Writing About Writing: Likable vs. Interesting Characters

There are the characters that you want to drink a beer with, and there are the characters that you fear could throw a beer across the room at any moment.

These are the two types of characters that every work needs: A likable character, and an interesting character. Now of course these two things are not mutually exclusive. However I’ve seen certain people allege that your protagonist needs to be “likable,” other people allege that they need to be “compelling” and I think both schools of thought SORT OF get it but are not quite there.

A few years back I went through a rather intense Scandal phase which helped prompt this revelation. I had two favorite characters on this show: Olivia and Huck. I liked these two characters for two entirely different reasons.

Image result for olivia popeOlivia was a badass. I want her to be a real person who will be my best friend. She’s inspiring. She’s fierce. She’s the exact type of character that made Shonda Rhimes famous.

Huck is different. It’s hard to say exactly why he’s so interesting without revealing some spoilers, so SPOILER ALERT. Huck likes killing people. Like, genuinely enjoys killing and torturing people. But he’s not evil. He understands how unethical these actions are, but it doesn’t lessen his enjoyment. All of this is the result of a rather tragic backstory where he was part of a super secret government spy program. Unlike Olivia, I really DON’T want Huck to be a real person. I’d like to believe there is no super secret spy program turning otherwise normal people into psychopathic torturers.

Image result for huck scandalBut Huck had something Olivia didn’t. Huck felt like a character I had never seen before, rather than Olivia, who’s amazing but also not terribly different from the Super Publicists of other DC political dramas. Huck made the show as a whole more intriguing. And while I never got around to watching the last couple seasons of Scandal, the desire to know what ultimately happened to Huck would probably motivate me to go back more than my desire to know what happened to Olivia.

Again, it’s totally possible for a character to be both likable and interesting (Olivia Pope is still interesting in her own rite, just not to the extent that Huck is.) But I find it helpful to look at these two types of character appeal as separate entities. It can allow you to figure out what’s missing from a protagonist, and make sure that if you want a character that’s only one or the other, at least it feels deliberate. It can also help inform what other types of characters you need in your script. Unlikable protagonists like Rick Sanchez oftentimes only work if they’re interesting, and a super likable but-not-as-interesting sidekick like Morty certainly helps balance the equation.

Once you realize that it’s possible for a likable character to be uninteresting and it’s possible for interesting characters to unlikable, you can ask yourself the important questions. Who do I want to be likable? Who do I want to be interesting? Then take the necessary steps to make it happen.

Writing About Writing: I Guess I Should Talk About Tone

I’ve just passed the halfway point in this project and it crossed my mind that I have yet to dedicate a post to the rather important topic of “tone.”

“Tone” is what makes the 1971 Mel Stuart film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the 2005 Tim Burton film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory entirely different movies. They have essentially the same characters following along essentially the same story beats. Yet, I challenge you to find a person who would say “Yeah, those films are one in the same. I’m equally happy watching either one of them.”

Now tone, like anything else, is not 100% in the hands of the screenwriter. The director has a lot to do with it too. However, it’s still important to have a tone in mind as a writer. Tone gives you the sort of clarity you need to zero in on what your writing will be. If I gave you a simple prompt of “Describe the setting of your film” that’s not as clear as “describe the setting of your creepy, horror film” or “describe the setting of your family comedy.”

The best question I can think of to ask yourself when considering tone “how do I want my audience to feel during this two hour experience?” Please note that that’s not “how should this particular scene make my audience feel?” Some movies help us relax, while some movies are intentionally designed to make us uncomfortable. Some movies are designed to stimulate us intellectually while others focus more on touching our emotions. None of these are right or wrong choices, but I think it’s important to ask yourself not only “does my story work?” but also “what do I want this movie to really do for people?”

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory strikes me as pure escapism. It’s fun. It makes you want to live in this wonderful candy world and forget the miserable world you actually live in.

