What a Musical Taught Me about Writing, by Paula Castner

On Saturday, April 20th, SBWC will host a full day of workshops, exploring the writer’s craft through drama and song. James Nicola, published poet and dramatist, will host a workshop on performing a writer’s work. Nancy Beaudette, acclaimed Canadian singer and songwriter, will talk about songwriting and how to convey a narrative arc through a song. Sally Cragin and Jeff Van Amburgh will share effective tools for writing ten-minute plays, which requires a good grasp of dialogue. The fourth workshop will look at the importance of effective plot and character development through play writing and will be hosted by Paula Castner, one of SBWC’s co-founders. Recently SBWC caught up with Paula and asked her to share her experience as a playwright.

A decade of directing drama for middle school students revealed to me a lack of plays and musicals for their age group. Licensing companies often turned Broadway musicals into junior versions with themes above pre-teen understanding and music too difficult for their vocal range or wrote plays which are entertaining for that age to perform but have no substance. So, several years ago, I decided to write a musical for the drama students I directed.

The process of writing that musical reinforced the importance of knowing the essential crafts of plot and character development and writing dialogue. The luxury of a novel is employing many craft tools – setting a scene through description, using flashbacks to disclose information, writing in a close first-person point of view so the reader knows intimate thoughts versus spoken words. In a play, the stage sets provide the scene “description”, and the words the performers speak must deliver the thoughts, back story, and/or information needed for the audience to understand the plot.

For the playwright, the plot’s beginning, middle and end has a time limit, not a page count. Within two hours, the main characters must be introduced, discover and overcome an obstacle, and leave the audience with a lesson learned. Plot development becomes key. Which scenes reveal what? What characters are important to which scenes? Will a standard plot development hold the audience’s attention or does the ending need to be the beginning scene? Does the plot require scenes with comic relief?

Similarly, how a playwright develops the characters is significant. In a novel, the protagonist’s inner struggles may shape growth. In a play, all struggles must be outwardly seen. So, body language, facial expressions, and speech intonations are the playwright’s tools. “Show, don’t tell” takes on a new dimension for a writer.

Unlike a novel where leeway is allowed for a gradual development of plot and character, a play or musical requires immediacy, but as with a novel every scene should grab and retain people’s attention. In a play that attention is kept largely through dialogue. A musical provides the additional tool of songs, but songs, too, are simply words put to music. Time constraints and no place for written authorial commentary means every spoken word must carry the forward momentum of both plot and character development.

As I wrote and rewrote and edited and then did so again and again and again, I learned the importance of cohesive plot development, showing versus telling for character development, and how to hone dialogue to convey only those thoughts, feelings, and perspectives which would move the plot as needed. I realized these lessons had been learned recently as I began another rewrite for a novel I had written a number of years ago.

Where I had “told” instead of “showed” popped out to me in ways it had not with the first four drafts. I discovered superfluous dialogue which had seemed necessary before but which did little to further the story. I even decided that chapters needed to be moved around for best plot development. While I could argue I might have reached these same conclusions with any practice and extended time as a writer, I know that my experience writing the musical strengthened my craft toolbox, and for that I am grateful.

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