WTW – Same Event, Different POV: As Shown in Hamilton: an American Musical

Last week I discussed how different characters will have different perceptions of the same event, how the narrative from their points of view will change. I mentioned using the concept as exercise to delve into character, but didn’t really think that all of the perspectives on the event would be in the final product. Don’t tell that to Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose Hamilton: an American Musical (yes, a musical, because great writing transcends the borders of media) uses this device in successive songs to spectacular effect.

The songs “Helpless” and “Satisfied” both tell the story of Alexander Hamilton meeting, falling for, and marrying Eliza Schuyler. The first is told from Eliza’s point of view, and the second is told from the point of view of Angelica Schuyler, Eliza’s sister.

In “Helpless,” Eliza notices Alexander from across the room at a party. She immediately tells us that he’s caught her eye (“Then you walked in and my heart went boom). She narrates watching Angelica speak to Alexander. The sequence is notable for what it lacks, information not available to Eliza at the moment. She doesn’t know what Angelica and Alexander are talking about, and this inspires a profound anxiety (“My sister made her way across the room to you And I got nervous, thinking ‘What’s she gonna do?’ She grabbed you by the arm, I’m thinkin’ ‘I’m through’). Then, we bring the actors together and get this sequence, which we will revisit in a moment:

[ELIZA] Elizabeth Schuyler. It’s a pleasure to meet you

[HAMILTON] Schuyler?

[ANGELICA] My sister

[ELIZA] Thank you for all your service

[HAMILTON] If it takes fighting a war for us to meet, it will have been worth it

[ANGELICA] I’ll leave you to it

In the next song, “Satisfied,” Angelica tells the story of how she and Eliza met Alexander. First, we get a touchstone of “Hey audience, we’re flashing back in time here” with the “Rewind – Rewind” lyric, which helps everyone keep straight what’s happening (the choreography of people replaying their movements in reverse is pretty sweet too). Then Angelica, who was in a place where she had access to information Eliza did not when she sang “Helpless” shows us what her interaction with Alexander was just prior to introducing him to Eliza. It fills in the missing space that Elizabeth’s point of view couldn’t provide to the audience. We also get to see her internal narrative as she agonizes over her decision to pass Alexander on to her sister. And then, they tie the two scenes back together with the same touchstone lyrics:

[ELIZA] Elizabeth Schuyler. It’s a pleasure to meet you

[HAMILTON] Schuyler?

[ANGELICA] My sister

[ELIZA] Thank you for all your service

[HAMILTON] If it takes fighting a war for us to meet, it will have been worth it

[ANGELICA] I’ll leave you to it

Only after that point, Angelica continues on to provide her reaction to watching her sister and Hamilton hit it off. The writing goes out of its way to demonstrate that it’s the same event (Eliza meeting Hamilton) from two different points of view.

In what should surprise no one, Lin Manuel Miranda executes this flawlessly. He uses the different perspectives to maximal effect, demonstrating the greatest amount of Eliza’s character and her relationship with Alexander, in “Helpless,” while likewise doing the same for Angelica’s relationships with both Alexander and Eliza in “Satisfied.” He did so by portraying a critical moment in the characters’ lives, and doing so in a novel way that makes the two songs very different from each other. It’s a hard trick to pull off, however, and I’m not sure how easy it would be to replicate in a novel.

WTW – Importance of Conflict

I saw a tweet thread from Dong Won (“literary agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency.” – source: his twitter bio.) that caught my eye, made me think, and since I’m weird and curate my twitter likes as if they were faberge eggs, actually made me ‘like’ the post. The whole thing is worth your time, but here’s two that stood out:

First tweet first: I completely didn’t get this when I first started writing. I tried to put cool thing next to cool thing and then, I figured, presto-chango we’d have a story. Not so! What I ended up with were a series of kinda neat vignettes that had no cohesion, no reason for connecting, and no structure that guided the narrative into some kind of purpose.

