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10 Things Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Writing Thrillers

Conspiracy. Murder. Politics. Love. Sex. Ghosts. Pirates. Thrillers and the works of William Shakespeare may have more in common than you’d think. And, as author A.J. Hartley proved in his session “Cues From Shakespeare, the First Thriller Writer,” there’s a lot the bard can teach scribes about storytelling.
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Shakespeare's comedy of Twelfth night; or, What you will | Act 2, scene 3.
Sir Andrew. A mellifluous voice, as I am true knight.

Conspiracy. Murder. Politics. Love. Sex. Ghosts. Pirates. Thrillers and the works of William Shakespeare may have more in common than you’d think. After all, as author A.J. Hartley pointed out, the legendary playwright that 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.

And, as Hartley proved in his session “Cues From Shakespeare, the First Thriller Writer,” there’s a lot the bard can teach scribes about storytelling.

Here are some of the enduring lessons Hartley shared.

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

Most of Shakespeare’s stories originated in other source material. “This is just kind of the nature of the beast,” Hartley said—there’s a limited number of original tales out there. So, great writers steal—“and then own the result.” Shakespeare wrote his works in his own way, with his unique signature.

2. Remember: Shakespeare never went to Italy.

Hartley asked: Without delving into the Shakespearean authorship question, 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, Hartley cautioned, writers should never let their research trump their tales. “[Shakespeare] gives you 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. Any book should do the same.

4. Story is character.

In the bard’s world, the props and costumes are kept to a minimum. The plays can be performed on a bare stage. “It’s all about the interaction between character and how the characters speak,” Hartley said. Likewise, 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.

6. All scenes must have external and internal conflict.

“It’s not enough for the door to be locked. The character has to have a reason to not 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 especially at thriller conferences, people tend to talk about the need for books to go fast. What sets Shakespeare apart is that he allowed his characters to register the events that happened to them—“for the emotional and spiritual consequences of things to land.”

8. “Bad things happen to good people. Audiences expect poetic justice.”

Beyond Shakespeare’s works, Hartley used George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series to further illustrate this point. Martin gets his readers to love his characters, and then he kills those characters off. The result: You’re always in fear. “It’s a brilliant, simple story strategy,” Hartley said. “It creates a particular kind of suspense and a particular kind of tension.”

9. The dialogue says it all.

Hartley pointed out that we tend to think of Shakespeare as a great philosopher, spouting off wisdoms—but that’s not the case. “Every word in Shakespeare is dialogue. It comes from character. … We do not know what Shakespeare thought about anything, and that’s what makes him good.”

10. Shakespeare was all about output.

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

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