how to write a great story despite its flaws

3 Tips for Writing a Story That’s Better Than Its Flaws

how to write a story that's better than its flawsSteven Schwartz (composer and/or lyricist for musicals as varied as Pocahontas, Wicked, The Prince of Egypt, and Enchanted) has said  musicals are about structure first and foremost.

If you get the structure right, then a multitude of sins can be forgiven.

This is certainly the case in The Greatest Showman, whose sins are multitudinous. Any selection of critics will tell you all its problems, from ignoring the problematic life Barnum actually lived, to its relatively simplistic structure and lack of historical substance.

But it works. If you’re judging by how leggy it was in theaters (very), how many copies of the album have sold (a million) or been streamed (a billion), something about The Greatest Showman connects with audiences. That something is the way Pasek and Paul’s songs tie theme to structure and pull the audience along for the ride.

3 Tips for Writing a Story That’s Better Than Its Flaws

Six of its eight songs (and three reprises) hit plot points, and hit the timing of those plot points to the minute in five of those six cases. A seventh song is the all-but-required Broadway “I want” song, which works in this case as a delineation of What the Protagonist Wants and What the Protagonist Needs. Theme is present in every song in some way. And, most interestingly, through the work of structure, Barnum is revealed as his own biggest antagonist.

Here are three reasons Greatest Showman still connected with audiences, and how you can go about writing a story that’s better than its flaws.

1. The Songs Hit Plot Points

In this 97-minute movie, more than half of which is music, the plot points come fast, often only minutes apart. To review its structure and songs:

  • Hook: A young P.T. Barnum dreams of running what will become the circus in the opening number “The Greatest Show.”
  • Inciting Event/Key Event: Barnum loses his desk job and decides to open a museum of curiosities. This is one of two plot points that isn’t set to music.
  • First Plot Point: Barnum decides to include living curiosities in his museum. “Come Alive” presents his call to action to the cast of the subplot.
  • First Pinch Point: While he’s obtained the Thing He Wants, his Ghost keeps him from being satisfied, leading him to court the bourgeoisie through Carlyle in “The Other Side.”
  • Midpoint: Barnum rejects the Thing He Needs to keep pursuing the Thing He Wants, underscored by Jenny Lind’s song choice, “Never Enough.”
  • Second Pinch Point: Barnum’s wife sings “Tightrope” while Barnum leaves New York for Lind’s opera tour and Carlyle is left in charge of the circus. His family and his business falter without him.
  • Third Plot Point: The tour is canceled, and the circus is set aflame. While isn’t set to music, it is bookended by “Tightrope” and Barnum’s “From Now On.”

2. Theme Permeates the Musical Numbers

In “A Million Dreams,” Barnum sings that “dreams for the world we’re gonna make” keep him awake at night. The Thing He Wants is to provide a stable life for his wife and children, one he never had as an impoverished boy. In the same song, his wife provides the counterpoint to the Thing He He Wants: the Thing He Needs. “Share your dreams with me. … Bring me along.” All he needs is his wife and family, but his Ghost leads him to crave more.

That more, though, is “never enough.” At the Midpoint, Barnum has the Thing He Wants and has not yet lost the Thing He Needs. Reaching that goal wasn’t enough. Stealing the stars from the night sky, towers of gold, fame and notoriety, nothing satisfies him. Barnum apparently misses a quiet lyric that Jenny Lind sings: “Darling, without you.” His truth is none of it is enough without the support of family, but Barnum is insatiable.

Finally, just after the Third Plot Point, Barnum’s found family, the cast of the circus, approach him at his lowest point and remind him what he’s done for them. Barnum then sings of all he’s accomplished, but claims they were “someone else’s dreams, pitfalls of the man I became.” He finally relearns that his family, both nuclear and found, is most important, and this truth permeates the remainder of the movie. He has, finally, understood the Thing He Needs.

3. Structure Reveals the True Antagonist

The critic and the mobs, who are set up as the external antagonists in The Greatest Showman, don’t work. They aren’t personal enough, don’t have clear motivations, and are hardly presented as people at all. Since they aren’t given songs of their own, we don’t see their motivations as we do other characters. Perhaps this was a choice necessitated by what they opposed (those who find this theater a spectacle would not join in the singing), but it was one that left me, even on a first viewing, disappointed.

However, structure shows that there are strong Pinch Points. Barnum, through his Ghost, has become the antagonist. His insecurities about his rich in-laws looking down on him lead him to invite Carlyle to join the circus to help him appeal to the upper classes. While “The Other Side” is a fun, almost seducing song, its location at a pinch point shows that this is Barnum unable to accept the Thing He Needs. He’s about to become the antagonist.