As much as one might want to delve into their inner “artist” and eschew traditional narrative structures (e.g. Hollywood Structure), they exist for a reason. Understanding how the events shown on the page connect, lead into one another, and provide arcs for character struggle, failure, change, growth, resolution can be critical to turning that series of cool stuff into a story. I’m not saying you can’t break those structures, but it makes sense to understand why stories coalesce into repeatable structures before going rogue and embracing the nontraditional.

Yes, I’m aware I just spent lots of words to say “know the rules before you break ’em.”

As for the second tweet, it’s really driving home the fact that readers typically connect with characters first. The characters are the vessels through which we experience the story and all of the emotional beats that are a part of that story. Story about loss? Experienced through the loss of the *character*. Story about victory? Same deal: character.

Dong Won crystallized that (in tweet form) in a way that ought to stand out to writers in particular (he is an editor, so writers are probably his intended audience here): He’s looking for character and that character’s conflict in page one. If he doesn’t find it, he’ll look for it in another manuscript.

WTW – Beyond Hollywood Formula

I recently did a brief post on “Hollywood Formula” and now I’m going to muse briefly about how I think it’s becoming less prominent, and why that might be.

Spoiler Alert: It involves systemic changes in the way films/television are produced.

With the caveat that I’m neither a screenwriter, nor am I a student of film and TV history, it doesn’t take much to see that the landscape over the last few years is radically different than it has been from the dawn of the talkies up to maybe five years ago.

I’ve noticed something about Netflix and Amazon Prime shows recently that really crystallized: Producers/writers/show-runners seem to be far less beholden to fast-paced programming, to setting a hook 9% of the way through an episode, to “traditional” screen writing forms than they used to.

I recently watched the Netflix animated show Castlevania, and that’s when it hit me that it was written in a way that was remarkably different than I was used to.

The first episode of Castlevania is something of an extended prologue that introduces Dracula, paints him as a fairly sympathetic character, and more or less just sets up the fact that bad things are about to befall this geographic area (also, the Catholic Church is very, cartoonishly, evil). The next three episodes of the four episode first season are essentially a super-extended prologue in which the main character gets his allies together, culminating in a season finale in which the three, together, prepare to march off to face Dracula and defeat evil, or something (also, the Catholic Church super-ultra-mega-cartoonishly, evil).

It’s a radical departure from what we expect structurally. It was such a departure that I realized that the whole release an entire season in one day concept of Netflix broadcasting might be changing how stories get told on the screen. I think they’re saying “hey, stick with me for more than 9%, we’ll hook you, just not quite right away… give us time because you don’t have to wait a week between episodes.”

It didn’t work for everyone.

Just something to think about the next time you’re watching a Netflix show and feel like there’s a slow burn going on. Maybe it’s the writers feeling unconstrained by traditional formulaic writing. Of course, maybe those formulas exist for a reason…

WTW – Hollywood Formula

Story structure is a massive subject. Books can, and have, been written on the various ways to structure or analyze story. In this post, I want to focus narrowly on one that stuck out to me the first time I heard it explained.

The Writing Excuses crew interviewed Lou Anders, who gave a quick and dirty overview of what he called “Hollywood Formula.”

Hollywood Formula is a system that Lou describes as a set up where a story has a Protagonist, Antagonist, and Relationship Character (and they aren’t always who they appear to be). The Protagonist is the main character/star and must have a definite, achievable goal. The Antagonist is the character standing between the Protagonist and her goal. This is not necessarily the “bad guy.” The Relationship Character is the character who accompanies the protagonist on the journey, and helps frame the theme of the story.

The film is done when the protagonist achieves her goal, defeats the antagonist, and reconciles with the relationship character. The closer in time that these three events happen, the stronger the emotional impact.

From a length perspective, he splits a film into three Acts. Act 1 is the first 25%, Act 2 is the next 50%, and Act 3 is the final 25%.

About 9% of the way into the film, the Protagonist is faced with a choice, the “Fateful Decision.” The Protagonist essentially chooses to go on the adventure.

