I mean is stealing flourishes, visuals, little details that communicate an idea so perfectly you can’t think of another way to do it. Or, to steal because it inspires you.

One could argue that film (or any art, really, but especially film) is nothing but the collaboration of millions of people over the past 120 years or so. They borrow one another’s ideas, techniques, visuals, and use those to tell different stories. Today you need look no further than Tarantino or the Coen Brothers to find filmmakers that built their careers on being referential.

But there’s an art to it. An art they understand and an art that other filmmakers and writers (say… JJ Abrams when he made Super 8) don’t. To just steal, to make a reference that makes people go, “I recognize that!” doesn’t do anything for a story as a whole. What makes a reference, or a theft of an idea, resonate is how that reference or theft is used to further your own story. Tarantino’s movies are loose collections of references to other films, but they still tell his stories with his characters. He still writes crackling dialogue and exciting plots. He doesn’t just do a deep focus with a window in the background and ask if you remember how great that shot was in Citizen Kane because he remembers too. That’s useless. His movies stand on their own because he hasn’t allowed himself to become his influences.

One of my favorite sequences in any movie is in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, oddly enough, when they find themselves stuck in Hell. This is a bit of a cheat because Bill and Ted is clearly a spoof, and spoof’s are easier to talk about when discussing references, but I think it works. Anyway, Hell is clearly influenced by German Expressionism and it absolutely works for that sequence. It adds to the feel of the film and it furthers the story and that’s partially because we, even subconsciously, recognize the significance of the reference. The heavy-lifting has already been done by antiquity so the film could focus on its other priorities, like putting Bill and Ted in situations that would further them from their goals but still make us laugh.

Theft can be an awesome thing if done right. Like Bill and Ted a proper reference can act as a bridge of information for an audience that may not understand what’s immediately going on. But a reference without a purpose actively hurts a story and is best avoided.