Publish date:

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.
Image placeholder title

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 (!).

Get six amazing thriller writing resources
for a heavily discounted price with the
Writing Thrillers & Mysteries Kit.

V7135
From Script

Writing Empowered Superhero’s in CWs Supergirl and Understanding Animation From the Trenches (From Script)

In this week’s round-up In this week’s round up brought to us by Script Magazine, story editor Katiedid “Did” Langrock speaks with Reckless Creatives podcast. Plus, one-on-one interview with CWs Supergirl actress turned scribe Azie Tesfai about her groundbreaking episode and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: The Characterless Character

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: The Characterless Character

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so this series helps identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is writing a characterless character.

When Is My Novel Ready to Read: 7 Self-Editing Processes for Writers

When Is My Novel Ready to Read: 7 Self-Editing Processes for Writers

Fiction editor and author Kris Spisak ties together her seven processes for self-editing novels, including editorial road-mapping, character differentiation analysis, reverse editing, and more.

Poetic Forms

Englyn Unold Crwca: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the englyn unold crwca, a Welsh quatrain form.

5 Things for Writers to Keep in Mind When Writing About Spies

5 Things for Writers to Keep in Mind When Writing About Spies

A spy thriller requires more than a compelling story and clever plot twists—the characters need to feel real. Author Stephanie Marie Thornton offers 5 tips for constructing believable spy characters.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unexpected Team Up

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unexpected Team Up

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, it's time for a little unexpected team work.

Taylor Anderson: On Creating Realism in the Weird

Taylor Anderson: On Creating Realism in the Weird

New York Times bestselling author Taylor Anderson discusses the process of writing his new science fiction novel, Purgatory's Shore.

6 Books Perfect for Fall Reading

6 Books Perfect for Fall Reading

Whether you're looking for something cozy or a little spooky, these books are perfect for the fall season.

NaNoWriMo: To Prep or Not to Prep?

NaNoWriMo: To Prep or Not to Prep?

When it comes to a 30 day writing challenge like NaNoWriMo, do you need to prep beforehand to achieve success? Well, that might depend on what kind of writer you are.