Nancy: What Sondheim (Re)Taught Me About Scene

Stephen Sondheim

Story is everywhere, and storytellers come in all shapes, sizes, and media. This lesson was brought home to me recently when I caught a fascinating documentary on HBO titled Six by Sondheim. The documentary covers the career of American composer and lyricist Steven Sondheim. The documentary traces Sondheim’s career in musical theater, focusing on six of the many, many songs he has penned.

I must admit, I am not a musical theater aficionado, nor am I particularly a fan (apologies to all my college friends who were musical theater majors), outside of a few classics like Guys and Dolls and Jesus Christ, Superstar. And while I know musical theater productions tell stories, I had never before thought about songs being used as turning points. That’s where Sondheim, who gives master classes in musical  theater and has stated that teaching is “a sacred profession”, taught me something new.

In the documentary, Sondheim waxes nostalgic about one of his early heroes/mentors, Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rogers and Hammerstein). At one point in his youth, Sondheim shared with Hammerstein a song he had written and asked for feedback, at which point Hammerstein told Sondheim something he never forgot (paraphrasing here): a song can’t just exist in a story, it has to move it along, it has to change it. Something must be different by the end of the song for the song to serve its purpose. Wow, and I thought songs were just the icing on the cake. Turns out, they’re an important ingredient in the batter!

Because theater shows are much more condensed than novels, a song could represent a whole novel scene’s worth of storytelling. Looking at it this way, Hammerstein’s advice to make the song change the story makes sense. In Story, Robert McKee discusses the same kind of change being necessary in each scene of a screenplay. McKee discusses the power of moving from a positive charge to a negative charge, or a negative charge to a positive charge in scenes, acts, and the overall story itself. Linking that back to Sondheim’s work, a great example of that came when the documentary showed the original cast of the theater show Company recording the finale song called Being Alive.

In Being Alive, the bachelor main character Robert is surrounded by all his married friends. In the beginning, he sings about the negatives of marriage, describing a spouse as someone who will “hurt you too deep…need you too much…” and generally “…put you through hell” in describing why he does not want a wife. But cracks start to show as the beats of the song progress. Now as well as being someone doing all those negative things, a spouse is someone “…who’ll always be there” and will make him aware of being alive. By the end of the song, Robert has determined that “Alone is alone, not alive,” and a wife would have the positive effect of making him be alive.

In an act by act breakdown of Company, it’s easy to see how songs throughout the musical go from one charge to the other, from positive to negative or from negative to positive. Following Hammerstein’s advice, Sondheim has written songs that move along the stories in which they exist, because songs should show change. And so, say I, should scenes. And now I’m off to check the charges and changes in my WIP scenes.

Do you agree with Hammerstein’s and McKee’s views of what songs and scenes within stories must do?

17 thoughts on “Nancy: What Sondheim (Re)Taught Me About Scene

  1. I forgot about the positive and negative charge that McKee talked about in “Story.” Thanks for the reminder. I completely agree with you and I think I sort of expect that in what I’m reading (in a subconscious way), but I’m not sure I’m there yet with my writing, but it’s definitely something for me to pick apart in my own stories!

    • The piece of advice about charges really stuck with me, probably because it wasn’t something I thought about before that. I think you’re right, though, it’s one of those things our subconscious reader minds pick up and appreciate.



      • I don’t want to get distracted from my rewriting right now by reading (yet) another technique book but the idea of moving from positive charges to negative charges sounds really interesting. Could someone very very kindly save me from myself (ie the part of myself that would be quite happy to lie down and read this book rather than revise my own story) take the time to give me the cheat sheet version please.

        • Hey Rachel, cheat sheets R Us! Changing value/charge is part of scene analysis, and it’s about conflict: What does the character want and what’s blocking him/her from getting it? First identify the value that’s at stake in the scene and its charge, positive or negative. In McKee’s analysis, If the value at stake is “freedom,” for example, and if the scene is about a protagonist who’s a prisoner of his own obsessive ambition, then the scene begins with a negative charge. If the value at stake is “faith,” then if the protagonist trusts in God to get him out of his situation, the charge is positive.

          At the end of the scene, look at the value-charged condition of the character’s situation. Is it positive or negative? How does it compare to the beginning? If the protagonist is still the prisoner of his obsessions, nothing has changed, so nothing has happened. The scene is flat. But if the value has changed, then the scene has turned. You’re gold!

          McKee makes it all sound so easy, doesn’t he?

        • Thanks for answering, Kay, while I battled through yet another snow/ice event here in the mid-Atlantic :-(. That was a great summary. I’d also add that the change can be small and subtle. Not every scene will turn the entire book on its head, but it should move something at least incrementally. So the protag in Kay’s example doesn’t have to break free of his obsessive ambition to get to a positive charge; taking a tiny step in that direction or showing us a glimpse of his capability to do so by the end of the scene can accomplish changing it to a positive charge.

  2. I think there are some perfectly nice songs in musicals that don’t really change things, but re-inforce themes. However, I also find that in most cases, you can follow a musical perfectly fine with the songs from the CD and a few liner notes. I’m not sure if you could follow the story with just the book, no songs. So, the songs must be doing something important.

    The first example that came to mind for me was “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. Two friends are squabbling about a meeting gone wrong — “I hope you’re happy now, how you’ve hurt your cause forever! I hope you think you’re clever!” “I hope you’re happy too, how you’d grovel in submission to feed your own ambition!” And then Elphaba turns it from a simple quarrel to an empowering breaking free of all the rules. IIRC, this is the end of the first act, and it turns everything around.

    We can’t put songs in books (at least not yet, and at least I skim over lyrics when they show up in books), but a single scene can be the entire turning point where a novel goes from “nice set up” to “irrevocable change.”

