I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.
This month book club is reading whatever we want, so I’ve decided to make this post about what I’ve learned from a different storytelling medium: music.
I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s HAMILTON pretty much nonstop since I first heard it a few months ago. (If you’re not familiar with the music, I suggest you remedy that now.) There is so much awesome happening in this soundtrack, it’s taken me months of thinking about it to be able to articulate even a fraction of its genius. (And I’m focusing on the music alone, as I still haven’t seen the show and can’t speak about the choreography, costuming, sets, etc.) So, here’s my two cents on what writers can learn from HAMILTON.
1. Take advantage of repetition — but don’t beat readers/listeners over the head with it. Every time I listen to the HAMILTON soundtrack I find another instance of a recurring theme. Whether it’s a lyric or a musical phrase, these repetitions add layers to the later songs. Sometimes one character will repeat another’s line, changing the meaning or augmenting the emotion of the moment (“That would be enough”). Other times the music enhances, recalls, or foreshadows events (the way Angelica says “Alexander” using the same notes and rhythm in “Satisfied,” “Nonstop,” and “Take a Break” (and then never again), the return of the melodic phrase from “Washington on Your Side” in “The Election of 1800,” and many, many more). Music rarely makes me cry, but the way “It’s Quiet Uptown” builds on elements from at least four previous songs left me devastated the first several times I heard it.
While writing prose doesn’t allow you to incorporate musical phrases, you can use repetition to add depth to your story in other ways. Maybe a character will notice a certain aspect of the setting that has a different meaning later. (For example, someone sees a balloon floating in a corner at a party where everyone’s happy, then later sees the same balloon on the floor when she’s depressed or worn out.) A line of dialog could take on new meaning when said under different circumstances or by a different character. Too many blatant repetitions can feel gimmicky, though, so try for subtlety that rewards close readers and re-readers. Even those who don’t notice a recurrence outright will be clued in subconsciously.
2. If you have multiple plot lines, make sure you weave scenes from each thread together throughout the story. HAMILTON switches back and forth between Alexander Hamilton’s personal life and the politics of the time — the American Revolution in Act One and the early days of the republic in Act Two. If you compare the two acts, you can even draw parallels between songs that either mirror each other or are the emotional opposite of each other. (“Right Hand Man” and “Washington on Your Side” are both track eight, and “Ten Duel Commandments” and “Blow Us All Away” are tracks fifteen (Act One) and sixteen (Act Two).) We see Alexander’s relationships with Angelica and Eliza woven alongside his political disagreements with Jefferson and Burr. While a three act structure is more common than two acts for novels, there’s still a lot to learn from a close examination of HAMILTON.
3. Take risks. When I first heard someone had written a musical about Alexander Hamilton inspired by urban music, I was skeptical. Who would have America’s founding fathers (and the women who shaped and supported them) rapping? But it works. Lin-Manuel Miranda won the genius award for HAMILTON, and the show has inspired countless quotes, memes, and hashtags on social media. A teen at the library told me that, since listening to the soundtrack, she has done further research on John Laurens and Marquis de Lafayette, and even wrote a historical fiction piece starring Laurens for NaNoWriMo. This is the kind of excitement and passion all writers hope to inspire with their work. I think that’s most likely to happen when you push boundaries and take risks. You may worry that your latest idea is too quirky or bizarre, that readers won’t “get” it. Don’t hold back. Trust yourself and your reader, and tell the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it.
That’s all for this month’s genre lessons. Have a wonderful holiday season! And if you want to geek out about HAMILTON some more, find me on Twitter @lizosisek.