Okay, now that we’ve laid it out there in an even faster, dirtier, way than Lou did on the podcast, let’s take a quick look at one in action. (spoilers follow)

Wedding Crashers

Protagonist: Owen Wilson

Antagonist: Bradley Cooper

Relationship Character: Vince Vaughn

Fateful Decision: Owen Wilson agrees to crash the daughter of the Treasury Secretary’s wedding.

Climax: Owen Wilson reconciles with Vince Vaughn at the church and Bradley Cooper gets knocked out in almost the exact same moment.

It’s clean, it’s memorable, it’s vivid.

Lou Anders uses the The Dark Knight to demonstrate how “Relationship Character” isn’t always what it appears. In the Dark Knight, the Joker is the Relationship Character, and Harvey Dent is the Antagonist. Batman wants to give up being the Batman so he can be with Rachel. He pins his hopes of being able to do so on Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Knight, only to be let down again and again as Harvey demonstrates he’s not up to the task. This is why there’s sort of a double-ending to that film where Batman strings up the Joker but still has to go on to confront Harvey.

This structural pattern repeats over and over again in Hollywood and just because it’s “formulaic” doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. It appears in classics like Casablanca (perhaps, as Lou Anders posits, the first film to use it). And, although it uses films as examples, and is probably best suited to screen writing, prose/novels can benefit from keeping these principals in mind as well.

WTW – Body Language

When writing, we can use a variety of tools to convey the information in a scene. “The ball is blue.” Tells us the color of the ball. “‘The ball is blue,’ Jeff said with revulsion.” Tells us the color of the ball as well as telling us (rather inelegantly) Jeff’s opinion of the ball’s color.

There is plenty of human emotion, reaction, and interaction that is conveyed nonverbally, and there’s a value in trying to weave in body language and other nonverbal communication to change the scene from a tell (“with revulsion”) to a show (“as he stepped back, arms crossed”).

To borrow from a much more effective teacher, Mary Robinette Kowal, as she put it on Writing Excuses in Season 11, Episode 43, from their transcripts page with minor editing denoted by ellipses in brackets:

[Brandon] All right. So, question. Amy asks, “Do you have any tips for writing body language that reveals a character’s internal state?”

[…]

[Mary] There are three different basic types of movement. Aggressive, passive, and regressive. Aggressive movement is anything that you want to engage with further. So anything that you lean in towards. You step towards, you turn towards. This is happiness, curiosity, certain types of anger. Passive is something you don’t have strong feelings about. You stay more or less in the same spot. Regressive is anything you do not want to engage with. So revulsion, fear, again certain types of anger. That’s a movement away from. So a step back, a turn, a lean. So there’s a difference between the training phrase “What did you say?” “What did you say?” She leaned across the table. “What did you say?” She pushed back from the table. So this is a very simple piece of body language that we are used to doing, to reading all by ourselves, normally. The other piece of body language, and again, it works just the same way on stage as it does on paper, is open or closed silhouette. So arms crossed is, again, something you don’t want to engage with. Cold, even though we’re talking about a temperature, you don’t want to engage with that. It’s still a closed body movement. Fear. Often these will be closed. Open body language, arms out, again things you want to engage with. So. “Hello.” She spread her arms. “Hello.” She crossed her arms. Those are things that your readers will know how to interpret. So that’s one thing is the kind of body language that you use. The other piece of that is your point of view character’s interpretation of these things. Their own emotional response to it will cue your readers. Okay. That was me with my compressed thing.

This is brilliant stuff. It’s brilliant in no small part because it ought to be obvious. We communicate nonverbally and interpret nonverbal communication every single day and somehow this is not second nature when writing (at least, not for me).

One more piece of wisdom from Tananarive Due:

[Tananarive] One quick warning. I would say to writers, don’t overuse those gestures, especially from the point of view character. It’s great if your point of view character is noticing gestures, but we don’t… We’re not often aware of the gestures we’re making. So the ear tugging and nose scratching and all those sorts of things sometimes serve as a substitute for their internal emotional process that would be better served by just saying what they’re feeling, or their stomach is cramping.

This is another spectacular point, and one that in a way refers back to filtering words and being cognizant of the POV through which the reader experiences the story.