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Confusion Between Writing for Fiction and Writing for Musicals

I made a mistake recently on a libretto. I worked on the first draft for over a year, then I hit what I like to call the "ready for eyes" zone. Meaning, I felt that the libretto was ready to be looked at by close friends.

I had a friend read it. After he turned the last page, he sat and stared into space for about ten minutes. He then said "I liked it..." and then I heard this...

"There's a lot going on, a lot to process."

I thought I had reached what I had sat out to do. I wanted to write a libretto that would make the audience think.

What I didn't realize yet, was that there was SO much in the libretto that it detracted from the story. That's not good for a musical.

You see, in all my studies the one thing about dialogue that always remained in my head was...


That applies to lyrics as well as dialogue. I slaved over every word of my libretto and whittled it down to 100 pages with every word being necessary - at least I believed so.

My friend told me he needed time to think about what he had read and would get back to me.

After seeing his reaction, I thought maybe there was some editing needed so I went back through the script and almost died. I didn't remember that lyric being so messy, or that opening number had more words than the bible... I didn't remember the dialogue in that scene being so cumbersome.

What had happened? I had lived and breathed that story for over a year and why did my brain suddenly decide I had something worth reading?

To my dismay, it got worse.

I did a rewrite. I decided that I had jam-packed that script with so many details that my friend wasn't able to absorb them - the kiss of death. I went back and read the librettos of the classics like My Fair Lady and Hello Dolly. They had so little dialogue but they said SO much. How did they do it?

After a few weeks of rewriting, I sent the libretto to a couple other close friends for a table reading. At the end of the read through, that same blank stare returned.

It was too much. I listened to their comments and realized that they were getting caught up on things that didn't matter yet... things like:

The songs are too long

The songs are too "list" like

All the songs sound like Gospel

They liked the characters, but they felt there were two stories in the script, and neither was the one I intended to tell.

After spending a few days thinking about their comments, I realized that they made comments simply because they "had" too for the sake of a reader discussion. Not one person was able to dissect the story and tell me if they liked it or not. It was just TOO MUCH.

I went back to my books. Why did this happen? I spent a lot of time on every word of the script. And then I realized that was the problem.

The classics were simple and minimal. Why? Because the dialogue was exactly as things were.

You see, my studies were in fiction. In fiction, a line of dialogue is merely a vehicle for the subtext. So when a character in fiction says "I burnt the toast." It might really mean "I'm a failure." In a musical, when a character says "I burnt the toast", it means they really burned the toast.

This was no easy epiphany for me... You're telling me I can just say what I need to say and it will work?

It was worth a try...

I took my time rewriting, because I still wasn't sure that it would work. After a few weeks of changing out songs, rewriting scenes and even removing a character or three, I asked a fellow writer friend to take a look. He had also read my first version...

After reading it he said "That's much better, that reads to me like a first draft. Your first version was all over the place."

I never believed I was one of "those" writers that used superfluous language and lots of words for simple statements, but lo and behold, that's exactly what I'd done in that first version.

I believe the take away is this - when writing for musicals - write direct. There's no need for heavy meaningful dialogue (except in the "next to last scene" and the "climax") because dialogue in a musical is used to get us from one song to the next and therefore does not carry the weight of the show.

That first friend who read what I thought was my first version reached out to me a couple months later and said "I'm still formulating my thoughts on your libretto..."

Alan Saunders,

Friends told me I was late to the game for writing musicals, even though I've been writing them almost my entire life. so this blog is my journey into writing professionally for the stage.

Check out for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!

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