Regardless of whether or not you enjoy Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I know I prefer the 1971 version) I just can’t help but think that Tim Burton wasn’t TRYING to do what the 1971 movie did. He wanted to make his audience feel a little uneasy. Perhaps he was trying to make some statement about how fantasy worlds are never all they’re cracked up to be or how being a creative genius means nothing if you don’t have a loving family. I’m not sure what he considered his mission to be, but I definitely think it was something beyond just “make a movie that’s fun.”

What do you want your movie to do for an audience? Once you know that, you can figure out what kind of tone you want, and then can help you fill in some of the nooks and crannies of your script beyond main story points.

Writing About Writing: Make Your Protagonist Active

So I consume a lot of different movies/television of a lot of different genres and over the years I’ve noticed there’s one quality that can make or break a protagonist. I like my protagonists active. Passive protagonists bore the hell out of me.

What is the difference, you ask? Passive protagonists are defined almost exclusively by whatever situation they’re thrown into. Active protagonists are defined by the choices they make in those situations.  Passive protagonists are victims of circumstance. Active protagonists create new circumstances for themselves.

Lately, I’ve been watching some of the earlier seasons of American Horror Story. Now due to this show’s ensemble-y nature one might disagree with me as to who THE protagonist is, but I’m going to say that in Season 1 it’s Vivian (played by Connie Britton) and in Season 2, it’s Lana.

Image result for vivian ahsVivian is a passive protagonist. Sure, life is tossing a ton of different challenges at her, but it is those challenges rather than the way that Vivian handles them that makes her life even remotely interesting. At no point does Vivian ever make a choice other than the predictable choice any other ho hum character would make if they moved across the country into a haunted house. Vivian does not dictate her story, but rather the story dictates Vivian.

Image result for lana ahsIn Season 2, Lana is an active protagonist. She is a lesbian journalist in 1964 who has decided to try to write an exposé on an insane asylum. Just the first episode shows Lana making a lot of interesting choices. She’s chosen to to be in a same-sex relationship despite the taboos of the era, when others with similar inclinations might have chosen to suppress their urges. She chooses to chase down a story about Briarcliff Sanitarium. And while no, she doesn’t commit herself to the sanitarium as a patient, she does continue to make interesting choices once she’s inside. Which alliances will she form with other patients? What will her escape plans be? Lana doesn’t just sit around and wait for shit to happen. Lana is the reason shit happens.

For the record, I don’t think passive characters as a whole are a bad idea. Perhaps a passive character might learn to take control of their own destiny over the course of the story. Perhaps you need a more passive supporting cast to really demonstrate just how active your protagonist is, as is the case with the second season of American Horror Story. But I do think it’s incredibly difficult, if not straight up impossible, to make your central protagonist overly passive and still have a strong story. In film and tv, we learn about characters largely by seeing what choices they will make. A character who only makes boring, predictable choices is destined to be a boring, predictable character.

Writing About Writing: The Well-Informed Mystery Paradox

There’s a great paradox that exists in screenwriting. How do you keep an audience in suspense while also keeping them informed? How do you make sure they understand your story without spoon-feeding it to them in a way that feels patronizing and belittling? How do you make sure they’re in the dark about enough things to keep them guessing while also making sure they care enough to guess?

Your script needs to be mysterious. But your script also needs to be informative. It’s a bit of a pickle, isn’t it?

I do not claim to have mastered this paradox in all my own writing myself, but it is something I’m constantly aware of. I long for my writing to be unpredictable. But I am also constantly asking “ok but what does my audience need to know in order to really get it?” So here’s a few strategies I’ve come up with.

I’ve already said in The Four Things You Need To Know what I consider to be essential for telling a good story:

  • What does my character want?
  • Why does my character want that thing?
  • What is my character’s plan to get this thing?
  • What will happen if this particular plan doesn’t work?

I think it’s INCREDIBLY difficult to write engaging if you are attempting to keep one of these factors a secret. Though it is worth mentioning that not necessarily ALL characters’ motives need to be evident from the get go. In a current piece I’m working on, I have a protagonist with a relatively straightforward mission while the antagonist has goals and plans far more sinister than they first appear. In general, I think it’s pretty much always easier to make the situation mysterious rather than making your main characters mysterious. If your audience knows enough about your protagonist to become invested in them, they’ll care when that character wanders into a mysterious house and we’re unsure

I also think this is another issue where you’re better off picking one extreme and then sticking to it. I’ve enjoyed some movies that falsely lured me into believing I was watching a formulaic, predictable story only to throw in a twist at the very end (Disney’s Frozen is a great example of this).