Since he has by the First Pinch Point received the basis of the Thing He Wants, and never lost the Thing He Needs, the middle of the story switches its focus slightly from Barnum to the acts he curates. The love story is played out (“Rewrite the Stars”); “curiosities” who were uncomfortable with who they were come out of their shell (“This Is Me”). Within the sub-world Barnum creates, others are free to explore the theme of found family and acceptance.

Here, Barnum is both its creator and its greatest threat. This is most clear in “Tightrope,” which marks the Second Pinch Point. Barnum has decided to take the singer Jenny Lind on a national tour that will cost him a fortune before it turns a profit, leaving Carlyle in charge of the circus, and his wife and daughters alone. No one wants him to go. The contrast between the circus failing without him and Barnum’s courting the social elite plays over the soundtrack of his wife reminding him that he has given up What He Needs.

***

Despite its flaws, The Greatest Showman provides an excellent example of how musicals use songs to hold together the structure, how to follow a Cinderella arc, and how a well-structured story can provide clues about what’s going on beneath its surface.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do think is the single most important element in a story that works despite its flaws? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About Rochelle Deans | @RochelleDeans

Rochelle Deans is an editor and author who lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two young children. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, eating ice cream right before bed, and spending far too much time on the Internet. You can find her @RochelleDeans on both Instagram and Twitter, and on her website.

Comments

  1. In the movie mamma Mia, there is a story also. I love the songs in movie two. Such as knowing me, knowing you.

  2. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Rochelle!

  3. Jessica Brown says:

    Thank you for breaking this musical down like this. I have not seen the movie yet, but after reading this article, I can’t wait to now see it and use this article as a guide to study the structure. Great information and a great way to start my writing week! Thank you!

    • You’re welcome! I hope you enjoy it when you see it. I can’t get enough of the songs. If you have any insights of your own into the structure when you see it, I’d love to hear them!

  4. So, how can we mirror that on a page? does it work because a song creates a big scene/spectacle at the right time? Or is it more because a song sums up the events with a tight punch of words (set to a catchy beat) at exactly the right moment? is it the emotional pull music has on us (something that can’t really be replicated in writing)? Can we do this, sum up what a character has been slowly learning throughout the story, without creating something too “on the nose” or without lecturing our readers? Just struggling to figure out how to translate between two very different mediums.

    • They are definitely very different mediums. When translating this to a book, I’d say the most important takeaway for me from TGS was how each structural point tapped into theme so well. I’m 99% sure I saw it on this website, but I can’t remember where offhand, but I remember reading that structural turning points are places where it is okay to be a little “on the nose.” This is especially true, I think, in the midpoint and the third plot point/climax.

      To answer your first questions last, for me, what works best about having the songs in The Greatest Showman at structural points isn’t the scene or summary or events they provide, but how they give movie-makers a chance to get inside characters’ heads (much easier on the page!) and discuss key themes.

      That said, the emotional pull of music may have something to do with it, too. As I was working on this analysis, I kept getting drawn into tangents about how /musical/ themes were reused throughout the movie with really interesting effects.

      • okay, that makes sense. Thanks for spelling it out for me. 🙂 the idea that the song “get’s inside the character’s head” really helps! I read and write for the characters more than the plot, so the idea that the plot points are more centered around what’s happening inside, rather than the event on the outside, really hits home with me!

  5. I’ve been looking forward to this post! I love the Greatest Showman, so much so I saw it in theaters twice (which is really the best place to watch it; it’s made for the big screen). The theme and the characters and the structure tied together so well and made such a heartwarming story. It’s a feel-good movie. If you ignore the fact it is entirely inaccurate (as I do) it is a well-told story of a character who happens to be named P.T. Barnum.

    My favorite memory of my first and second sittings in the theater was my reaction to the hook, that opening song. I had to remember to breathe. I was, most definitely, hooked. It felt as though I was being sucked into the screen. This probably has to do with that I have a strong connection to music and highly enjoy watching theatre (though, this was my first real musical). But I also think it has to do with mysteriousness/surprise of the opening. I went into the theaters not knowing what to expect and was greeted with a scene reminiscent of my favorite circus shows. Did anyone else experience this, or was this just me?

    Thank you for the post, Rochelle! I enjoyed reading and it was good to see a short study on it.

    (And thanks to Katy for the heads-up)

    • Thaks, Anaira! I’m glad you enjoyed my take on the movie. I only saw it in theaters once, but I have two preschoolers and with their insistence we’ve had the soundtrack as our driving music for basically nine months now. 🙂

      I totally agree about the opening scene. It was the definition of a hook, drawing me in completely to what was going on (I love how it kind of breaks the fourth wall in that first “Ladies and gents” comment) and reminding me of my own visit to the circus.

