Debut novelist Karin Abarbanel shares four writing tips for contemporary novelists she discovered from studying the plays of the Bard for 365+ nights.
“And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
from A Midsummer’s Night Dream
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 danger 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 fight 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 murdered 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 murdered 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 beaten 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:
“No trust me: she is peevish,
Proud, disobedient, stubborn,
Then there’s Julius Caesar’s “telling” portrayal of one of his assassins:
“Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.”
Revision Decision: Seeing how effectively Shakespeare wielded showing and telling, I re-engineered key sections of my middle-grade fantasy to better exploit both these techniques. In a pivotal moment, for example, I show how upset my 12-year-old heroine is after being berated by the prickly knight she serves. She’s about to abandon her quest and return home when a trusted confidante tells her all the reasons she absolutely must stay. Using showing and telling in this scene made it more vivid, energized, and realistic.
Writer’s Choice: Showing and telling are invaluable tools in our writing kitbag. Master writers wield them both with equal zest and skill. Don’t sacrifice one to the other—marshal these twin tools as needed to keep your readers or viewers immersed and engaged. And when the moment seems right, merge the two: Use showing and telling in tandem to create vivid word pictures that bring your story to life.
Tip #3: MAKE MINOR CHARACTERS COUNT
Who knows better than Shakespeare how to make minor characters come alive? Not only are they lusty and full-blooded, they’re also hardworking. Shakespeare consistently gives them high-impact jobs to do, from dropping important clues to making fateful mistakes that advance his plots.
Read his plays back to back and you can’t help but admire his inventiveness: He uses his bit players in a stunning variety of ways, depending again, on the needs of the story he’s dramatizing. Sometimes they set the stage, so to speak, so we know what’s going on before the main characters hit the boards. Sometimes “lowly” characters offer wry observations about the high-born masters they serve. Some minor characters provide moments of great drama and insight; and others, humorous interludes.
Whatever their roles, Shakespeare doesn’t stint when it comes to conjuring up minor players. Far from it! Instead, he lavishes language and attention on them, often bringing them center stage and spotlighting their views and quirks briefly, or at length. Whether it’s Mercutio weaving a gauzy fantasy for his lovesick friend Romeo or Horatio hoping to console a conflicted Hamlet, Shakespeare gives weight and value to everyone he creates.
In fact, he’s so artful that he can breathe life into even the most fleeting of characters with a few deft strokes of his pen, much the way an artist creates a clever caricature with a few bold slashes of ink. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Juliet’s nurse makes just the slightest mention of “Susan,” her own daughter:
“Susan and she [Juliet]—God rest all Christian souls!—were of an age.
Well, Susan is with God; she was too good for me.”
In two stark lines, we learn that Juliet’s nurse had a daughter who would have been exactly Juliet’s age if she hadn’t died years before as an infant. We feel the fresh pain of the nurse’s loss, but even more important, we instantly grasp the reason for her deep, motherly devotion to Juliet. We never hear another word about Susan, but her life echoes through the play in the tragic steps the nurse takes to help her beloved Juliet.
In Macbeth, we catch a poignant glimpse of another child—the eldest son and heir of the Scottish lord Macduff. Shakespeare captures, in just 17 lines, this devoted little boy’s concern for his absent father, his playful affection for his mother, and his quick wit. His last line, urging his mother to flee as he lies stabbed and dying, is a heartbreaker because Shakespeare has, in a single scene, created such a charming character.
Revision Decision: I revisited several scenes in my novel in which minor characters take center stage, and sharpened their dialogue to reveal more personality and insight into their motives faster and more efficiently. I also transformed an underused trainer into Britomar’s mentor, enabling him to both bolster her and convey information at key plot points. Inspired by Shakespeare, I gave another bit player a more dynamic arc: by the end of my story he’d evolved from a bullying tormentor into my heroine’s unlikely protector.
Writer’s Choice: Main characters play pivotal roles in driving a story’s action, but minor characters can also provide much-needed shots of plot to fuel forward motion. Be sure to make your minor characters sing for their supper: Spend time and effort to bring them fully alive and they’ll reward your care by enriching and energizing your story.
Tip #4: CREATE ANTICIPATION
Setting readers or viewers up for what happens next in a story keeps them hungry, curious, and engaged. The more often and skillfully we fuel anticipation, the more we heighten the drama of major events. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare excels at releasing just enough information to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, waiting anxiously for what happens next.
At the end of Act III of Macbeth, for example, the ruthless, besieged Macbeth reveals to the audience that he plans to kill the family of his enemy, Lord Macduff. In the next scene, Macduff’s wife and her precocious son enact the charming, intimate exchange I noted earlier. This warm, winsome scene is painful to watch because viewers know what the characters on stage don’t—that they are about to be murdered.
To ratchet up the drama—and viewer anxiety—Shakespeare has a stranger burst in and warn Macduff’s wife to leave. As helpless onlookers, we yearn for her to escape but know it’s too late—she has mere minutes to live. When Macbeth’s henchmen burst in and murder her and her son, it’s a terrible moment—made far more devastating because Shakespeare so cleverly and economically sets us up for it.
Revision Decision: Inspired by Shakespeare’s artful use of anticipation, I decided to ratchet up the tension about the deadly “Forest of No Return” early in my book. At key moments in my story, I drop hints from other characters about just how treacherous the forest is and how people have disappeared into it over generations. When Britomar learns she must enter it to save her fallen commander, she’s seized with dread because she’s heard several warning about just how frightening and venomous it is.
Writer’s Choice: Keeping readers and viewers alert and involved—that’s our job as writers. What better way to compel them to turn our pages than by stoking anticipation? Look for moments when you’re heading into scenes of high emotion or engineering pivotal events. Plant seeds strategically to ratchet up tension and you’ll give your story a powerful shot of adrenalin—and heart-pounding momentum.
As we strive to improve our craft, we can benefit tremendously by turning past or current masterful writers into mentors and analyzing how they do what they do. My Shakespeare sessions have inspired me to apply what I’ve learned in ways that I believe have made my novel about a young girl struggling to meet her unexpected destiny far stronger. Why not borrow a leaf from a writer you admire?