Ben H. Winters: Fiction Writing and the “I Want” Song

Since my old pal Kait Kerrigan did such a great guest post for me, about show writing and collaborative work in general, I thought for NMT I would point to some specific ways that my work as a librettist and lyricist has informed my subsequent career writing fiction.

Ben H. Winters (photo: Mallory Talty)

Ben H. Winters (photo: Mallory Talty)

I definitely learned how to write dialog, just for starters, by writing for the stage—that’s all a play or musical is, right, in a sense—it’s a novel stripped of its explicit interiority. Except in Shakespearean monologues and formalist experiments, the playwright has to show the characters to us with the words they speak and the actions they take—you haven’t the luxury of relaying a person’s thoughts to us directly. So now that I have that luxury on the pages of a book, I try not to abuse it.

I also learned, within the collaborative crucible of musical theater, how to take criticism. How to hear truth without weeping, how to cut without mercy or regret, how to weed the useful notes from the useless, and so on. All these skills have served me well in getting feedback from agents and editors.

But the theatrical concept I have found most useful as a fiction writer is the “I Want” song.  Every musical writer, and most musical lovers, can tell you that the main characters of Broadway shows usually get such a number, in which they basically announce to another character (and by extension the audience) what it is they’re after. The song “Maybe,” from Annie, is a great example (and a great song); what does Annie want? The song tells you: She wants her parents. She longs for them! She dreams of them. “Maybe far away / or maybe real nearby / he may be pouring her coffee / she may be straightening his tie”). Interesting characters want things, and they tell us what they want. Ariel wants feet; Sarah Brown wants a good man; Sweeny Todd wants vengeance.

Audrey gets a great “I Want” song in Little Shop of Horrors. She tells us what she wants, poor thing, and thusly what is going to motivate her actions in the show: “A washer and a dryer / and an ironing machine / In a tract house that we share / Somewhere that’s green.”

(A fun thing to note, tangentially, is that the source of the gentle comedy in that song is that Audrey’s dreams are small and quaint and a little tacky, a fact which the audience recognizes and Audrey absolutely does not. So we are smiling at the naiveté of her dreams even while we root for her to achieve them. That’s a really useful and interesting space right there, between what the character knows of herself and what the audience knows of the character; it’s something else I learned again and again from great stage writing, and which of course you find in great fiction, too—half the reason that Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is such a masterpiece is because the narrator knows so much less of himself than he thinks he does).

Books don’t have musical numbers in them (or maybe they do now, I don’t know, I don’t have the newest version of Kindle) but they do have “I Want” songs. Even my favorite kind of novels, mystery novels. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie’s eccentric hero Hercule Poirot issues a stern warning to the grieving niece of the victim. “Are you sure you would like me to take this case? Because once Poirot begins, he will not stop until he finds the truth.”

That’s the man’s song! That’s his want! He wants to solve the case—solve all cases—no matter what comes! That basic need will drive his actions, and drive the story.

World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters. This now is from my new book, World of Trouble, the third in a trilogy about a police detective solving crimes even in the face of cosmic calamity. The hero, Detective Hank Palace, is talking about his sister, who he has lost track of:

“What I need now is to find her, see her before the end, before the earthquakes and the high water and whatever else is coming. I need to see her so badly that it is like a low rolling heat in my stomach, like the fire in the belly of a furnace, and if I don’t find her—if I don’t manage to see her, hug her, apologize for letting her go—then it will leap up and consume me.”

That’s what he wants! It defines his actions through the story, and moves the story forward! And I haven’t worked on a musical for a long time, but when I re-read that paragraph I swear I hear the underscoring creeping in…

Ben H. Winters is an alumni of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Among a bunch of other shows, he wrote book and lyrics for the Off-Broadway musical  Slut and the children’s musical The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (both with composer/lyricist Stephen Sislen)and co-wrote the jukebox musical Breaking Up Is Hard To Do (with Erik Jackson and Neil Sedaka). He is also a New York Times bestselling novelist and the recipient of an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. He lives in Indianapolis.

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