A recent performance of Romeo and Juliet at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin, confirms that Shakespeare remains as alive and well-loved as ever. Even the famous balcony scene, which could well feel like the most painful of clichés, still captures how the world feels when you’re first in love, with the moon too inconstant for a vow, and goodnight evoking a taste of death. All that stands the test of time.
This early play (1595—a decade before King Lear) blends romance, slapstick, violence, and wit. Each lover undergoes a developmental arc during the brief span between love at first sight and untimely death. Their tragedy affects not only friends and family, but all Verona—and everyone who’s encountered not only the play’s beauty, but its meaning.
Romeo and Juliet accomplishes this not just by lacing tragedy with comedy. Or with quicksilver action proving that major events—pressure points—change people so there’s no turning back. The play’s great strength is its capacity to reveal real people with real emotions, who remain utterly relevant even though we no longer brandish swords and have cellphones to get messages safely through. The play’s great strength is its continuing relevance.
In Good Prose, Pulitzer-Prize winner Tracy Kidder observes that “Revelation, someone’s learning something, is what transforms event into story. Without revelation, a story of high excitement leaves us asking, ‘Is that all?’”
No work can stand the test of time if readers wonder whether “That’s all.” Nor is this a genre issue. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an early romance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is science fiction, and Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger is magical realism.
What makes a work stand the test of time? How can your novel have a shot at achieving that?
A novel needs characters that inhabit a very particular environment. Readers must be able to enter it, too, and this world must control what characters dream and whether those dreams can come true.
Does the novel offer a spin, idea, location, or dilemma distinct from everyone else’s? Does it possess something only you can offer?
~ Impassioned emotion.
Do the characters evoke at least as much compassion, irritation, or delight as real people? Do readers experience strong feeling about the characters?
Does the novel have sufficient substance that one could reread it and reach different insights? Will no two readers interpret it identically?
Tip: It’s not a matter of what you write about, but how you write it.