Writing, Arts & Entertainment

Case Study: Language and Emotion in "Something Borrowed"

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 15:07 min

Using his essay “Something Borrowed” as an example, Malcolm demonstrates how to use language and emotion to build a powerful narrative.

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Topics include: Attach Character Descriptions to Narrative Moments


So I had done a piece for "The New Yorker" many years ago about a psychiatrist named Dorothy Lewis, whose specialty was serial killers. And it was long, long article, kind of a profile of her work-- her and her work. 10 years pass and a British playwright named Bryony Lavery wrote a play-- a very good play-- in which some of the dialogue-- a good portion of the dialogue-- had been lifted directly from my article. Maybe 15 or 20 lines, I can't remember how much. This was brought to my attention and my initial reaction was, this is outrageous. She stole my work. And then I read the play. I was like, actually, the play's really good. And then I thought, well, maybe I should meet the playwright and find out what happened. So I called her up and we had a long, really interesting conversation. She was incredibly apologetic. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, why did I think I was victimized? Like, it seemed like an odd-- I couldn't-- I couldn't figure out why I was victimized. So she didn't take my entire article, put her name on it, publish it, and make money off it. That's theft. That's clear to me. She took a little-- she read my article, was very inspired by it to write a really good work of fiction. And she took a small piece of text in 20 lines out of a 7,000-word piece, and other little details, and plugged them into her fictionalized narrative. She was taking my work and turning a small part of it-- the idea and small part of the building blocks of it-- into something new and really good. She had contrived to create art out of a work of nonfiction. Why wasn't I-- as I thought about it, I realized, why was my first reaction not to be flattered? I mean, how often does that happen? Not only that, she took it and the show ran on Broadway and got incredible reviews. I mean, what was my problem? was essentially, when I-- as I thought about it. And it was then-- it was when I realized that I didn't-- that I had that reaction that I realized, oh, this is a case where I think I can write in the first person. Because I do have an interesting story to tell. Because we've all read, a million times, the story about the writer who's plagiarized. And it's-- they're full of outrage and they're-- they act as if, you know, they had built some-- they had written the Bible and someone had ripped it off and was selling it at Walmart under their name, you know? And I've read that story so many times now. I don't want to read another one of those. So that was my-- why, I would never have written about this had it-- had I-- had I had the conventional response. But once I realized that actually I was flattered on some level to have participated in a work of artistic transformation, that I thought, well, actually, this is a case where people might actually be interested in my story. And then when I realized, wait, this is a great way to talk about the way art is created and how we're very dishonest about it, and that all art is...

About the Instructor

Ketchup. Crime. Quarterbacks. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these ordinary subjects have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. Now, the renowned storyteller and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point is teaching his first online writing class. Craft stories that captivate by learning how Malcolm researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.

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Malcolm Gladwell

In 24 lessons, the author of Blink and The Tipping Point teaches you how to find, research, and write stories that capture big ideas.

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