How to Write a Musical - Part Two

Welcome to part two of our series explaining all of our trade secrets. In part one we told you how to craft the perfect story for your show. Now we tackle the document that puts all the detail in: The Script.

Part One was pretty hefty, but it also contained the most important element of the entire show; the story. Once you have a solid story you have it all, trust us.

So once the story is all planned out, the characters are in place and you know where all the pieces are going to move at which point, it’s time to tackle the script. And really there’s only two things you need to know to get this right: Dialogue and Formatting.

Let’s do dialogue first as it’s fairly quick to explain and it’s one of our favourite things about writing musicals. A script is mainly dialogue. Unlike a book where you give a huge amount of time to describing places, events, how people look etc. In a script you just get the characters talking to each other (whilst being as sparing as possible with the action descriptions – more on that later).

As part of your story planning and creating your characters, what you’ve hopefully started to do is imagine what kind of people your characters are, and therefore how they speak. The best way to do this is to imagine yourself as each of these people and just start talking about random subjects. Maybe have a conversation between two of them out loud, where you play both parts. And yes, admittedly this will make you look like a crazy person, but as long as you don’t start doing it randomly on a packed bus, or in a café, you’ll be okay.

Baby-talktoself.jpg

Doing this you’ll start to find not just how a character sounds (their accent and the timbre of their voice), but also the kinds of things that only they would say. Let’s use a very obvious stereotype as an example. If you created a character who is a London market stall holder and fruit seller, you’ll more than likely be tempted to have them use a cockney accent, and to use cockney rhyming slang such as “apples and pears” for stairs. Maybe you make them very loud as this is how they get all the customers to flock to their stall. It’s also likely they’ll be a friendly person who gives compliments on people’s appearances in a bid to win their cash. So without too much work you’ve got the foundation of this character’s dialogue style, and therefore can easily conjure the right words he or she would say in any given scene. 

Tips for writing dialogue

  1. Remember that whilst dialogue should be fun, it should also always move the story forward, or help the current scene to reach its climactic moment.
  2. Be sparing – why use ten words when you can use five? The snappier your dialogue is the more it captivates an audience, and the more fun it is for the actors to deliver.
  3. Think about conflict – All drama is conflict. That doesn’t mean your characters need to punch each other, just that when they are in opposition over something (an opinion, a thought, a feeling) it gives the story more of a purpose.
  4. Be funny – Remember that all audiences love to laugh, even if the story has a serious message. Make with the jokes every now and then, but be careful…
  5. Jokes shouldn’t be forced – Don’t throw in a knock knock joke just because you want to get a laugh. Make the humour organic by turning something that’s already happening in the scene into a joke (e.g. your fruit seller drops a banana and someone slips on it – very childish we know, just making a point…or are we?)

Once you’ve got your dialogue working and your scenes are really coming to life, you must also give consideration to…

Formatting

A script is an instructional document that tells the whole cast and crew of a musical what to do and when to do it. So it’s not enough just to include your dialogue and song lyrics. You also need to describe what the stage looks like in each scene, what side of the stage the characters enter from, what props are needed, and any special hints about how dialogue should be delivered.

For all of this there are some simple rules:

For any action that takes place on the stage you should use a bold font which is also in italics. This helps the crew quickly and identify something they need to note. 

When a character first enters a scene, you should enter their name in the action in block capitals, but for any subsequent instances of needing to refer to them in the action, they can be written in lower case.

Any props, sound effects, music, costume changes or special lighting cues should appear in block capitals, again for quick reference but to emphasise their importance within the action. A bonus tip is to highlight any sound cues in red, so that the musical director can follow along whilst the show is being performed, and spot an upcoming cue even if the lighting in the theatre is low.

For dialogue instructions (e.g if you want someone to deliver a line sarcastically) you should again use bold and italics, but also house the instruction within brackets, just after the character’s name but before the dialogue starts.

Finally, when a scene is finished, you should insert a page break before the next scene starts. This helps keep a distinction between the scenes and adds to the ease of production.

Banana-Skin.jpg

Here’s an example using our fruit seller from earlier.

SCENE ONE: MARKETPLACE

On stage are THREE MARKET STALLS stocked with all kinds of goods. One is a FISHMONGER with various SEAFOOD stacked up and hanging from the roof, another is full of CLEANING GOODS and the third is a GREENGROCER which is piled up with VERY COLOURFUL FRUIT AND VEG.

The STALL HOLDERS (FISHMONGER, CLEANING PRODUCTS SELLER and GREEN GROCER) are behind their stalls and are talking to various CUSTOMERS who are milling around. 

The GREEN GROCER stands on top of his stall holding a MEGAPHONE and shouts through it to get everybody’s attention.

GREEN GROCER: (Shouting) Alright ladies and gents, who wants a pound of strawbs? Just fifty pence and the whole lot’s yours! I’ve got a raffle for a bag of green apples, and anyone who stares has to buy ten bags of pears.

The Customers gather round him and start to excitedly grab at the fresh goods whilst handing over money. But the rabble is soon silenced by a giant angry BANANA, who storms on stage to a piece of OMINOUS ENTRANCE MUSIC.

BANANA: Don’t buy anything from that green grocer, he sold me to a greedy, banana eating man last week, and since then I’ve had to fight for my life. I’ve been chased around the house for days. 

GREEN GROCER: Don’t be so dramatic, you’re a piece of fruit, you’re supposed to be eaten.

BANANA: (Shocked) See! He admits it, he has no care for banana well-being. You sir, should be ashamed.

CUSTOMER 1: Hey, that’s the biggest banana I’ve ever seen.

BANANA: Why thank you kind lady.

CUSTOMER 2: He looks so ripe and tasty.

BANANA: Oh no.

CUSTOMER 3: Let’s eat him!

BANANA: (Running away) NO!

The Customers chase the Banana off stage leaving the three Stall Holders by themselves.

FISHMONGER: I had the same problem last week with a giant scallop.

END SCENE

Hopefully, despite its silliness, the above gives you a good idea of how to use all the instructions, but if you have any questions feel free to leave us a comment below and we’ll answer you as best we can.

So that’s part two of our series. You have the story and the script, so next it’s time to think about The Songs!!!