Using Musical Theater as a Literary Muse
Creative writing often goes hand in hand with other artistic pursuits. Some authors are also illustrators, or work closely with aspiring or professional illustrators to bring characters to life. Some writers play instruments, finding the physicality of that pursuit gives their written word deeper dimensions. Still others, this writer included, find alternate creative outlets in singing and theater.
I have loved theater and show tunes almost as long as I have loved writing. I performed Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers at elementary school talent shows, and memorized musicals to the point of quoting characters’ dialogue. Currently, my iPod’s Broadway playlist is 84 songs strong and likely to expand. I have never performed a lead or supporting role onstage but always participated in musical theater when I could, and still dream of performing.
Why am I, and other writers, so drawn to musical theater? In my case, it’s because I see how well characters tell their stories through song. As a published author, I have often wished I had the talent as a musician and lyricist to place my own characters in musicals. Failing that, I’ve found that thinking of a fiction project in terms of musical theater can help me focus, craft the story as well as possible, and deal with some less-than-glamorous parts of the writing life. Using tips and tricks from musicals and their characters might help other writers do these things, too.
Start With a Few of Your Favorite Things
The first musical I was exposed to, The Sound of Music, is still a favorite, and the first number I learned to sing from it was “My Favorite Things.” Like the Von Trapp children, I used the song to cheer myself up and calm my fears as a kid. As a writer, I find there is a hidden gem in the song’s concept.
As you write, you’ll find many people will give you advice. Some of it is standard, such as, “Write what you know,” which has become standard because in many cases, it works. Writing what you know will lend your work a sense of credibility. Other advice may be more specific to you, such as what you should or should not write and who your audience should be. For instance, I was recently told I should not write a book in which a legally blind, futuristic character has to deal with the possibility of being killed because “it sends the message that disabled people should be eliminated” and “it could cause great harm to people.” I had told my detractor that I myself have a disability with a visual component, yet their comments stood.
There are, of course, rules writers should follow; if you are not a minority yourself and want to write a character who is, it’s best, for instance, to spend time talking to people in your character’s group and researching first. However, keep in mind that if we all only wrote what we knew, we’d only read thinly disguised autobiographies. If you never write about your favorite things–that is, the ideas and genres about which you are passionate–you will quickly lose your passion. Of course, none of us can write in our favorite genres or about our favorite subjects all the time, but it’s good for you to find ways to do it whenever possible.
Take inventory of yourself as a writer. Note the genres you read the most and the character types you gravitate toward. If you like certain tropes, such as the couple that starts out as friends or enemies but becomes lovers, use them. Consider new angles for those tropes, or mixing a well-known trope with a lesser-known one. Probe your experiences; which activities did or do you enjoy most? Which memories are dearest to you? Those often provide clues to what your plot will be about. For instance, if you enjoy children, maybe your protagonist is a teacher, pediatrician, or childcare professional. If you grew up in a military family, you could use that background in a thriller, historical novel, or contemporary piece with a military protagonist.
Check the “I Want” Songs
The “I Want” song is a crucial piece of any musical. As the name implies, it tells us what the person singing it wants most. From Annie’s ballad “Maybe” to Alexander Hamilton’s “My Shot,” an “I Want” song encapsulates what motivates characters and why the audience should care in a span of a few minutes. The best “I Want” songs don’t have to be long ones, either. A personal favorite is Belle’s Reprise from Beauty and the Beast, because while the song “Belle” tells us who she is, it’s through the eyes of the townspeople. The reprise takes that and lets Belle speak for herself, letting us know she is more than the odd bookworm who doesn’t fit into her provincial town.
In a short story, novel, or other fiction piece, your characters probably won’t sing about what they want. Nor will they often tell us their motivations in “I want” statements. But when listening to an “I Want” song for inspiration, don’t over-focus on those words. Listen to how the characters are describing what they want, especially when they don’t use those words. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, describes himself and his situation thus: “I’m a diamond in the rough/a shiny piece of coal trying to reach my goal/my power of speech unimpeachable.” He goes on to say that he’s “young, scrappy, and hungry” like a burgeoning America. Combine this with the refrain, “I’m not throwing away my shot,” and you have a sense of who Alexander is on the inside. He’s impoverished and underestimated, but also intelligent, determined, and courageous to the point of cockiness. He refuses to let victimization or lack become his legacy.
