I’ve always been a big fan of showtunes, but lately, I’ve been listening more musicals than ever, thanks to a 30 minute drive to take my daughter to her summer theatre camp. One of the things I like about musicals is how they distill storytelling down to its essence. Most musicals have a hero or heroine, a love interest, a friend or sidekick, a conflict, a villain, and a comic or romantic subplot. Since emotions and motivations are depicted in song, they aren’t too subtle.
The other day, it struck me that I could apply a couple of things I’ve learned from musicals to my own writing.
1) Near the beginning of the musical, there is usually a point where the main character reveals his/her innermost longings. The best examples are found in Disney animated movies, where the hero or heroine’s dreams/goals/wishes are telegraphed in an opening number. For example, Belle, in “Beauty and the Beast” wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere” and Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” wants “to be where the people are.” Hercules wants to go the distance, Pocahontas wants to see what’s around the river bend, and Simba just can’t wait to be king. In a non-Disney example, Elphaba from “Wicked” knows when she meets the wizard, that her whole life will change.
If I were to imagine my novel as a musical, there would be a point somewhere, early on, where the heroine bursts into song. She’d declare what she wants, what’s keeping her from it, and how she wishes her life were different. Obviously, in a young adult novel, I can’t do this in song, but I can make sure this crucial aspect of the heroine’s character is included, whether through dialogue or internal narration.
2) Somewhere around the midpoint of the musical, there’s often a crucial ‘no-turning-back’ moment, where the stakes are raised. As Act I ends, the characters come together in a group number that shows what they’re up against. The best examples I can think of are “Tonight” from West Side Story, “One Day More” from Les Miz, and “Man Up” from The Book of Mormon. These kind of songs let the audience know that something big is coming in the next act.
Again, if I apply this to writing, there has to be a big moment in the novel that makes the reader keep turning the pages. It’s a game-changer, because after this big confrontation/surprise/showdown, things will either get better or worse for the main character. Even if I can’t write a great song to capture this moment in the story, I can make sure my writing has enough tension and emotion to depict what is at stake.
How about you? Do you ever imagine your novel as a musical? Can you think of a moment where your characters might burst into song?