On the other end of the spectrum, we have one of my favorite films of recent memory, Bad Times at the El Royale. This one avoids giving you any background info until the exact moment that the story requires it to move forward. You watch with this constant feeling that anything can happen at any moment. There’s a confidence in the mysteries being laid out, as if the writer says “I know I’m not explaining much, but trust me. It’ll all be worth it.” Both are totally fine strategies that make for unpredictable movies.

What doesn’t work though are those stories that give you a lot of information, except it’s not all that relevant, or at least not relevant right now. While it’s kinda an apples-to-oranges comparison because this is a series instead of a film, American Horror Story: Murder House has this issue for me. I will grant you that the season is unpredictable, but it also gives you a fair amount of information that either doesn’t really need to be there at all or won’t be relevant for several more episodes. There were enough plot points on the table that I felt like I SHOULD be able to piece them together into a story and got confused and pissed off when I couldn’t. I got even MORE confused and pissed off when I reached the end of the season and realized just how much of it was pointless diversions. All the while the writing failed to give me information it probably SHOULD have given me. I wasn’t emotionally invested in most of the main characters and this was largely because every episode spent a fair amount of time on less relevant characters in an attempt to establish mystery.

Not every script really NEEDS a super dramatic plot twist, but it does need just enough mystery to make us say “hmm, I don’t know what will happen next but I want to.” When writing your script, ask yourself at the end of each scene “have I established a question about what will happen in another scene?” But also make sure you’ve made your characters interesting enough that people care enough to ask.

 

Writing About Writing: Know Thyself

I done messed up.

I’ve been trying my very best to get each and every blog post of this daily challenge up before midnight. Due to circumstances, today that did not happen. It is currently 12:55 a.m. as I am writing this. This blog post is overdue.

One of the hardest parts of being a writer is that it’s ridiculously easy to say you couldn’t make time to write “due to circumstances.” I have been guilty of this on a multitude of occasions and will probably be guilty of it on a multitude more to come.

But the most important thing to keep in mind here is that I am still writing. I WILL get this blog post up before I fall asleep tonight. Because if there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that if I don’t get anything up at all today I probably won’t stick it out and write the other 16 blog posts of writing advice I owe you.

As writers, we need to be aware of our own processes. We need to know our weaknesses and limitations. We need to accept that tips that might work for others don’t necessarily work for us. For example, are you the kind of person who can write a little everyday or do you need to dedicate 4+ hours to your work to get anything done? Are you better off with time goals (I will write for an hour a day) or content goals (I will write 5 pages a day)?

I don’t know about you as a writer. There are certain things you will only learn about yourself by forcing yourself to write. But I DO know that I need to give you at least some blog post today in a desperate attempt to keep this whole project on track. I am not the type of person that can just skip a day and then come back and pick up where I left off. The reason I know this is because I’ve made this mistake before and I am trying to learn from my failures and prevent similar ones.

If there is one thing I beg of you, please do not let “circumstances” shut you down altogether. Ultimately, it’s better to post something an hour late than let it ruin your morale and keep you from writing at all. The more you write, the more you’ll learn about yourself and what you need in order to keep yourself producing work.

Writing About Writing: Commitment Is Key

I am a firm believer that the most frustrating type of movie is not a bad one, but one just good enough to show you the potential it failed to reach. I’m talking about the movies that WANTED to be hardcore action flicks that wasted a little too much time on emotional drama. I’m talking about the movies that could’ve been ridiculously good horror movies if they hadn’t had one too many comic relief scenes. I’m talking about the movies that were afraid to commit.

Image result for don't half ass one thing ron swanson

I totally get the temptation to try to push the limits and do something no one has ever done before. But there’s also something to be said for knowing what you’re good at, owning it, and embracing what’s going to make your script work. Because for every script that pulls off some weird experimental mix of genres there’s far more that fail simply because they “didn’t know what they wanted to be.”