When crafting your protagonist, ask what he or she wants, too. Ask yourself, how would he or she encapsulate desires and motivations in a few sentences? Why is it important for your protagonist to get what they want; what will happen otherwise? (For example, if Alexander Hamilton doesn’t get what he wants, he may well die without a positive legacy. If Annie doesn’t get what she wants, she’ll remain an orphan physically and emotionally). Consider how internal and external forces might help or hinder your main character. It may help to try matching your character’s objectives to an existing show tune, or a few show tunes. If your character is an orphan, you might start with Annie or Hamilton, or perhaps Les Miserables.
Note that your secondary characters will have wants, too, although these are usually in relation to the main character’s wants or goals. Angelica and Eliza Schuyler have wants in relation to Alexander Hamilton. The former wants “a revolution and a revelation…a mind at work,” which makes her a great friend and sometimes foil to Alexander. She also wants to marry Alexander, which sets up a deeply personal secondary conflict. As for Eliza, she wants Hamilton himself, not just in the marital sense but in every sense. When she begs him to take a break and says, “We don’t need a legacy, we don’t need money…isn’t this enough,” viewers and listeners identify with her pain. They see that Eliza’s want is feeding Alexander’s conflict–will he choose his legacy or his family? You don’t need to go into extreme detail over every secondary character’s wants, but knowing them will help you build a deeper, more multifaceted fiction piece.
Don’t Tell Me, Show Me
In the second act of My Fair Lady, gentleman Freddy Eynsford-Hill has fallen hard for Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl cum noble English lady. No one could blame him; flower girl or lady, our heroine charms–and shocks–everyone she meets, whether she’s relating a childhood story or telling a racehorse to “move [his] bloomin’ arse!” And Freddy expresses his infatuation in epic fashion, literally standing in front of the house Eliza shares with Higgins and Pickering to sing her a love song.
In equally epic fashion, Eliza lets Freddy know she’s not impressed. “If you’re in love, show me!” she sings at him in the chorus of a song with the same title. “I’m so sick of words/I get words all day through/is that all you blighters can do?” she demands. Eliza goes on to snark about overly wordy lovers who bury their true feelings in “talk of stars burning above,” “dreams filled with desire,” and cliched metaphors surrounding “June [and] fall.” Whether they’re writers or not, by the end of the song, viewers are cheering for Eliza and wishing Freddy would shut up. But what does this gloriously sarcastic song have to show creative writers?
Once again, the answer is as simple as the song’s title. Many writers from beginners to multi-published experts often get the advice, “Don’t tell me. Show me.” In other words, never simply say a character is happy or sad or angry. Show their beaming face or their quivering lips. Show them getting angry as they grip the nearest surface to keep control, and show them losing control as their dialogue gets more pointed and staccato. Don’t simply describe the moonlit night of a romantic encounter. Show the streetlights’ reflections wavering in the water, or note how the night air enhances the nearby aromas of flower shop blooms or restaurant fare.
In addition, avoid sensory words when possible. Sensory words relate directly to the five senses–“she smelled,” “I touched,” “they saw”–and are backhanded forms of telling. Your reader will pull away from sensory words, and the story, because they know what it is to see, hear, and smell things. They do it every day. So instead of your characters note it’s raining, say something like, “Rain ran down her legs in rivulets, filling the cracks in her shoes.” With that sentence, your readers already know a few things. It’s a heavy rain, your character is not enjoying it, and for whatever reason, she doesn’t have decent shoes to protect her. This type of writing raises curiosity about characters and their situations.
Note that some telling can be okay, depending on your genre and audience. At times, for instance, children’s authors will tell because they want to keep the language and descriptions simple, or because their main characters are series characters they want young readers to remember. J.K. Rowling, for example, often directly describes Harry Potter as a skinny kid with glasses and black hair with a tendency toward messiness. This can work for adult writing as well; Stephen King directly describes some of his settings to underline how much horrific plot elements will affect them. If you aren’t sure when to tell or show, look at sources specific to your genre. Ask yourself if your piece is more character-driven or plot-driven; that may tell you where you should spend extra time showing. Think about the POV you’re using; first-person POV often has a little more room for telling, because the character is speaking directly to the reader. However, as a general rule, readers want to be shown as much as possible.
Balance the Conflict
Another essential fiction element is conflict, but unlike the others we’ve discussed, conflict can’t be summed up in one part of a piece, or one song in a musical. Conflict must arch over the entire piece, whether it’s in a manuscript or theatrical performance. The best pieces also mix internal and external conflict well.
