Most of us, whatever we write, don’t write massive Broadway musicals about early American history featuring an ethnically diverse cast capable of imparting our stories in soaring melodies, stunning harmonies, and astonishingly complex verses of rap.
As far as I know, the only person doing that is Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer of the incredible Broadway smash “Hamilton.”
However! No matter what we write, there are lessons to be learned from other people’s writing, across genre and form. So I thought we might take a quick look at “Hamilton” and talk about three possible lessons from the text, and how we might consider incorporating them into our own work.
The caveat here is that I haven’t seen “Hamilton” (and given the ticket prices and availability issues, I’m not likely to.) But in a way, that’s the best way to come at this. I’m working from the words and music, without visuals. (Except, I have to admit, I’ve watched this video of the three actors who have played King George lip-synching to “The Schuyler Sisters” approximately 183 times – and those are probably not the visuals Lin-Manuel Miranda really had in mind.)
Three things “Hamilton” does that you might try in your own writing:
- Tell more than your hero’s story. Alexander Hamilton is not the narrator of “Hamilton”: that honor goes to Aaron Burr, who, if you recall, actually shot and killed him in a duel. It’s a bold choice, and not what we’re used to seeing in books and movies about Great Men. And Burr isn’t the only person who speaks for himself here. Many of the characters have their opportunity to speak their minds (I’m thinking particularly of Angelica and Eliza Schuyler) and that makes them feel like full-fledged people, not just foils and props. You don’t necessarily want to switch from a single POV to a whole slew of them, but even if your non-hero characters don’t speak for themselves, think about their stories independently, not just how their actions serve the main plot.
- Sometimes, less really is more. Description can make or break a story, and sometimes, you have to know when not to go overboard. One of the most affecting lines in the show’s opening song, “Alexander Hamilton,” describes how Hamilton and his mother were both ill, “half-dead”, after being abandoned by his father. Novelists might be tempted to indulge in description here, choosing details to show the squalor of their surroundings, the desperation of their situation, but Miranda doesn’t indulge. (Frankly, in a show that covers this much ground, he doesn’t have time.) But the brief mention of their circumstances ends with a short line that speaks volumes: “And Alex got better but his mother went quick.”
- Forward isn’t the only way to go. We see the hero meet his wife – they’re introduced at a ball by her sister – and we hear everything that’s said by all three. But later on, we hear the internal thoughts of a character, and realize that what we thought we saw wasn’t the whole story of what was happening. This isn’t something to overuse. Withholding information from the reader is always dangerous. But on occasion, it can have a huge impact.
Q: What other lessons have you taken from a work you really enjoyed, not necessarily in your chosen genre or form?