And yours, too!
In honor of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, here’s a blog post from a few years (and one month) back.
It’s March 15, the famous Ides of March, the day of Julius Caesar’s death. The day when we recall high school English teachers bemoaning half-hearted attempts at Shakespeare with “Et tu, Brute?” as if we’d stabbed them heart.
Well, turns out Caesar may never have said that, but that’s good writing. Of course, it may not have been Shakespeare’s writing. This does get confusing.
Some historians say that upon being stabbed by Brutus, Caesar called out (in Greek) “Kai su, teknon?” (You too, my child?) or (Latin) “Tu quoque, Brute, fili mi?” Some say he said nothing (as he was being stabbed). I believe he simply cried out in agony.
What I’ve Learned About Writing From The Ides of March:
1. Writing is about simplicity. “Et tu, Brute?” is far more memorable than “Tu quoquoe, Brute, fili mi?”. Even people who never had a day of Latin class, who routinely butcher e pluribus unum and ex post facto know Et tu, Brute.
2. Simple words can still convey complex ideas. Shakespeare again. Does anything say it better than “To be or not to be?” or “Out, out, damn spot!” How about FDR’s “All we have to fear is fear itself”? The words of philosophers found in the mouths of three year olds.
3. It doesn’t have to be English if it fits. A good phrase is a good phrase. People repeat “Ich bin ein Berliner” even if it could mean “I am a jellyroll.” OK, it doesn’t, but that’s a long-standing joke. And people sing La Bamba and La Cucaracha without knowing another word in either song. Either they’ve just gotten married in Mexico or like cockroaches.
So if you’re looking to apply these lessons to children’s books: keep it simple, don’t be afraid to present complex issues (bullying, divorce, disabilities, etc.), foreign words and phrases are OK (especially if you’re trying to teach), common phrases are fine in dialogue, and you don’t need to stress every emotion (of course, in picture books, the illustrations can do that, but this rule holds for young adult, mid-grade, and early chapter books, too).
Your goal (and maybe this is a good writing assignment) is to make a line sleeker, memorable, rhythmic, yours. It’s not likely any of us are Shakespeare (or Juvenal, for that matter, though juvenile maybe), but the tricks work just the same. Make lines simpler and dialogue friendly, whether in chidlren’s books or adult stories.
It worked for writers of their caliber. Why not for us lesser talents?
So think about your favorite lines. Can they be rewritten according to this formula?