    Do these scenes show up regularly in first drafts, I wonder? How much crafting does it take to make a scene that turns everything on its head?

    • Wicked is my all-time favorite musical and one of the reasons is because it’s almost an opera–nearly the whole story gets told through the songs. “For Good” may be the best denouement songs of all time. “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better but, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” Just typing that gives me chills.

      • Oh, that’s a great line! I have been told by many people that I should go see Wicked, so I think I will have to do so if I ever get the chance.

        When I saw the show Rent, I had just been to a production if La Boheme a few weeks earlier. With the opera so fresh in my mind, it was fun to compare and contrast the two. The Rent storyline followed the opera’s really closely, but had a different ( and differently charged!) ending.



      • Nancy, if you get a chance, do see it! Marvellous theater! I saw it the “first” time as a 20-minute condensation at Universal Studios Japan, in Japanese, and was . . . well, it had great scenery, and there was something there. Then I got into musicals again in a small way (my mom always played her musical soundtracks when doing housework), and discovered Wicked and Hairspray in the same Amazon order. Wow!

        Jeanne, I love Wicked, too. It’s a lot deeper than Hairspray, but I am very, very fond of Hairspray and would have to choose it as my favorite today. Hairspray is a little silly, but very much about human rights and how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s got some depth, too.

        My favorite line from Wicked is from Wonderful: “There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.” My god, the rhythm and slyness of that line!

        Hard to say what my favorite line from Hairspray is — probably something from Big, Blonde and Beautiful, which is a little too winky-winky, but also very strong and confident.

        Can I hi-jack the thread slightly? I’ve only found one musical since then that I really, really love — any recommendations? Sondheim is so powerful, but too powerful to be listening to in my car. I loved Sweeney Todd when I saw it in college, but swore I’d never see it again — then I went ahead and got the cast album of that odd version where the cast also plays the instruments. Lovely. But, not what I was looking for. (-: I should probably make this plea on a Saturday!

    • I think you know a lot more about musical theater than I do :). I am sure you are right that there are many songs that don’t move plot, just as there are many scenes in fiction that don’t move it, either. But those aren’t the scenes I like to read (usually), so I’m trying not to write them. A few scenes that do that show up in my first draft, but not many. Most of mine have to be whipped into shape during revisions.

  3. Well, I don’t know. I am aware of the importance placed upon conflict by respected members of the writing community. I have lots of experience analyzing for conflict, and a couple of degrees to prove I’m damn good at it. But it is certainly not a requirement for me when I read for entertainment.

    I like to compare my feelings about conflict in books to my feelings about watching videos. Sometimes I’ll pull up an early Buffy the Vampire Slayer show to watch while I eat lunch. Lots of conflict there. Other days I’ll stream in some video from one of the animal shelters’ puppy or kitten cams. Just as entertaining, but conflict? Not so much. Most days I’d rather watch the puppy cam. Many days I’d rather read a nice cozy mystery rather than a Jayne Ann Krentz. The boom in cozy mystery sales shows I am not alone in this.

    So whether a song or a scene “must” have conflict depends upon the audience for whom you are writing, doesn’t it?

    • As with any writing advice that appears on this blog or anywhere else, for that matter, YMMV! And we welcome the thoughtful discussion and varying opinions we get here at 8LW :).

      As I get older and have (sadly) less time for reading, I find myself losing interest in scenes that don’t move the plot or character arc or, preferably, both. Those scenes do exist, but if I run into too many in one book, I will put it down and not go back to it. Not everyone reads the way I do, but I do think the trend over the last century has been that novels have become shorter and much less expository, quite probably a reflection of our faster-paced lifestyle and the time crush of the average reader, so much more demand is now placed on each scene.

      • It seems to me that 99 percent of the people out there also prefer more and more conflict in their entertainment. Certainly you don’t find as many people just sitting on the beach watching the sun set as you did even twenty years ago.

        Still, one percent of the people is a LOT of people. Witness the 150 others who were watching the Animal Planet kitten cam at lunch yesterday, and the three and a half million hits the cam has received.

        So I agree that a commercially successful book will need definable conflict in each scene. But the question was do I agree that a scene *must* have conflict, and what fun is there in just having us all say, “Oh, yeah, sure.” 🙂

        I’m glad to have a fun place to come where “thoughtful discussion and varying opinions” are welcome. The intellectual stimulation is invigorating! I’ve been visiting pretty often because I’ve been freed from lots of my usual workload by the inclement weather, but once the weather improves I won’t have as much time. Still, I’ll try to come back and visit when I can.

      • Going off on a tangent here… the discussion made me wonder about the sudden proliferation of Cozy Mysteries, and whether there really has been a surge or if my impression was biased by my own increased interest in the subgenre. So I did some research.

        The info was not easy to find, at least not given the limited amount of time I was willing to give it. A quick search of a few publishers, and some articles in Library Journal, etc., lead me to believe that there has been a real surge.

        More interestingly, at least to me, I found that Mystery publishers and writers have data to support that Mystery books are 25 percent of the total sales of fiction books (Cozies are 25 percent of those 25 percent). This conflicts with information I’ve seen in the past on the Romance Writers of America, who certainly did not list Mysteries as having 25% of the market share. It would be interesting to compare and contrast the data cited by the main organizations representing different fiction genres, wouldn’t it?

        • Yes, that contrast would be interesting. Of course, it all depends on who you ask. I read a blog post about this recently (if only I could remember where!). If you count Bookscan or whomever else gives “offical” numbers, you may get one result; ask someone else, and the number is different. Plus, I seem to recall something about Amazon not publishing (for public consumption) their sales numbers.

  4. Pingback: Nancy: How to Write a Sex Scene and Still Respect Yourself in the Morning – Eight Ladies Writing

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