One of the things that makes screenwriting so fascinating is that for every “rule” of screenwriting there is a movie somewhere that broke that rule and was amazing. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Boondock Saints. Krampus. These are not the kinds of movies that screenwriting textbooks teach you to write, but at the same time they just work. They work because they know what they want to be and they fucking committed to it.

It’s okay to write ridiculous comedy. It’s okay to write badass action flicks with a relatively weak story. Even if such pieces aren’t necessarily my cup of tea I’d rather walk out of a movie thinking “Well, it it did what it was trying to do” than “it was trying to so hard to be so many things that it accomplished none of them.

So figure out what you want your movie to be. Let that purpose dictate all your other writing decisions. Don’t be afraid of commitment.

Writing About Writing: A Case for Something Instead of Character Bios

Maybe I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but thinking through your characters is really REALLY important. And I think sometimes conventional writing exercises designed to help you with characterization aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. (See Writing About Writing: A Case Against Character Bios)

When I first realized that I enjoyed creative writing, I oftentimes would “characterize” simply by thinking about the vague adjectives that applied to a character. Maybe they were adventurous, maybe they were shy. Maybe they were funny, maybe they were serious. And again this isn’t COMPLETELY useless… but I think we can do better.

The number one thing you need for a character is a framework for how they make decisions. This is especially true in screenwriting, where you often don’t have the luxury of an inner monologue explaining your characters’ thoughts. We need to watch them make choices to learn about who they are, and we need to understand WHY they’re making the choices they’re making. So let’s go through some questions that might help you get you there.

1. What does your character like most about themselves?

Our confidences are one of the things that drive our behavior. If a dude decides to post a shirtless selfie on Instagram and another one doesn’t, odds are it’s at least in part because he believe that selfie is attractive (whether or not it actually is is besides the point). The parts we like most about ourselves are the parts we have no problem sharing with other people. They’re oftentimes some of the first things others learn about us, or in the case of a fictional character, the first thing an audience will learn. Is your character more proud of their brain or their brawn? Are they confident in their business savvy? Their sex life? It all varies but it all determines why people behave the way they do.

2. What are your character’s insecurities? 

So shirtless Instagram boy probably wouldn’t post the picture if he genuinely believed it was ugly. HOWEVER, there also might be a part of him that wants external validation. He’s not quite confident enough that he’s willing to go without explicit reassurance that he’s as attractive as he thinks he is (we’ve all been there). Just as confidences drive behavior, so do insecurities. The parts of ourselves that we hide, or continually seek validation can have an even bigger impact on the relationships we form with other humans.

Sometimes characters are insecure about things that are totally fine (like the beautiful girl who wears glasses and a ponytail because she doesn’t see how beautiful she is). Other times those insecurities are reflective of actual flaws and that’s cool too. Just remember that a character flaw doesn’t actually change how that character will behave. Perceived flaws will, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to be there in the first place.

3. What is your character’s level of risk tolerance? 

We all have different levels of risk tolerance, and it’s relatively easy to show what a fictional character’s risk tolerance is even before you really get into your important plot points. For example, Marlin from Finding Nemo hates anything risky or dangerous, and this is established on Nemo’s first day of school before Marlin ever actually has to do anything dangerous. Dory on the other hand has a much higher level of risk tolerance which is why she oftentimes makes decisions Marlin wouldn’t have made on his own.

4. Does your character care more about the future or the present?

Some of us are here for a long time, some of us are here for a good time. Characters that are making their choices because they believe those choices will pay off in the future will behave much differently from characters who like to live in the moment. Again, there’s all sorts of ways to reveal this information before it’s about something important. When two friends go out to a nightclub, who is worried about a hangover the next morning and who is living life like it’s a 2010 Ke$ha song? This is a key factor in knowing how your character might handle the challenges you’re about to throw at them.

