Tuesday’s Tutor: Conspiracy. Murder. Politics. Love. Sex. Ghosts. Pirates.

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB (Sorry for the lateness… we’re on the road and just got to Alabama!)

And we’re not talking today’s thrillers, but works of William Shakespeare. Author A.J. Hartley pointed out, as quoted by Writer’s Digest (July ’13), the playwright we now regard as “refined” and “literary” was considered rustic and fanciful in his time. “Shakespeare wrote for the mass medium of his day,” Hartley said.

So what can the bard teach us about storytelling? Here’s what Hartley shared:

1. “Good writers borrow. … Great writers steal.”

Most of Shakespeare’s stories originated in other source material. Hartley said there are a limited number of original tales out there. Steal—”then own the result.” Shakespeare wrote his works with his unique signature.

2. Remember: Shakespeare never went to Italy.

How could the son of a glove maker evoke settings, fields and time period he couldn’t have ever experienced? “By reading. Copiously. Diligently.” But “Never let research trump the tales. Shakespeare gives you only as much as you need to tell the story, and that’s all.

3. Get right to it.

Shakespeare doesn’t waste time getting things moving—books should do the same.

4. Story is character.

The bard’s props and costumes were kept to a minimum. His plays can be performed on a bare stage. It’s all about interaction between characters and how they speak, Hartley said. From a story perspective, a thriller shouldn’t be about explosions and car chases, but character.

5. Begin scenes late and end them early.

Just like the screenwriting maxim: start with something already happening. End without dragging the story out or “explaining” it.

6. All scenes must have external and internal conflict.

“It’s not enough for the door to be locked.” The character should have a reason not to want to open it.

7. Pace isn’t speed.

“Don’t be afraid to slow down to focus between action and event.” Hartley noted that what set Shakespeare apart was he allowed his characters to register the events that happened to them, gave them time for the emotional/spiritual consequences of things to register.

8. “Bad things happen to good people.”

Audiences expect poetic justice. In today’s works, like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, the author lets his readers love his characters, and then he kills them off. Result: the reader is always in fear: “. . . a brilliant, simple story strategy, [which] creates a particular kind of suspense and a particular kind of tension.”

9. Dialogue says it all.

Hartley pointed out that we think of Shakespeare as a great, wise philosopher, but “Every word in Shakespeare is dialogue. It comes from character.” We don’t know what Shakespeare thought about anything . . . and that’s what makes him so good.

10. Shakespeare was all about output.

“You want to learn from Shakespeare? Write a ton of stuff,” Hartley said. On average, Shakespeare released his great works of literature at a rate of about two plays a year for two decades. So get to it!

See you day-after-tomorrow for Thursday’s 13!


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