What Hamilton Taught Me About Story

Hamilton is the biggest musical phenomenon of our generation. With multiple Tony awards, a Pulitzer, and tickets more coveted than the World Series or Super Bowl, Hamilton has captured America’s collective imagination.

There have been great posts about how Hamilton demonstrates innovative storytelling, the line-level genius of Hamilton’s opening lines. and what you can learn about story selling from Hamilton’s talented creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Today, I’m going to look at what we can learn about writing a compelling middle-grade story by listening* to Hamilton.

Rhythm & Rhyme

I could write a treatise on the beauty of Miranda’s use of syncopation, internal rhyme, and slant rhyme to create two plus hours of songs that get stuck in my head like no other ear worm I’ve ever heard. But suffice it to say that if you can write phrases and dialogue that use rhythm the way Hamilton does, you’ll have a story that librarians, teachers, and parents will love to read aloud and kids will love to hear.

Repetition Builds Character

One of my favorite techniques from Hamilton is the use of repeated musical and lyrical phrases to build character and theme. In a musical, as in a middle-grade novel, there is not endless time to describe characters in great detail because it would be boring. To keep readers/viewers engaged, you have to build character through action. And Miranda is masterful at that:

Talk Less, Smile More – This advice comes from Aaron Burr just after we learn that he is the one who shoots our hero, Alexander Hamilton. The tension between Burr as the enemy and Burr as the friend continues throughout the story. Hamilton eventually turns this advice (talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against of what you’re for) into evidence that Burr is more focused on self-interest than justice (if you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?) and ultimately decides to endorse Thomas Jefferson for president, a choice that leads to the duel that killed him. Miranda goes one step farther, showing us that, at the end, Burr realizes that his legacy will be forever tainted because he killed an American hero to protect his own pride: He may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it. I survived but I paid for it. Now I’m the villain in your history. I was too young and blind to see. I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”

Bonus Point: Burr is a fabulous example of a complex antagonist. If you can create a villain that readers feel sympathy for by the end of the book, you’ve done your job well.

The Schuyler Sisters – Angelica Schuyler is my favorite character because of her complexity, but also for this line:

Listen to my declaration. We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m gonna compel him to include women in the sequel.

But she’s also a great example of how Miranda used repetition to build character. She loves Alexander from the moment she meets him,  yet gives him up out of loyalty to her sister Eliza. But even when he marries Eliza you know the sisters come as a package deal and that Angelica will continue to be a part of the story (I know my sister like I know my own mind…). And that makes her return in The Reynolds Pamphlet after Alexander’s affair comes to light even more poignant. “I came as soon as I heard…I’m not here for you…I know my sister like I know my own mind…I love my sister more than anything in this life. I will choose her happiness over mine every time.”

Why do you write like you’re running out of time – Eventually we realize Hamilton does this because he IS running out of time.

Bonus Point: Like a sympathetic antagonist, a complex and flawed protagonist makes really compelling fiction. My daughter was horrified to learn that Hamilton cheated on his wife because she loved him so much as a character that she couldn’t believe he’d do something so awful. And yet, she & I both still cry every time he dies.

Although we don’t have a full orchestra behind us when we write, we do have a lot of instruments in our ensemble that can be repeated to build character and theme: Imagery (especially when it is repeated to create a motif), gestures and phrases associated with a specific character, and rhythm that conveys the tone and emotions of a scene.

Foreshadowing

In some ways, the repetition itself is foreshadowing. We know from the first song that Hamilton is going to be shot by the end of the story. We don’t find out how until the second-to-last song. And yet, there are hints throughout. He writes “like he’s running out of time,” “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead,” “you have no control of who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” And it can’t really be an accident that the first duel (Ten Duel Commandments) comes right after Eliza begs Hamilton to “Stay Alive,” foreshadowing both their son’s death in a duel and Alexander’s own death, as promised in the very first song, at the hands of his one-time friend, Aaron Burr. Genius!

Am I the only one who is mining Hamilton for writing tips? What  did you learn from listening? Leave a comment below!

* Yes, it’s true, I have not actually seen Hamilton, only listened, as I live in the Seattle area, far from such an option. But I have hope that I will see it someday soon!

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Julie Artz
JULIE ARTZ spent her childhood sneaking into wardrobes hoping to find Narnia. Now that she's older, people think that’s creepy, so she writes middle grade instead. Her stories for children feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Mixed Up Files, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, writes about local Washington history for Gatherings, contributes regularly to The Winged Pen, and is co-RA of SCBWI Western Washington. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit.

7 responses to “What Hamilton Taught Me About Story

  1. Suma Subramaniam

    Oh, I love the takeaways you’ve shared about the antagonist and the Schuyler Sisters . I could hear the characters’ voices by just reading the script. Thank you for sharing these useful tidbits.

  2. Sarah Yasutake

    I don’t know if anything has ever inspired me creatively as much as Hamilton. Like you, I haven’t been lucky enough to see the musical, but after watching the documentary about it on PBS I started listening to the soundtrack over and over. After many listens, one thing I noticed is that the very last notes of “That Would Be Enough” are the opening notes of “It’s Quiet Uptown.” It’s such subtle foreshadowing–I would think that most audience members, seeing the musical for the first time, wouldn’t even register it except, perhaps, on a subconscious level. I think this teaches us that foreshadowing need not always be overt and obvious–sometimes something more subtle can be effective.

  3. And look at the three duel scenes. In the first, between two secondary characters, we learn all of the details and customs associated with a duel. In the second, with Philip, we already know those details, so the narrative isn’t slowed down and the bare emotion of the scene comes through, with just a nod to the structure of the first duel. But we needed to have that knowledge in place beforehand. The third duel is told from Burr’s point of view (except that bit with the bullet), using the same counting structure as the first, but with the addition of Burr’s emotions.

    Julie Artz Reply:

    Totally! The duel scenes are some of my favorites. I love how the repetitions build in layers there, with the Schuyler sisters, with Philip, etc. The Room Where it Happens is another example. It goes from a description of how the capital got moved to Burr’s overarching desire and what ultimately leads him to kill Hamilton, who he sees as the person who kept him from the room where it happens. So brilliant.

  4. Yes! Such a good point. The more we dig into this, the more lessons there are bound to be. And don’t get me started on the perfection that is Moana. Perhaps a future post…

  5. I love this. Another great thing is POV. Look at “Helpless” and “Satisfied.” The same scene is repeated from the point of view of Eliza, then Angelica. Each is strong on its own, but together it gives a richer depiction of the relationships. It is made even more poignant by the order in which they are portrayed. Imaging how it would change if the order were reversed.

  6. Great post Julie. Thanks!