There are many ways to write the book of a musical. This article shows one possible way. The book is often, although not necessarily, the first thing written. It is generally recognized that the book of a musical is one of the most important component that often determines whether a musical is a success or failure.


The Book

Also known as the play, the book is the script containing the story, and stage directions. Dialogue need not be present, if the musical is sung-through, or if it is a dance musical. Most musicals, however, contain lines of spoken dialogue.


The words of a song.


The combination of the book and lyrics. All the words of a musical.


The combination of lyrics and music.



The plot is the main thread or pattern of events in a narrative or drama. Plot is what happens scene by scene.


This is the deeper meaning behind the plot, what is inferred to be the moral truth, the inner moral struggle of the main characters. The observation of how the main characters to a progression of plot events and the cumulative insight obtained, is called the story.


What makes a good story is very subjective. Many writers consider one of the elements of a good story is a protagonist who faces a strong moral choice. Emotions in a musical must be strong enough so that it feels appropriate for characters to sing. In addition, the story must also sing, meaning that the environment and mood must be conducive to music. Another element of a good story is that the audience must care about the characters sufficiently to follow their every thought and action, all the way to the end. A few writers believe that some form of love should be present in a musical, although it need not be the dominant feature.


The book of a musical is usually extremely concise. The dialogue is economical and utilitarian. There is usually an equal balance of dialogue and song (unless it is a sung-through musical).
A screenplay has some features similar to that of the book of a musical. If there is dialogue, it is used very economically. Songs are integral to a musical, but not to a play or screenplay, unless the latter is a movie musical. There are physical limitations to the cast size in a stage play or musical, whereas a film does not have such constraints.



What the story is about. The theme of a musical or play is its intellectual notion or the abstract idea that forms the basis of the story. Examples include “trust and betrayal”, “love and need”.


The fundamental idea upon which the story is built. The moral of the story, the “take-home” message.


Fiddler on the Roof
Theme: Long-held traditional values need to change with the times.
Spine: Tevye finds it increasingly difficult to approve of his three daughter’s chosen marriage partners, as they challenge his beliefs and social values.
My Fair Lady
Theme: How you speak affects how others regard and behave towards you.
Spine: Professor Henry Higgins takes on a bet to transform the Cockney accent of a flower girl into refined English, so that she can pass off as a high-class lady.


1. Look Around You

Become more sensitive to the sights and sounds that surround you. Watch the world go by, and ask questions about what is really going on, and why things are the way they are.

2. Draw From Your Own Experiences

Delve into your own life and past experiences for ideas. You may have some special knowledge or have encountered interesting personalities in your own family, your education, your workplace, your hobbies, etc.

3. Keep an Eye on the Media

Scan newspapers, magazines, television, radio, internet, advertisements, etc, as these are often excellent sources for story ideas.

4. Read Read Read!

It is a cliché, but it is true nonetheless. Read as much as you can. Fiction, nonfiction, novels, articles, trash, etc. Read with a “writer’s eye”, which means you should always keep a lookout for story potential.

5. Movies

Movies can be a fantastic source of inspiration and ideas. Watch with a “writer’s eye”.

6. Talk

Talk to family, friends, acquaintances, and listen to their experiences, always looking out for story ideas.

7. Use Your Imagination: Ask “What if?” Questions

What if a hacker successfully immobilized the world’s computers by inserting viruses into them? With medical breakthroughs, what if the average life expectancy rose to 300 years old? What if somebody had stolen your identity and you are now a wanted criminal? What if bird flu killed half the world’s population in one year? Predict a trend, and ask what if all society embraced a rigid social caste system, or rejected an idea, such as nuclear family or social welfare? Imagine what would happen to yourself, your friends, your country in the future, say, fifty years’ time?

8. Titles

Interesting titles can sometimes suggest a story. For example, “Ghost opera”, “The Lady Whisperer”, “I Married a Zombie”.

9. Lists

Draw up lists of new occupations, religious wars, movies adapted from books, obsolete appliances, exotic holidays, science fiction musicals, etc.

10. Issues

Examples: Abortion, environment, cloning, poverty, gun control, reality TV, censorship, Iraq, spam.

11. Character

Think of interesting characters and their quirks: James Bond, The First Emperor, Justice Bao, Julia Roberts, US Presidents, etc.

12. Obsessions

Examples include collecting dolls, staying young, washing hands, writing musicals, etc.

13. Opening lines

Examples include “You ever killed anything?” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” “It was love at first sight.” “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay again."

14. Mind Map

Use mind mapping to connect and generate ideas.

15. Brilliant Ending Quotes

“This is the start of a beautiful friendship.” - Casablanca
“Nobody’s perfect.” - Some Like it Hot
“Mr Meyer, I’m ready for my closeup now.” - Sunset Boulevard


1. Love

Unrequited love (Phantom of the Opera), love at first sight (High School Musical), love triangle (Oklahoma, Camelot), feuding families (Romeo and Juliet), tragic love (Titanic, Love Story), forbidden love , unusual love (Edward Scissorhands).

2. Revenge

Example: Count of Monte Cristo.

