3 Lessons Writers Can Learn From Musicals

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

There was a time in Hollywood when musicals ruled the box office. We still are occasionally treated to the art form when a Broadway hit comes to the screen. This year, however, we have the opportunity to see a musical in theaters that was not based on another piece of original material.

Damien Chazelle delighted audiences with his dive into the world of music with Whiplash. The film’s success brought him the opportunity to do something few writers have gotten the chance to do – take a huge creative gamble. La La Land is not only a beautiful story, but also a musical in the style of old Hollywood productions from the mid part of the last century, complete with actors singing lines of dialogue and dance numbers. Even if you’re a writer with no interest in ever penning a musical, there are serious lessons to be learned from this genre which just might be on the verge of a massive comeback. Here are three ideas to consider.

1. The Internal Journey of the Character is Important

For better or worse, we rarely see people burst into song in our real lives. With the language of cinema, a character can sing to express his or her innermost feelings, especially those that they just can’t share with anyone else. The words the character sings speak to the internal journey they are traveling on. This technique has been used in films that would not be considered musicals, such as Magnolia. While not appropriate for every story, when characters do sing, we are reminded of the importance of the inner journey of that character. It is easy to become so consumed in plot that we forget about the importance of the transformative arc that the character should be experiencing. The inner world and life of our character is what makes them believable. It’s what makes audiences resonate and empathize with them and thus your story.

2. Audiences Love Retro Stories

There are some ideas audiences seem to fall for time and again. A retro story is one of them. Russel Crowe and Ryan Gosling’s The Nice Guys made audiences nostalgic for the 1970s earlier this year. Though released in 1978, Grease made audiences pine for the 1950s when it was released, and then managed to do so again this year with the release of Grease Live!

Everybody Wants Some, Hail Caesar, and Rules Don’t Apply all looked at years gone by with a wink to the audience this year. Perhaps the reason stories from eras we look back on fondly work is that we now have enough distance from the period to truly appreciate those things we just couldn’t at the time. Using inside jokes, fashion, and even toys from a time in people’s lives when they felt alone can remind them that they really weren’t.

3. Simple Stories Allow for Complex Characters

It’s hard to imagine a film like The Big Short as a musical, and not just because of the dramatic subject matter. Musicals rarely rely on complicated plots. However, they more than make up for this lack with character. Moulin Rouge used the musical genre to transport audiences into a hyper-realistic story that was quite simple, but featured tortured characters dealing with fate and impossible choices. Hairspray seems harmless when we look at the lack of complexity in its narrative. However, the layered approach taken to characters allows them to tackle issues even the most complex stories shy away from. Audiences don’t care how complicated your story is. In fact, that might serve as a deterrent to keep them away. They do care about powerful characters that they find themselves both lost and reflected in.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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