Master Storytelling Techniques From Musicals

Screenwriting is storytelling. Not only should you study screenwriting if you want to increase your storytelling skills, but you should also study other forms of storytelling as well such as oral storytelling, fiction writing in short stories and novels, and musicals.

Musicals are mostly stage plays but many musicals have been translated successfully (and unsuccessfully) into movies as well. By understanding how musicals work, you can better learn how storytelling works as well.

In musicals, stories are told in song. Three common types of songs are:

  • Character songs
  • Situational songs
  • Plot songs

Character songs reveal the emotion, motivation, and dreams of the person singing that song. In just one character song, audiences can learn what the character wants. In “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel sings “Part of Your World” where she dreams of living in the world of humans.

Situational songs describe the current action in the story and are often either sad or celebratory. The purpose of situational songs is to show what a character feels emotionally at that current part of the plot. By being either sad or happy, situational songs create an intense emotional state in both the character and the audience. In “Grease,” Sandy mourns about her broken heart in “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

Plot songs exist to advance the story. Where situational songs describe the current moment, plot songs change the current moment. In film version of “Hair,” the final song (“Let the Sunshine In”) shows what happens after the hero’s friend changes places with him in the army barracks so the hero can go off to spend one last night with his girlfriend. Unfortunately that night, the military ships everyone off to Vietnam so the hero’s friend sacrifices his life by mistake so the hero can avoid going to war and stay alive.

Once you understand the purpose of these three types of songs, you can imagine using the same techniques in your own screenplay, whether it’s a musical or not. Instead of a character song, think of a dramatic scene that clearly highlights what your hero wants.

Instead of a situational song, write a scene that shows how the hero reacts to the story, either through intense sadness or celebration. Instead of a plot song, think of a scene that advances the story in an interesting way.

By studying musicals, you can learn yet another way of telling stories that can enhance your own storytelling skills whether you write a musical or not.

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