    • It wasn’t just you. I was on an overnight flight when I watched it for the first time, and even though my headset jack was faulty the moment Hugh Jackman opened his mouth I was also “hooked”. I got instant goosebumps and knew I was going to being feeling all the feels. I even played it on a second screen just so I could hook my headphones up to it so I could enjoy it in full.

      And now that’s someone has said it, i think Rochelle is very right about that opening line and the forth wall breaking.

  6. Great post, Rochelle!

    I actually enjoyed the movie, probably because of the songs, though I do recognize its pitfalls. I enjoyed the movie’s message even if I didn’t really care much about the character of Barnum himself or how close it was of a representation to the real-life person. I think that cinema sins video was a little harsh, and more opinion than actual problems with the movie, but I digress.

    You make a great point, sticking to structure and theme in every aspect of the story will smooth over many a rough spot. As you’ve shown, this is just as much true with the score of a musical as it is for writing a novel. Thanks!

    • Thanks! I am definitely with you. I could have easily written up a 10,000-word treatise on this movie. My thoughts are many, and varied.

      I always find Cinema Sins videos a little harsh on their source materials, but interesting in what they point out. And they remind me, again, that imperfect stories can be good ones.

      Pasek and Paul wormed their way into my heart with Dear Evan Hansen, and The Greatest Showman solidified to me that they’ll be the next Rogers and Hammerstein, remembered for a very long time. I think part of the reason is how well they handle theme. Then again, I think the reason any story succeeds is because of how theme is handled, but I digress. 🙂

  7. Thanks for the insights. It’s interesting to see the plot points tied to the music.

    So much of current film critiquing seems to revolve around proving that the critic is smarter than the audience–that he knows what we don’t, so his disdain is better than our fascination. Putting down a project does not lessen its virtues.

    That being said, the story had weaknesses. Some plot holes, but mostly in the unevenness of the characters. Some were believable, some were not. I don’t think the audience cared about that.

    The number one thing that makes or breaks a story is empathy. The audience needs to be wooed into loving the story, and this doesn’t require a perfect character or a perfect plot. Empathy speaks to the audience (or the readers, for writers) via an emotional connection. It bypasses a lot of logic, and helps the fans make all manner of excuses.

    This–empathy–is where I think the writing team struck it big. The story doesn’t have to be perfect–or even make sense. Some of this is hitting the right cultural vibe (such as unexpected favorites like Lord of the Rings), in which I think The Greatest Showman struck gold. The rest of it is tapping the heart just right.

    Music does this, too, so telling a story with music can create this same kind of shockwave. We’ve all done this–fallen in love with a tune whose words give us pause. Doesn’t stop us from singing.

  8. Hi Rochelle – great post. I’m definitely going back in for a second watch of TGS. I watched it at 30,000 feet crossing the land of Oz where Hugh Jackman (Barnum) does us proud. He was sensational in this role and that opening – bang! I was hooked from that moment. Thanks for your insight, and thanks Katy for your fabulous website. I’m know I’m in safe hands when I visit.

  9. Sophia Ellen says:

    So true!

  10. So true! I love the music of this movie for all the same reasons.
    You missed one of my favorite decorative-turned-meaningful songs, though: The Greatest Show. He sings about the circus, “It’s everything you’ll ever want. It’s everything you’ll ever need. It’s here right in front of you,” then sings those same lyrics sitting with his wife watching his children in the ballet and it turns so powerful that it made me tear up.
    Everything he ever wanted and everything he ever needed was there right in front of him the whole time.

  11. Love this movie, watched it more times than I can remember with my granddaughter and it brought my son to tears! I take critics views with a pinch of salt and they are usually wrong in my opinion, and that’s the rub it’s so subjective, like book reviews. Some people will love it despite what rang true others will hate because of that…

  12. Grace Mowery says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this! I was waiting to see how you’d use the Greatest Showman in a post.
    The first time I watched it, I laughed and cried and felt good when I left. The songs still make me cry! I saw several flaws in the movie, but by the end, it didn’t seem to matter as much. And I think most people-minus critics-would agree.

    • Thank you! I agree–the songs are so powerful. Thanks to the 4- and 2-year-olds I cart to daycare most days, I listen to the soundtrack pretty much every day and it hasn’t gotten old yet. There is so much that imperfect movie does right.

  13. While I find the correlation of plot points compelling, especially for a movie script, I still believe character will hold a reader more than anything else. After all, P. T. Barnum was an unbelievable character in real life and is well known to millions of American readers and viewers. Creating a fictional character as remarkable and memorable as Barnum, as Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby, is a greater challenge..

Trackbacks

  1. […] For writers wanting to improve their craft, Kethy Steinemann provides 4 tips for better writing by using strong words, and Rochelle Deans gives 3 tips for writing a story that’s better than its flaws. […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.