A Lesson From Shakespeare In Love: Stammering Tension

AlatorreI like this movie a lot and I really couldn’t tell you why.

Okay, that’s not true.

There are LOTS of things to like about it. It was a commercial and critical success.

There are also story telling things to learn, which we’ll get to in a sec.

A few things I like LOVE:

  • I love that Shakespeare shrugs when the theater owners asks, “Where is my play?”
  • I love that Shakespeare is so completely overwhelmed and busy but keeps adding stuff to his schedule. (Sounds familiar.)
  • I love that he feels at times that he is a genius but he is very jealous of his more successful associate, Marlowe. I know that feeling.
  • There’s a franticness to the movie. We know it’s freaking Shakespeare and that he turns out successful, but at the time, he doesn’t know it will all turn out okay. He’s vulnerable and insecure and basically lost.
  • I love that the theater owner says plays are a mad scramble but somehow everything turns out all right:

Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?

Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Hugh Fennyman: How?

Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

  • I LOVE HOW the playwrights struggle to come up with a title. We’ve all been there! “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirates Daughter?”

Okay, so there are fun things in the movie. There are tons of witty one-liners, which I probably like the most, and how the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. I like that, too.

But there’s a HUGE storytelling lesson, too.

And it comes at a remarkable time in the movie.

The success of the play is paramount. Everything depends on it. Everything.

As the story builds toward opening night, the pressure mounts. All will be lost if the play doesn’t do well.

And, like the opening lines of your book, the opening of the play will either grab the audience or turn it into an angry mob – so it HAS to open well in its opening lines!

So… it can’t, right?

Because tension drives stories.


Immediately before the curtain goes up, a man is standing back stage rehearsing his lines. He is the narrator of the play. He will voice the opening words that start the play. He is crucial.

He is backstage, and he is shaking and stammering.

The lines he needs to speak are: 

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny…

He’s not just nervous, but he stammers so badly with stage fright that he cannot get the words out! But it’s not stage fright. He stammers all the time anyway.

T-t-t-t… Tuh…Tuh… T-t-t-tuh… Two! T-two ho -ho-ho-house…h-holds…

This… is not a good sign.

But as stagecraft, it’s brilliant.

The director of the movie waits 20 seconds to let the man start to talk, and 40 seconds before he actually speaks without stammering.

That is a lifetime in a movie, and having recently been on stage with grade school kids trying to speak publicly, it’s a lifetime in real life, too.

How many of you would have the courage to do that in your writing? Five? Five seconds?

Five seconds and you would all be moving on.

20 seconds in a movie is an eternity. How long would you wait?

And what do you do for that looooong 40 seconds of nothing happening?

You show everything that is happening and everything that is NOT happening, from the point of view of that character:

Again, to start the play, a man with a terrible stammer must go on stage and announce the prologue.

He hesitates, stammering behind the curtain a bit, while Shakespeare and the producer discuss whether or not all is lost.

The trumpets sound; it is time.

The curtain rises.

The producer shoves the narrator onto the stage.

He turns and stares at the crowd. The crowd stares back in silence.

He gasps.

He takes a deep breath and slowly walks forward to the edge of the stage. The crowd murmurs, all eyes on him.

He looks around, biting his cheek, pursing his lips, his eyes wide.

Finally, he opens his mouth.

He attempts to say a word but stumbles on it.


The crowd looks and begins to giggle

He tries to speak again.


More giggles.

By now, your heart is sinking for this guy, and for the play, and for Shakespeare. All is lost.

The narrator tries again…

and finally spits it out.

“Two households!”

He… he might do it.

“…both alike in dignity…”

He’s doing it!

“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny…”

He did it!

And now he is in command.

Every eye is on him and every voice in the crowd is silent. They are enthralled with the powerful delivery of his words, as he says them majestically from the stage.

He owns the room.

The play will go on and be a success. All is not lost; all is triumphant.

A moment of sympathy, a mini hurdle for our characters to overcome, and a powerful display of drama and tension.

Learn from it, and put stuff like that in your stories. If your word count is a little light, think about what adding a mini hurdle would do for you. This was simply the start of the play. The curtain could have gone up without it; there was enough tension already. One more piece was a masterful addition.

But how many of us would even think to do it?

That’s the difference between a good story and one that readers can’t put down.

DandD w My Cover

“DOUBLE BLIND by Dan Alatorre is gritty, graphic and true edge-of-your-seat reading” 

Tome Tender Reviews


Published by Dan Alatorre AUTHOR

USA Today bestselling author Dan Alatorre has 50+ titles published in more than 120 countries and over a dozen languages.

15 thoughts on “A Lesson From Shakespeare In Love: Stammering Tension

  1. Tom Stoppard, the playwright who created “Shakespeare in Love,” is a genius. Full stop.

    Also, I adore the character of Mister Wabash; he’s only in the play Henslowe owes him money. And somehow, he pulls it off through what we always called (back in the days when I was an actor) “the magic of the theatre.”

    This just goes to show how memorable even a minor character can be.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this movie for all the reasons you mention and more besides. This is unusual for me, so, like you, I have tried to dissect the elements and devices that work for me. There are plenty of lessons here. Thanks, Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, you authors need to put yourselves out there to promote which is somewhat of an opposite to what some may feel inside their modest demeanors. . . Most people are happy to meet confident writers. Sure, recluse writers seem interesting but I like those who have a sense of their talents and gifts. 📖 🔦 Shine a lantern, Dan! 🕯️💡

        Liked by 1 person

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