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?”