5. Whose opinion is your character most worried about? 

Some people really don’t care what anyone else says or thinks about them. They are content to live life however they like and they don’t care about others. Sometimes this is portrayed as a flaw (Bojack Horseman, Rick Sanchez), but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Other times we’re worried about what “other people” think. This could be a boss’s opinion, a love interest’s opinion, a parent’s opinion, or maybe just abstract notions of what’s “socially acceptable.” Either way, there’s pretty much always some human being that we are trying to please when we decide to make one choice over another one. Know who that guiding force is in each of your character’s lives.

6. What can inspire them to change? 

This is perhaps the most important one of them all. As mentioned in another previous post, movie magic really happens when characters go on some kind of transformational journey. Therefore, it’s important to know what is such a high priority for this character that they are willing to blow off your answers to the first five questions just for this one thing. Family is a common example. I already mentioned Finding Nemo, and that applies here. Marlin’s love for Nemo was so powerful that it was able to prompt Marlin into doing things he never would have done otherwise. A similar theme is in action in Breaking Bad where an otherwise typical suburban dad is prompted to cook meth because he wants to provide for his family after he leaves. But maybe it isn’t family. Maybe it’s a romance. Maybe it’s something more sinister like money or power. Maybe it’s an adorable puppy, I don’t know. But either way your character needs some force in their life so powerful it can render every other aspect of their decision-making framework irrelevant. That’s what you need in order to make change occur.

Is this an exhaustive list? No. It’s something I threw together in less than an hour of real writing, plus some casual outlining. The real takeaway here is that you need to define your characters in terms that will help you define what choices they will make. Just knowing that a character is “adventurous” may not be enough to do that.

Writing About Writing: Go Meet Some People

I am a bit of an anomaly as I am an extroverted writer. Maybe it’s not as exceptional as I perceive it is, but I always think of writing as a very introspective activity. But while extroversion sometimes makes it difficult to lock myself away and crank out pages the way I sometimes wish I could, I think in other ways it really benefits me. I have a lot of friends who I am immensely grateful to for a multitude of reasons, but one of them is that it makes me a better writer.

Ultimately writing is about people. Even if you’re writing characters who are not human, you need to find a way to humanize them to really be successful (go watch some Pixar if you’re not sure what I mean by this). The challenge is that people are different. Everyone has different world views shaped by their unique set of experiences and challenges. When different types of people interact you get conflict, and that’s where you get a story.

So go meet some people. Meet a diverse group of people. And by “diverse” I don’t just mean checking the boxes of ethnic diversity, gender diversity, religious diversity etc. etc. How are people who played sports different than the people who did theater? How do the challenges of being married with kids different from the challenges of being single?Go meet people of different generations. Go meet people who have made different life choices. Get to know some introverts and some extroverts. Meet some starving artists, some business people, some engineers. Let them tell you about their lives. Let them tell you about their hopes, dreams, and ambitions. Let them tell you how they see the world and how they’d like to shape it into something else.

Because the more people you meet, the more you learn how different types of experiences shape people. And more importantly, you learn about what’s consistent. You’ll learn how everyone struggles with similar insecurities. You’ll learn about the kinds of dreams and ambitions that nearly everyone has. As touched upon in a previous post, you need to know what those universally relatable truths of human existence are to work them into your writing.

So as important as it is to work on your own writing and revising, as important as it is to read textbooks and amazingly insightful blog posts, it’s also important to get out in the world and meet people. Ultimately learning about people gives you the kinds of insights that can improve your writing without even realizing that it’s happening.

Writing About Writing: Let’s Talk About Dialogue

I have a soft spot for dialogue. There. I said it.

It’s a screenwriting sin, I know. You’re not supposed to write too much dialogue. It’s maybe the one note every screenwriter has heard: “Less dialogue. More action.”

Or maybe it’s just a note I hear time and time again because I have a soft spot for dialogue and write too much of it. The world may never know.

However, I would like to stand up for dialogue. Personally, I think the problem is not that dialogue is inherently bad, it’s that too many people write bad dialogue. What’s worse, too many people would rather just avoid dialogue altogether than learn to do it better.