One of the best musical theater examples of well-balanced conflict is Fiddler on the Roof. During the show, viewers are mostly focused on the external conflict of Tevye trying to marry off his oldest three daughters. They also notice a bigger religious and political external conflict. That is, Tevye and his family are Jewish, living in a Russian Jewish village circa 1903. In terms of raw numbers, Jewish people are the majority. But the actual people in control are connected to the Russian Orthodox military and aristocracy. The Jewish people fear seeing their culture and traditions disappear, especially as the military enacts sanctions and pogroms (raids designed for injury and death) against them. When Tevye extols tradition in a prologue-type song of the same name, he’s not just talking about marital customs, cultural dress, or even religion. He’s talking about bone-deep faith and selfhood. He has to preserve not only faith, but his version of that faith, in order to please God. The best way to do so, he believes, is ensuring his daughters are married to upstanding Jewish men from the community–with the help of a traditional matchmaker who understands the need for self, religious, and cultural preservation in a hostile environment.
When Tevye’s daughters push back and marry men of their choice, Fiddler’s internal stakes get ramped up. In fact, the daughters’ journeys to love get so much focus, it’s easy to forget about the more serious externals. However, Fiddler’s writers and lyricists did a great job of mixing in an external conflict just when an internal one reaches its zenith, and vice versa. Oldest daughter Tzeitel marries her love Motel in an unexpected, yet culture-affirming ceremony, and thus finds happiness outside of strict tradition. But Russian soldiers conduct a “demonstration” on the wedding, leaving the venue in shambles and the wedding party and guests traumatized. This isn’t treated as a punishment for Tzeitel’s independence; rather, it reads as a microcosm for what can happen when both traditions and people aren’t respected at all. Later on, Tevye struggles with the external issues surrounding his home, as Jewish persecution increases and he faces the fact that he may never see middle daughter Hodel, who married a revolutionary and had to flee to Siberia, ever again. In the midst of this, youngest daughter Chava elopes with non-Jew Feyedka, breaking tradition and seemingly abandoning faith and culture in ways Tevye can’t forgive. Tevye disowns Chava because Jewish law dictates it, but grapples with that decision throughout the rest of the show, until he is able to have a quiet moment with Chava as the family is expelled from their home.
Your fiction piece may not handle the same issues as Fiddler on the Roof, nor may its aim be social commentary. Remember though, that everybody experiences external and internal conflict on some level and often at the same time. Giving your readers a balanced mix of both ensures they’ll stick with your piece because they want resolutions. The conflict and resolutions can be as simple or complex as you want; the speaker of a poem, for instance, only has a few stanzas to complete a conflict arc. The protagonist of a book aimed at young children may be flummoxed at how to get that coveted toy or cookie–but if you balance that desire with something like a requirement to eat vegetables first, your reader will sympathize with that child as much as they would for the protagonist of an adult spy thriller or historical novel.
Respond to Rejection with Confidence
You might wonder if show tunes can help you when the inevitable happens. You’ve written a lovely piece with memorable characters, tight descriptions, and balanced conflict, using a theme you’re passionate about–and it gets rejected. If show tunes can teach writers about how to hone their crafts, do they have anything to say about the writing life and how difficult it can be?
The answer is a confident “yes.” You can’t sing away the sting of rejection, at least not at first. You need to experience your emotions in reality rather than covering them up. The shock of your first rejection, or the despair of your two hundred fifty-first, is easier to bear if you call it what it is, let yourself feel the associated emotions, and reach out for support.
After the initial sting though, you may well want to channel your emotions back into some form of art, or re-experience them through the safety of fictional worlds like musicals. Sometimes, writers advise each other to pursue another art form, such as dancing, visual art, cooking, or music after a particularly hard rejection or intense writing period. As you might guess, I found this outlet in singing musical numbers and placing myself in the characters’ shoes.
Rejection is a multifaceted beast in the writer’s life. Sometimes it will make you so angry you want to throw or hit something, or call up the offending agent or editor and inform them they are the genesis of all morons. Sometimes it will make you cry buckets and question your love of writing, if not your entire calling. Sometimes you’ll be able to bounce back quickly, ready to send out your piece again, tackle revisions, or start a new project. Often, I’ve felt all these emotions and more in the same day.