3. The Quest

Examples: Candide, Pippin, Wizard of Oz.

4. Adventure

Examples: Huckleberry Finn, Man of La Mancha.

5. The Chase

Examples: Les Miserables, The Fugitive.

6. One Against Many, the Underdog

Example: Les Miserables, The Scarlet Pimpernel.

7. One Apart: The Anti-Hero

The anti-hero adheres to his own code of honor rather than society’s. His moral code remains steadfast. Example: Casablanca

8. Power, Rivalry

Example: The Godfather, Lord of the Rings

9. Allegory

Example: Animal Farm, Moby Dick, Narnia

10. Faust: Deal With the Devil

Example: Damn Yankees, Dr Faustus

11. Redemption: Deeply flawed character

Example: A Christmas Carol, Evita, Schindler’s List

12. Buddy Story

Example: Man of La Mancha, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

13. Coming of Age

Examples: Grease, Lion King, The Student Prince, Dirty Dancing.

14. Female Drive

Examples: Evita, Annie Get Your Gun, Mame, Sunset Boulevard.

15. Ensemble

Example: Oceans Eleven, Company

16. Odd Couples

Examples: Human & alien, black & racist white

17. The ___________ From Hell

Example: Plant = Little Shop of Horrors; Patient = What About Bob; Doll = Child’s Play

18. Fish Out of Water

Example: Side Show, Rocky Horror Show, Wicked, Oliver.

19. The Amateur ________________

Example: Psychiatrist = Couch Trip; Lawyer = Trial and Error

20. Fairy Tales, Myths, Fables, Legends

Examples: Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan, Ali Baba.

21. Borrow and Change

Borrow ideas from:
a) Shakespeare (Hamlet, Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Falstaff, Macbeth)
b) Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility)
c) Charles Dickens (Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, Our Mutual Friend),
d) Old films (It Happened One Night, Philadelphia Story, Some Like it Hot)
e) Operas (Flying Dutchman, Barber of Seville, Turandot, The Magic Flute, Madam White Snake, Dream of Red Mansions, Romance of the Three Kingdoms)
f) Nursery rhymes (Jack and Jill, Sing a Song of Sixpence)
g) The Bible (Noah’s Ark, Parables)
Then change it... change the sex of the protagonists, flip the genre (Western → science fiction, horror → comedy) change the country, or the time.

22. Information that nobody knows

Example: Men in Black

23. First Time (Rookie)

Example: Lawyer = My Cousin Vinnie

24. Stumble Into Situation

Example: Rear Window, Blow Up, Cellular

25. The Ultimate _____________

Example: Car = Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; Shark = Jaws; Cop = Robocop

26. Unintended Consequences, Metamorphosis

Example: The Evil Dead, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Jurassic Park

27. Going to Extreme Measures

Example: Victor/Victoria

28. Mistaken Identity

Example: Working Girl, Prince and the Pauper

29. Major Character Flaws

Example: A Christmas Carol, Sweeney Todd, Macbeth, Liar Liar

30. Debt That Must be Repaid Example: Jekyll and Hyde, Sweeney Todd

31. Unusual Gift

Example: It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman!


1. Supplication: Persecutor, Suppliant, Authority Figure
2. Deliverance: Unfortunate, Threatener, Rescuer
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance: Criminal, Avenger
4. Vengeance taken for Kindred upon Kindred: Avenger, Guilty Remembrance, a Relative of Both
5. Pursuit: Punishment and Fugitive
6. Disaster: Vanquished Power, Victorious Enemy, Messenger.
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune: Unfortunate, Master
8. Revolt: Tyrant, Conspirator
9. Daring Enterprise: Bold Leader, Object, Adversary
10. Abduction: Abductor, the Abducted, Guardian
11. Enigma: Interrogator, Seeker, Problem
12. Obtaining: Solicitor, Adversary or Arbitrator & Opposing
13. Enmity of Kinsmen: Malevolent Kinsmen, Reciprocally Hated Kin
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen: Preferred Kinsman, Rejected Kin, Object
15. Murderous Adultery: Two Adulterers, Murdered Spouse
16. Madness: Madman, Victim
17. Fatal Imprudence: Imprudent, Victim, Object Lost
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love: Lover, Beloved, Reveler
19. Slaying of Kinsman Unrecognized: Slayer, Unrecognized Victim
20. Self-sacrificing for an Ideal: Hero, Ideal, Creditor, Sacrifice
21. Self-sacrificing for Kindred: Hero, Kinsman, Creditor, Sacrifice
22. All Sacrificed for Passion: Lover, Object of Passion, Sacrifice
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones: Hero, Beloved, Necessity
24. Rivalry of Superior & Inferior: Superior, Inferior, Object
25. Adultery: Two Adulterers, Betrayed Spouse
26. Crimes of Love: Lover, Beloved, Social Norm
27. Discovery of Dishonor of Beloved: Discovered, Guilty
28. Obstacles to Love: Two Lovers, Obstacles
29. An Enemy Loved: Beloved Enemy, Lover, Hater
30. Ambition: Ambitious Person, Thing Coveted, Adversary
31. Conflict with (a) God: A Mortal, an Immortal or Holy Principle
32. Mistaken Jealousy: Jealous, Object, Accomplice, Perpetrator
33. Erroneous Judgement: Mistaken One, Victim, Cause, Guilty
34. Remorse: Culprit, Victim or Sin, Interrogator
35. Recovery of Lost One: Seeker, One Found
36. Murder of Loved One: Slain Kinsman, Spectator, Executioner.


