You never know when you’re going to run into a good writing lesson.*
Last month, team Hamilton released a book about the Broadway show/mega cultural phenomenon, written by the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Jeremy McCarter, a cultural critic and theater artist who has been involved with the show since its beginning. The book consists of the entire libretto, accompanied by photographs, annotations by Miranda and essays about the show’s development.
I opened the book intending to read it as a fan,** but before long I realized I was reading a class and case study in writing. And while Hamilton is musical theater, many of the lessons scattered throughout the book apply just as readily to writing a novel as they do to writing a musical.
So let’s learn from the masters.*** Here are a few of the lessons tucked into Hamilton: The Revolution. (Note: SPOILER ALERT. You may want to listen to the soundtrack before you read further. Or read a history book.)
- You have to lay the foundation for your characters’ actions. In the lead-up to Hamilton making the career-crushing, biggest mistake of his life, Miranda notes Hamilton “equates his success as a writer with success in general.” After considering his predicament, Hamilton concludes he should “write his way out,” just like he’s always done. Miranda writes, “This was only plausible to me if, in reviewing his life, we saw the cracks in the foundation of his mind.”
- You have to understand your characters’ motivations. McCarter writes, “for any treatment of the duel [in which Burr kills Hamilton] to be dramatically satisfying, Burr had to seem like a worthy adversary. That means they needed to understand Burr and his motivations. . . .” Your characters can’t just act. We need to understand why characters act the way they do. What makes Burr who he is at this climax of the story? Without motivation, he’s just a puppet, a robot. His humanity lies in the why, not the what.
- What the characters don’t know is critical to the story at every turn. “Again and again, Lin distinguishes characters by what they wish they knew.” Hamilton and Burr’s relationship is based on not understanding one another. Hamilton characters frequently ask questions in which they try to comprehend the others. Hamilton says to Burr, “I’ll never understand you,” and Burr says of Hamilton, “What is it like in his shoes?” Eliza wonders what would be enough for Alexander. The cast repeatedly asks Hamilton, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”
- “Every single element . . . must serve The Story.” There are numerous examples of intriguing songs, parts of songs, scenes, etc. deleted from the show because they didn’t serve the story being told. For instance: a song, “One Last Ride,” addressed Washington and Hamilton’s effort to fight in the Whisky Rebellion. After repeated tinkering, the song still wasn’t working. Then the director, Tommy Kail, mentioned Washington’s favorite Bible verse to Miranda, one which cast a personal light on the scene. Miranda reportedly spent a few minutes with Google, then returned with an amended song that brought together the personal and public meanings of Washington’s Farewell Address. “One Last Time” presents the circumstances of Washington’s decision to leave office voluntarily and return to Mount Vernon and private life, and is the version of the song in the show today.
- Details count. Hamilton flirted with his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler, via the placement of a comma in a letter he wrote her. Flirting via comma! This detail, so specific to the time and place of the story, blew Miranda away, and he made sure he used it. Look for the details specific to elements of your story that will blow both you and your readers away.
- The power and possibilities of “What if?” “What if?” is not just a question to ask at the beginning of a story. Keep asking as you move along. No one knows what Eliza Hamilton’s reaction to Alexander’s betrayal of their marriage was, because, as Miranda notes, those letters were burned after she died. So he asked, “What if Eliza’s reaction is to erase her reaction from memory?” The result in Hamilton is exquisite, and serves as the foundation for the rest of Eliza’s story.
- “‘You have to end an act with a dramatic question,’ says Tommy Kail (in my favorite lesson in the book). ‘Ending a war is not a question. What you do with that is the question.’” Kail explains why Act I doesn’t end with the audience-stunning, bone-penetrating victory of Yorktown. (If you feel nothing after witnessing this scene, please see a doctor.) Instead, King George appears and asks, “What comes next?” and “do you know how hard it is to lead?” If this were a novel, you wouldn’t be able to resist turning the page, because you would know that despite all that came before, the characters have just been handed an even harder challenge. How will they meet it?
There is, of course, more rich, instructive material in Hamilton: The Revolution for those who wish to find it. How to weave in theme. The multiple examples of the rule of three (and how serving the story trumps the rule of three). How your approach to a scene can change everything; when no one knows anything but the most basic truths about the infamous duel, for example, which version do you show in the story you’re creating?
Listening to the soundtrack or seeing the show, it looks so impeccable, so seamless. It’s so incredibly stunning. But how many pieces did the show’s creators have to put together to get here? How many words and notes did Miranda throw away to get to this magnificent piece of artistry?
Read through the book and take note of the revisions. Even after the off-Broadway opening, they were changing, deleting, revising. A stinging song about John Adams? Too bad, it doesn’t serve the story, it’s out. A third rap battle, this one about our national shame, slavery? So important in subject matter, and yet . . . the show is the story of Hamilton and the founding of America. Slavery is a critical story, but it’s not really Hamilton’s story. So leave certain references in, but for the sake of the overall story, that battle has to go. This isn’t necessary; that is distracting. Cut, delete, change. Revise.
McCarter tells us the American Revolution “was a writers’ revolution…the founders created the nation one paragraph at a time.” Alexander Hamilton himself wrote his way up from poverty to become a founding father, and Lin-Manuel Miranda has already won countless awards, including a Pulitzer, for his creation.
You’re never done. You’re never beyond this. And if sometimes you wonder why the hell you bother, Hamilton is why. Because maybe all of that study and passion and artistry you pour into your writing will produce something miraculous. Whether your audience is a small select few or the whole, enraptured planet, you might just create something that inspires some kind of revolution.
*You know that feeling you get when you’ve just finished writing a piece and then you discover someone else has already written it? Yeah. That’s how I felt two days before I posted this when I came across Rob Hart’s essay over at Literary Hub, “Eight Writing Lessons from Hamilton: The Revolution.” After uttering a brief string of profanities, I read the piece and discovered that there actually wasn’t a lot of overlap between our posts. So please read his as well and consider looking through the book yourself to see what else you might discover.
**Full disclosure: I am a head-over-heels #Hamilfan. I’ve seen the show, read the Chernow biography, and listened to the soundtrack more than a hundred times. I believe the world is divided into Hamilton fans and those who haven’t been introduced to Hamilton yet. I’m considering writing in Lin-Manuel Miranda for president in November.
***Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius. Do not challenge me on this. Anyway, it’s official: the MacArthur Foundation said so.
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