The good news about rejection is, it lets you focus on any character and song type you want. If anger is your predominant response, try torch songs or passive-aggressive numbers, like “Good for You” from Dear Evan Hansen or “No Way” from Six (as in, “no way” did your rejector know what they were missing and “no way” will they bring you down for good). If you need to indulge sadness, try the eponymous “Legally Blonde” (and, if you like, pair it with the peppy remix). As your confidence and desire to write return, focus on uplifting numbers like “Go, Go, Go Joseph” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Wicked’s “Defying Gravity.” Re-focus on “I Want” songs if you need a refresher course in why you love your piece or elements of it the rejector didn’t like, such as plot or characters. Use numbers or reprises wherein characters receive encouragement, such as Cinderella’s “Impossible,” when working on revisions.
Know That “You Will Be Found”
The heartbreaking yet uplifting “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen is arguably the most memorable and beloved number in the show. The speech Evan crafts around it is based on a lie, but writers should remember the message of being found is truth. That is, the writing life is filled with obstacles. Like Evan, you may sometimes wonder if anybody’s “waving”–that is, listening to, caring about, and resonating with what you say.
While no one, including myself, can promise everything–or anything–you write will be a bestseller, writers including myself can promise you will be found. You will encounter people who need your words, characters, themes, and ideas. In finding them, you will find the piece of yourself that is most joyful when you’ve done what you were meant to do and see it pay off. Therefore, as you write, think about who you want to find and who may find you. What do they look like, not necessarily physically but mentally, emotionally, or spiritually? What needs of theirs can you meet, that other writers cannot, or don’t meet in the way you do?
Some writers advise coming up with an Ideal Reader, and writing down who that person is or having a picture of them, either through your own art or a service like Google Images. You can be that specific, but your idea of audience can also be, “I want to write for middle grade kids.” That alone will help you narrow the style and tone of your writing. You could then specify, “I want to write for middle-grade kids who’ve had to move, or who deal with disabilities, or who live in a foreign country.” That will lead you to specify more–boys, girls, both, or neither? Does moving happen because of a loss, such as of a parent’s job, or because the protagonist is a military kid? When you say “foreign country,” do you mean a place where the protagonist’s family members live, or an ancestral home, or do you mean somewhere completely new? Will you focus on physical, cognitive, learning, or psychiatric differences?
Even when you’ve settled questions like these, you might find your audience changes because of where your piece goes, or because you find your writer’s voice is more suited to certain demographics than you thought. For instance, I began a college creative writing program convinced I wanted to write for middle grade readers, specifically girls, because I had such good memories of my favorite MG books and a desire to fill in some gaps in the genre. However, more than one professor informed me my young characters sounded more like young adults, and that my attempts at authentic teen speech were stilted. My audience had to shift to young adults and adults.
If this happens, don’t think of it as a failure to reach a chosen audience. The more I wrote and learned, the more I understood why I wrote the way I did–namely, because I had been forced to grow up fast, had always been a bookworm, and was un-diagnosed but likely on the spectrum. These realizations actually freed me up to write more authentically for the people I understood best and felt most comfortable trying to reach. Similarly, you may find that a desire to write police procedurals might not work well if you’ve never been in law enforcement or don’t have close ties to someone who is. That said, you might well be a great candidate for amateur sleuth stories, or stories in which civilians are forced to handle police matters because their world is dystopian, fantasy, or otherwise unconventional.
Additionally, don’t despair if your audience is a small niche. If you already have and love a niche, don’t feel pressured to change or expand it just to get attention or increase the likelihood of publication. Remember, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Dork Diaries fans were part of niche communities at first. The Chronicles of Narnia is a beloved series but still maintains a smaller-than-usual niche because of its obvious Christian allegory and unashamed bent toward young children. The American Girl and Dear America series achieved acclaim and large readership long before the Internet, streaming movies and TV, and fandoms were so much as concepts. Circling back to our musical theme, Hamilton wasn’t always a worldwide phenomenon, and plenty of “smaller” musicals, such as Six, have a broad base of vocal, loyal fans. The important thing is to find your niche, speak to an audience you care about, and let them find you.
Closing Liner Notes
It’s said writing, especially creative writing, is a solitary and lonely profession. Most writers will find this true at some point in their journeys. Often, mixing writing with another creative art or outlet helps alleviate the sense of isolation. For many writers, medium mixing can provide inspiration and guidance on honing their original craft. The melding of creative writing with the crafting and enjoyment of show tunes is only one such example, as the characters and plots of musicals help novel and short story writers encapsulate who their characters are, what they want, and what tries to stop them from getting it. Whether or not you are a musical theater fan, you can find inspiration and rejuvenation for your writing in this and any other combination of mediums.
What do you think? Leave a comment.