Shakespeare as Oracle, or Much Ado about Plotting and Pantsing

This isn’t where I wax lyrical about how much I love Shakespeare’s work. I’ve read very little of it, beyond what we had to read at school, and remember less. First there was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A character named Bottom? Really? I never quite got past that.* Later, in Middle School, we tackled Julius Caesar. In one memorable** class we had to learn a speech off by heart then stand up and recite it: Therecomesatideintheaffairsofmenwhichiftakenatthefloodleadsontobetterthings … thefaultliesnotinourstarsbutinourselvesthatweareunderlings … Dear Reader, I crashed and burned. Thanks to a crackly radio adaptation we listened to in school I do at least have a favourite line: Then fall Caesar. Gnurrgh.

Somewhere along the way we encountered Romeo and Juliet. I suspect I had mumps at the time, for I managed to keep my eyes averted as I shuffled past their tragic corpses. I can’t even remember which play we studied for ‘O’ levels alongside Lord of the Flies and Jane Eyre, although I do remember flinging poor Jane across the room in disgust upon reading the words ‘Reader, I married him.’ One day I might read to the very end, but that day hasn’t arrived yet. Despite the best efforts of the exam boards my reading choices at the time remained centred on space ships, triffids, dragons, and Jane Austen.

But there’s no escaping the ubiquitous bard. I’ll find a phrase noodling around in my mind and, thanks to the wondrous internet, I’ll discover it’s one of his. He has a way with language that makes his phrases stick, tenacious as any earworm. Hold that thought.

What has that to do with plotting and pantsing? You may already have guessed I tend towards the pantsing end of the spectrum. Once I’ve found my characters and their dilemma we launch into the unknown until we run aground 20-30k later, and then pause to take stock. After that I loosely plan the next stage of the story, along the lines of this, this and this has happened, so that, that and that will happen next. But it rarely does. Some other thing crops up, and it’s usually far more convincing than what I’d planned.

So here I am approaching the end of the story. Except the characters galloped headlong into what I’d originally envisaged as the closing scene several thousand words ago and it wasn’t the ending at all. While I was stuck an online friend – plotter to the core – commented she always knows the ending before she begins to write. That just doesn’t work for me, my process is altogether more messy. Away I trailed to delete another 5k of plot cul de sac, envying her efficient process. And the earworm began taunting me – the stupid earworm that led me into the stupid not-ending first time round – the first line from the opening scene of Macbeth. The notion of three characters closing the circle at the end still felt relevant so I went and looked it up in context.

When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

When the hurlyburly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.

Light bulb moment! After several weeks of minimal progress this may be a beleaguered writer clutching at straws, but I like to think my subconscious was on the case the whole time. Either way, I’ve decided which direction the story takes next. Time will tell if it works or not.

This isn’t the first time the bard’s bailed me out when a plot’s stalled. The very first time it was one of Bottom’s lines, no less, rattling round my subconscious since the mid-seventies, just waiting until I needed it to trigger a few new associations:

… to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.

You’d think I’d have learned by now. Next time the writing grinds to a halt I’ll ask the oracle a bit sooner.


* Anna J Grace-Smith has no such problems. You can find her rather wonderful extrapolation of the tale here.

** A day without a dreadful pun is a day wasted.