Timely Craft Tips from the Immortal Bard



There’s nothing like a challenge to get the creative juices flowing. So when a friend proposed that I devote an hour a day for a month to something that would improve my writing, I was in. My plan was hatched in a flash: Spend an hour daily revisiting and analyzing William Shakespeare’s plays. When the month ended, the strategy proved so fruitful that I kept going. To date, I’ve logged 365+ nightly visits with the Bard and cycled through his tragedies and comedies (skipped the histories!) four times.

What, you may ask, can a playwright who penned his dramas 400 years ago teach a debut novelist about crafting Britomar and the Forest of No Return, a middle-grade fantasy adventure about a young medieval tree whisperer and reluctant knight-in-training? Plenty! Here are four tips Will generously passed on:

Tip #1: WIN AT THE GATEWAY GAME

 

Crash, bang! Stomp, sizzle! Search the internet for advice on how to start a novel and you’re likely to see the words in media res pop up. The message: parachute your readers into the middle of your story. Would Shakespeare agree? Not necessarily—he’s far more versatile and audience-friendly.

Yes, he begins Macbeth with thunder, lightning, and three witches just itching to stir up trouble—his version of an action opening. In Romeo and Juliet, however, Shakespeare makes a different choice. He might have cut to the chase and dropped us into the middle of the action with, say, a love-struck Romeo wooing Juliet while she swoons on her balcony. But he doesn’t. Instead, he uses a prologue to bring the audience up to speed about the two warring families his “star-crossed lovers” spring from. Romeo and Juliet don’t even meet until the end of Act I. The balcony scene? Act II.

Generally, Shakespeare wants those viewing his plays to be curious, not confused; led not lost. So he opts for slow builds in place of flashy gateways that can be exciting but disorienting. By choosing to anchor his audiences—not set them adrift—he provides a framework for the events and actions of his characters that propel his dramas forward.

Among the gateway strategies Shakespeare artfully employs to ease his way into a story: 1) stage-setting prologues that frame and clarify the action about to take place; 2) minor characters who serve as “stand-ins” for viewers and discuss recent disturbing or puzzling developments; 3) brief “history” lessons recapping past occurrences so viewers have a context for understanding present events; 4) monologues by major characters revealing fatal decisions that trigger ensuing action.

Revision Decision: In crafting my novel’s first chapter, I tried several times, during various revisions, to be more “hooky” and use different action openings. But I found that dropping a young reader in the middle of one highly charged scene or another required distracting explanatory flashbacks to orient the reader in time.

Ultimately, I took a tip from Shakespeare and began my story with a quieter, more classic gateway—one in which the reader meets my young heroine, Britomar, on her cloud-brushed cliff in a peaceful moment as she surveys the sweep of her world. Within a few pages, however, she’s smack in the middle of the inciting incident that plunges her into peril and sets the plot in motion. This opening both introduces Britomar in her element where she’s happiest and most content, and reveals the story’s stakes—the home and life she cherishes and will action to protect.

Writer’s Choice: While action or “hooky” openings offer flash and excitement, they may not be the best choice for the story you want to tell. Don’t limit yourself to considering only one gateway approach. Instead, match the matter to the moment as Shakespeare does. Win at the “gateway game” by experimenting with a range of different openings until you find one that feels right to you—one that strikes the right note and creates the right mood for the story you’re telling.

Tip #2: TELL WELL

Popular thriller novelist Lee Child once told a room of writers, “Forget ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Writers are storytellers—and that’s what readers depend on us to do. They don’t care about telling or showing. They just want to be carried through a book. There is nothing wrong with just telling the story. So liberate yourself from that rule.”

Lee and Will are on the same page. “Show, don’t tell”—this is one widely cited “rule” that Shakespeare would have ignored if he’d ever come across it in his day. Yes, he loves to “show” dramatic moments: those three witches stirring their black, bubbling cauldron on the heath, the ghost of Hamlet’s executed father haunting his castle ramparts, Brutus stabbing Julius Caesar. But Shakespeare also woos his audience with words through targeted telling—deft descriptions that fire the imagination.

 

We don’t just see Juliet in that famous balcony scene, we also eavesdrop on her rhapsodizing about Romeo. Hamlet’s riveting “To be or not to be” speech is a master class in telling: Hamlet reveals his paralyzing indecisiveness as he tries to rouse himself to action by describing the steps he could take to avenge his executed father. And in Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen’s luxurious “love boat” is nowhere in sight; instead, Shakespeare has an observer conjure up a vivid word picture:

“The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,

Burn’d on the water; the poop was overcome gold,

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke …”
Here, Shakespeare scores an impressive feat: simultaneously telling and showing. Cleopatra’s sumptuous barge—the place where she “pursed up” Antony’s heart—is described in such sensual detail that we can almost see it floating across the stage.

Time and again, Shakespeare captures a character’s essence by piling on colorful adjectives and descriptive phrases—telling us in no uncertain terms, who or what a person is—or is perceived to be. Consider this description of Juliet by her angry father when she refuses to marry the man he’s chosen for her.

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