There’s a difference between dialogue used as means of lazy exposition when there’s a better way to convey the same information and dialogue that is entertaining in its own right. This is also true of monologues. For example Francis Underwood in House of Cards arguably conveys WAYY too much info through fourth wall breaks, but at least his copy is interesting. It goes beyond a simple “and then this happened.”

Whatever happened to style? Whatever happened to letting your interesting thoughts out through your characters? Now don’t get me wrong, story structure is hella important. But I’m also skeptical of statements like “Every last second of your screenplay needs to solve your story’s purpose!” Or “It’s all about structure! That’s what makes or breaks you!” Because as important as structure is, it’s also not the only tool in your tool belt. Dialogue is another one, and dialogue can do things story alone cannot.

Mean Girls is a great example of how wonderful dialogue can turn an otherwise typical teen movie into a classic that is still quoted regularly almost 15 years later.

– “Four for you Glen Coco! You Go Glen Coco!”
– “On Wednesdays we wear pink”
– “On October 3rd, he asked what we day it is.”

What do these have in common? Absolutely all of them could be deleted from the script entirely without having any impact on the story. Yet lines like these delivered in just the right way are what secured Mean Girls the legacy it has today.

I already wrote a blog post exploring how to make dialogue heavy scripts work if you are in fact planning to use dialogue as a means of story exposition and I’ll link that here. Today, I’d like to talk about how to write dialogue that actually enhances your script’s overall entertainment value. Let’s go over questions you should ask yourself:

Is this something a normal person would actually say? 

Most of us don’t just go around telling people random facts about ourselves, the time period, or our location. That’s why sometimes it seems really odd when writers try to use dialogue to reveal too much character information. However, there’s other things people talk about in their day-to-day lives that can reveal this information in a more entertaining way. For example, two lawyers living in Manhattan probably wouldn’t randomly say “That’s what being a lawyer in New York City is like!” But they might make disparaging remarks about delays in the subway system, or make fun of lawyers from Staten Island or New Jersey.  The audience can learn the same information but in a way that involves a joke.

Can I create a situation in which this awesome thought WOULD be normal to say? 

So as important as the first question is, it’s also important to remember that this is writing, so “normal” is all relative. If you’re creating a new world and you need dialogue to help explain it, write in a character who’s new to that world so it makes a little more sense for other characters to explain it. The Good Place is a great example. There’s often dialogue about interesting ethical debates of philosophy that normal people would never have, but the writers created a world and a set of circumstances where it would make sense for the characters to have these discussions.

Is this dialogue building the character I want? 

Sometimes dialogue that does absolutely nothing for the story in general is imperative for a specific type of character. One of my favorite movies of all time is Accepted, the one where Justin Long and Jonah Hill make up a fake college together. One supporting character is Glenn, who just says random nonsensical things throughout the movie. He is a comic relief character who enhances the entertainment value of the story despite the fact that almost nothing he says really advances the plot all that much.

Is this thing I want my character to say actually as entertaining as I think it is? 

Look, I get it. You’re a writer. You like words. I do too. This is a hard pill to swallow, but sometimes we just aren’t as interesting as we think we are. That’s why it’s so important to let people you trust read your work and give you notes. Sometimes when we think we’ve come up with something amazingly interesting that our script just can’t live without, it’s really just us being self righteous and annoying. Always be open to the “this is too much dialogue” note because too much dialogue can ruin scripts. However, the only way to get better at writing good dialogue is to at least try. Taking the “keep your dialogue to a minimum” people too seriously may just result in you not developing the ability to write GOOD dialogue, and that would be a travesty.

Writing About Writing: The Songs in Every Musical and What They Can Teach You About Story Structure

There are certain things that you’re either obsessed with or you just plain don’t understand. Competitive cup stacking. CBS’s Big Brother. Professional wrestling. Pineapple on pizza. Musicals.

But regardless of whether or not you actually enjoy musicals you can learn SO much from them. In a good musical, the songs actually help to advance the story. They don’t just reiterate information we already know. Now to be fair, I am talking about those musicals that are at least attempting some conventional story structure (Sorry, Rocky Horror) and musicals where the songs were actually written with the intent of telling that story. I’ll been excluding “jukebox musicals” like Mamma Mia or Rock of Ages that just built a story around already-written songs. I’ll also be excluding stuff like High School Musical where most of the songs weren’t really intended to convey any plot information, even if they were written originally for that musical.

