5 Things Musicals can teach us about writing

I was driving yesterday and put Les Misérables in the CD player for the first time in ages. Wow, that’s a good show. And as I was listening, it struck me that there’s a few tips you can pick up from musicals on good writing.
  1. Dialogue – Expositional dialogue drives me crazy. “Hello Annie who is my sister and has dark hair, did you hear Ruth who is our half sister and ran away with the milkman is back in town?”. Ugh. And yet in musicals there’s no prose, no way of easily relating backstory. So it all has to come through the dialogue/lyrics WITHOUT being exposition. And good musicals do it. Ok, so at the start of Les Mis you get a teensy bit between Jean Valjean and Javert, but it’s not forced, it doesn’t intrude and it ain’t bad going in a 3 hour show. You also have to relate the character’s feelings through their dialogue, as someone listening to the soundtrack without being able to see the acting needs to be able to get a rough idea of the story, and you can’t use prose here.
  2. Characters – Musicals use lyrics to lay their characters bare. They need to. They could show Valjean going through angst as he decides whether to turn himself in or not, but without the words you’d just wonder if he was constipated. So you get Valjean’s Soliloquy, and Javert’s suicide; deep emotion made believable through 2 minutes of lyrics. At least I think so.
  3. Voices – Secondary characters in good musicals also get a voice and are made believable. Eponine is a very minor character in Les Mis, but she gets some cracking songs, including one of the most popular woman’s solos EVER, and we really care about her when she dies. You can see how distinctive each of the characters is in One Day More, where everyone’s voice comes through clearly despite being so deeply layered.
  4. Setting – Again, there’s no prose or description to give a sense of atmosphere or setting. The most you might get is some explanatory notes in the programme, but you can’t rely on those. Some comes through the set, but mostly you know what’s going on because the characters are acting and speaking in a way that’s believable for their setting. Javert IS a nineteenth-century, upright policeman. Chris (in Miss Saigon) IS a 1970’s GI. Bernardo IS a Puerto Rican immigrant in 1950’s New York.
  5. Growth – The characters we care about most in musicals are the ones we see make a journey. One of my favourite characters is The Man in Whistle Down the Wind – you can see him change and grow and move on just from his dialogue with Swallow and the kids. On the flip side, Judas is a truly tragic figure because you watch his faith in Jesus crumble and his dilemma, as he sees it, crush him.

These are a few of the things we could learn from musicals, in my humble opinion. I’m off to put them into practice!

Anyone got anything to add? I’d love to hear what you think.

3 thoughts on “5 Things Musicals can teach us about writing”

  1. This is great stuff!
    It strikes me the other thing that musicals have in spades and which we should never be afraid of putting in fiction is the emotion. People are looking for emotion in stories – what the characters are really feeling – their passion, hatred, misery, all that. This is why musicals are often so satisfying because the songs encapsulate the feelings of that character at that moment and communicate that to us by means of an absolutely stonking tune. “I feel pretty” from West Side Story is just one example in millions. (Insert your own favourite) Obviously characters in fiction can’t burst into song and communicate their emotional states that way, but communicating those feelings to the reader is an important part of showing what the characters really are.
    The big ensemble scene, usually at the end of an act, is also something that fiction can learn from – those big scenes where all the conflicts come together, when desperate and important revelations are made, when awful things happen. These scenes have an air of spectacle and heightened reality. It may seem hard to conceive of this in a piece of fiction, but I always find it useful (and exciting and fun) to work towards and then set up the “Big Scene.”

  2. That’s a brilliant couple of points, thanks! There were a few more things I’ve thought of as the day went on after posting this, and I think there’s loads we can learn from all aspects of good stage productions – opera and straight plays too. Shakespeare knew a thing or two about getting to the heart of a character after all!

    I really appreciate this comment, as it’s the first time I’ve been brave enough to put a ‘writing advice’ post up, being in no way, shape or form qualified to give writing advice to others! So thank you once again.

  3. Oh, this is wonderful! And so true–I heard the soundtrack for Wicked a year before I saw the show. I imagined stories to fill in the gaps, and when I saw the show, was surprised at how much of it I’d guessed right! They conveyed a *lot* with dialogue!

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