There is an article by Karin Abarbanel in the February 12, 2020 issue of The Writer’s Dig in which she reports on a challenge from a friend to spend an hour a day for a month on something that would improve her writing skills. She decided to spend an hour each day revisiting and analysing Shakespeare’s plays.
Ms Abaranel has an M.A. in Renaissance English Literature from Columbia University. She recently completed the manuscript for her first novel, Britomar and the Forest of No Return, a middle-grade fantasy adventure, which she is currently submitting to agents. As a nonfiction author, she has been published by Penguin Random House, Henry Holt, and McGraw-Hill.
Excerpts from the article are as follows:
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.
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, and scores an impressive feat: simultaneously telling and showing.
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.
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.
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.
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 a warm, winsome scene that 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.
I agree with Ms Abarbanel’s conclusions except on telling well, and I think that Lee Child is wrong when he says that readers don’t care about showing or telling. If the reader can be shown rather than told what a character is feeling, s/he has to interpret what s/he has been shown. In the process of interpreting, s/he is drawn closer to the character. So, I would say if there is an effective way to show the character’s feelings, chose that rather than telling what the feelings are.