When you look at songs in musicals as building blocks of a story, you learn there are certain building blocks that appear over and over again. You realize there’s moments almost every good story has. And regardless of whether or not you have any ambition to write a musical, knowing what those building blocks are can still come in handy. And come on, listening to music is way easier than actual studying, so why not listen to music that will educate you on the story beats and emotional tension that make for great storytelling?  Let’s look at some of those songs that show up over and over again and what we can learn from them.

The Status Quo Song: 

One of the first things screenwriters have to do is establish the day-to-day life of their characters. The audience needs to understand the current status quo in order to properly understand how we’re going to stray from it. It’s quite common for the first song of a musical (or a song very close to the beginning) to serve this purpose. It establishes the time and place of our story and the typical life challenges of our main character(s). When you’re writing a non-musical, DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. Take us into your world before you try to shake that world up too much.

Examples: 
“At The End Of The Day” from Les Miserables
“Carrying The Banner” from Newsies
“One Jump Ahead” from Aladdin

The Dreaming-Of-Something-Better Song:
This song is such a staple of musical theater it’s not uncommon for a single musical to have more than one. Life is a constant tension between what reality is and what we want reality to be. That’s why every story is also about tension between what reality is and what characters want reality to be. In addition to a status quo song, musicals need a song where a character sings about why they’re dissatisfied with it. This song also describes a semi-specific vision of what characters would prefer, rather than a simple “the status quo sucks” (that part is clear in the status quo song if it sucks that much). Usually the two are also not that far apart, since we need to establish conflict as soon as possible.

Examples: 
“Maybe” from Annie
Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid
“The Wizard and I” from Wicked

The Villain Song:
I firmly believe that developing your villain is just as important as developing your protagonist, hence the prevalence of the Villain Song. In a lot of ways, the villain song is just a dreaming-of-something-better song but from a more evil perspective. The good ones explain why the villain doesn’t like the protagonist and how they plan to wreck havoc on said protagonist. I recently dedicated an entire post to writing a good villain, so I don’t want to dwell too heavily on this, but if you’re curious to know more about what makes for a good villain, go listen to some villain songs.

Examples:
“This Jesus Must Die” from Jesus Christ Superstar
“Be Prepared” from The Lion King
“Hellfire” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame 

The Hitting-Rock-Bottom Song:

Any story, musical or not, is going to have a low moment. In musicals, those moments can often take the form of a hitting-rock-bottom song. Sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re sad and reflective, sometimes they’re slightly more optimistic. Maybe it’s a sad reprise of a previously-happy song. Maybe a character dies in this number. Maybe it’s a duet, where one character tries to reassure another that they aren’t really at rock bottom. There’s a lot of different forms of it, and again, it’s possible for a single musical to have more than one as “rock bottom” might be defined differently for different characters. The important thing to remember is that your non-musical script probably needs this story beat. It needs a moment where it feels like all hope is lost and your protagonist is tempted to give up. It needs pain. It needs failure. That’s going to make their triumph that much more triumphant.

Examples: 
“Totally Fucked” from Spring Awakening 
“She Used To Be Mine” from Waitress: The Musical
“What You Own” from Rent 

The Ultimate Triumph Song:
Okay, so not every musical has a happy ending and therefore not EVERY musical really has an ultimate triumph song. However, they’re still common enough to be worth mentioning. Usually it’s one of, if not THE last song (though perhaps it could just be an ACT 1 finale). The ultimate triumph song is euphoric. It describes what the future WILL look like. Not in a maybe-someday sorta way like the dreaming-of-something-better song, but as though this new better future is a cold hard fact. The good ones often articulate some of the challenges that have been overcome, and there’s something inevitable about them, like the characters just can’t help but celebrate their victory.

Examples: 
“You Can’t Stop The Beat” from Hairspray
“You’re The One That I Want” from Grease
“From Now On” from The Greatest Showman