Welcome to part one of a series of articles in which we will give you our secrets and explain how any schmuck with a pen, some paper, an instrument and a voice can come up with a smash hit musical. It’s seriously not as hard as you might think. It’s also loads of fun, so read on, and follow the series as we unpick each element of a stellar show, starting with the all-important story.
First Thing’s First – Keep it Broad
A great idea is to come up with something general; something from which you can build all the detail around. That could be a certain character, perhaps a boy wizard (wonder who that could be?), a fairy or an elderly lobster (even lobsters get old and deserve having stories written about them. If not a character maybe a genre like a western, a horror story or a science fiction epic. You could even start with a specific location, perhaps a disused cinema, a medieval castle or a fun fair. The important thing is that by picking a starting point in this way, your imagination is free to start exploring what comes next.
Let’s take the medieval castle as an example. Just the thought of this location conjures up images of knights, kings, peasants, sword fights, battles, dragons and people not bathing very often. So straight away you’ve populated the story with a host of potential characters, and just like that you’re into…
You’ve picked a general starting point (in this case a castle) and you’ve begun picturing characters. The next step is to think about which characters stand out the most, and what those kinds of characters would get up to in your story. Let’s say you pick a brave knight. He or she could be in training. So what are they training for? What motivates them? Do they want to slay a dragon to prove their worth? Maybe they need to save someone trapped in a villain’s dungeon? Or they could just be beefing themselves up to win a Mr Universe competition.
The point is that you find something that a character wants. This becomes the crux of the plot; the main character/characters must do X to achieve Y so that they get Z. There’s your plot. So maybe a royal prince must go on a sacred quest to find a magical amulet which will make him worthy of marrying a beautiful princess.
Sounds simple, and it is, too simple in fact. Because how many stories have you read, or films have you watched where the hero gets exactly what he or she wants by just following a few steps? Likely the answer is none, and with good reason. The story needs some conflict. So to spice up the tale you need…
What makes a story compelling, and keeps us on the edge of our seats wondering if a happy ending will ever come, is conflict. Conflict is caused when obstacles get in the way of our hero achieving what they want. The conflict can be caused by an external obstacle (such as a fire breathing dragon who protects the magic amulet and kills all who try to take it), or an internal obstacle (like our hero fighting their own self-doubt). What’s important is that there are several obstacles to overcome, and that the obstacles get harder and harder as the story reaches its climax.
In our example story, perhaps the prince first thinks he is too weak to go on a quest, then is trained by a knight to be stronger and more skilled. Maybe then he goes on the quest and is tricked by a crafty burglar who steals his sword and renders him weaponless. He could face a first adversary to whom he narrowly avoids defeat, making his fight with a dragon seem all the more implausible. But with each obstacle he overcomes we see that he is getting stronger; learning more about himself and his abilities. So when he finally reaches the dragon he is equipped to do battle and come out victorious. Then he can ride back to the kingdom and get a big sloppy kiss from his bride to be.
Now that’s all well and good for our hero, but what about…
A musical is an ensemble piece. And when it comes to school musicals, it’s important that there are lots of parts so that everyone who wants to get onstage and give it a go, can do just that. So once you have your plot planned out, you now need to think of all the people who might also star in your play.
For our example, what if we said that instead of the prince travelling by himself, he recruited a team of people from the kingdom who were all experts in very different things. Straight away we’ve turned a solo mission into a much more collaborative affair. There could be a blacksmith making swords, a knight who is a bodyguard, a jester to tell jokes and keep everyone happy, a musician to sing songs of their exploits (which would work particularly well in this case) and maybe a few peasants who come along because they have nothing better to do.
Of course we already have our princess, maybe the King and Queen of the kingdom, the dragon itself. And maybe this is the type of story that would warrant a narrator. Without thinking too hard we now have a growing cast, all of which fits with the story and plot we’ve come up with.
Now’s the time to…
You don’t need to plan it all out meticulously. Some writers do and that’s perfectly fine, but there are many great writers (most notably including Stephen King), who take this bare bones structure and just go at it. Start writing or typing and don’t stop until you’ve got from the start to the end of the story. What you’ll find, as you go, is that you will be guided in all kinds of strange directions as you get to know all the different characters, and what they bring to the story. You’ll probably increase your cast size by at least another 5, and when you place that final full-stop you’ll also have something that needs a lot of work, but which is also your finished first draft.
"Writing is re-writing", so goes the famous quote by Ernest Hemingway, and here’s where his words become most true. When you read back your first draft you’ll find small errors like typos and bad grammar, and bigger problems like continuity errors (where things that happen at one point in the story are contradicted by another moment). But that’s okay. Having the thing finished means you can finally see the bigger picture, and work to correct what needs fixing.
So you might do another draft, maybe a third, maybe even a tenth! Whatever it takes to complete the story. Once it is finally complete, you’ll realise the most important thing of all…
Or in other words, what the story is REALLY about. If a prince has to fight a dragon to win a princess, then the story could REALLY be a coming of age story, or could explore the theme of love, and what people are willing to do for love.
The school of thought on finding a theme differs between writers, with plenty arguing that you should know your theme before you think of anything else. For us at Stage Invaders, we’re on the flip side. We think that once you’ve written your story, created characters and finessed your plot, you’ll see that the entire thing had a consistent theme all along. Maybe that’s because of the mood you were in when you wrote it, or something you saw in the news. It could be that you have a theme that will always run through your stories because it is your biggest fear, or the most important thing to you. But I promise you, if you write a complete story, it will carry a theme, and the theme will reveal itself to you.
Let me give you an example featuring one of our musicals. The story of Milk It centres on a family of farmers whose land is threatened because they are in debt. They have 30 days to pay what they owe, or a heartless company CEO will build a polluting factory in place of their beautiful farm. Whilst the plot involves the farmer’s children entering the world milking championships to win enough prize money to save their home, that’s not what it’s truly about. No. Milk It is a story about preserving our natural environment, being aware of the dangers of too much consumption, and about the value of community. But when we started the play, we just knew there would be a nasty villain, a family of farmers and some cows getting their udders yanked like there was no tomorrow. It wasn’t until after we’d finished that the true meaning and power became apparent.
It seems like we’ve waffled on for ages, but the truth is that coming up with a great story doesn’t have to be hard. In fact it should be great fun. Find your genre/character/location, fill the world with people, find your plot, create some obstacles, breathe life to your characters and get it written down.
Then revel in the deeper meaning you created.
Look out for Part 2 in our series, which will explain how to turn your amazing story into a correctly formatted script.