(from Patricia Ryan's "Pat's Premises: Popular Plots, Conflicts and Elements in Romance Novels," Romance Writers' Report, 17(4), April 1997)

Enforced Intimacy

a) Marriage of convenience
b) Hero as guardian or protector
c) Arranged or coerced marriage
d) Pretence marriage or relationship
e) Stranded together in a house, a boat, or on an island, etc.
f) In a disaster together, such as in a flood, earthquake, or snowbound
g) Matchmaker schemes to throw lovers together
h) Made to share office, home, cabin, lift, etc.

Love Conquers All

a) The healing power of love
b) Redemption through love

One Lover Rehabilitates or Cures the Other Who Suffers from:

a) Amnesia
b) Physical disabilities
c) Psychological problems such as depression, paranoia, neuroses, phobias, obsessions, gambling
d) Disfigurement, loss of limbs
f) Alcoholism
g) Drug dependency

Emotional Baggage or Internal Conflicts that Keep Lovers Apart

a) Inability to trust, especially the opposite sex
b) Fear of commitment
c) "I am a rock;" emotional detachment or isolation
d) Some past incident, e.g., abuse, has left emotional scars
e) Lover blames other for some hurt to self or loved one
f) Lover harbors a secret that threatens love
g) Lover must find self or solve problem before committing
h) One lover has lied to other about something important
i) Lover cannot forgive the other for some past hurt
j) Fear of abandonment
k) Sense of unworthiness
l) Feeling that one doesn't belong or fit

The Lovers' Differences Keep Them Apart

a) Lovers from different socio-economic, religious, ethnic worlds, or whose respective families, institutions, or countries are warring with each other
b) A difference of opinion on a critical matter or belief
c) Bad boy, good girl; or vice versa
d) Lovers have opposing loyalties, or who have close friends who engineer their separation
e) Lovers who are business rivals
f) Lovers whose personalities are incompatible
g) A wide difference in age
h) Unrequited love

The Lovers' Similarities Keep Them Apart

a) Lovers engage in a battle of wills
b) Lovers share goal, but only once can achieve it

Babies and Children

a) Secret baby
b) Arranged pregnancy
c) Accidental pregnancy
d) Reunited with child given up for adoption
e) Child play matchmaker or otherwise brings lovers together
f) Child lost or threatened
g) Heroine plays nanny

Comedy of Errors

a) Heroine disguised as a male, hero disguised as a female
b) Mistaken identity
c) Misunderstandings
d) Masquerade
e) Twins

Evolving Relationships

a) Platonic friends fall in love
b) Ex-sweethearts are reunited
c) Divorced spouses rediscover their love

Mythic or Fairy Tale Elements

a) Kidnapping (Persephone)
b) Taming of the savage male (Beauty and the Beast)
c) Transformation (My Fair Lady)
d) Rags to Riches (Nerds, Dreamgirls)
e) Awakening, emotional rebirth (Sleeping Beauty)


1. Originality
2. Mass Appeal
3. Obvious Potential


1. Scenes Flat

Make sure scenes have tension. Each scene must have a focal point, an essential part of the scene, sometimes referred to as the “hot spot”. Cut out nonessential fluff.

2. Mishandling Flashbacks

Is the flashback really necessary? If necessary make sure it does not detract from the main story.

3. Off Tangent

This is a side road, not on your original plot map. An outline may help you avoid this. Delete the tangent.

4. Control Your Character

Sometimes the character seems to “take over” the story and changes the plot. Unless the result is an improvement, this must be resisted.

5. Slogging

When one reaches a dull point, and slogging away does not improve matters, try a reversal of the plot. Alternatively do a jump cut... move ahead in time.

6. Shut Down

Have a break, recharge your batteries, relive your scenes, recapture your original vision.


The short answer is no. However, certain genres and topics are more difficult to write successfully. For example, few horror musicals work, unless they are spoofs or comedies and not really horror. There are many martial arts musicals coming from the far east, and most do not work, because they focus more on the techniques of fighting rather than on the story.


Act 1 Beginning: Setup
Act 2 Middle: Complications
Act 3 End: Climax and Resolution
Acts 1 and 3 each take up about a quarter of the total time. Hence Act 2 usually take up half the remaining time.


1. Introduce the main characters as early and quickly as possible.
2. Establish the needs of the main characters.
3. What is blocking the protagonist from achieving his needs? The more powerful and antagonist, the more powerful the drama.
4. Raise the stakes.


Conflict is the most important element in drama, and this applies equally to musical theatre. Every scene should have some element of conflict, and in this regard romantic love can be loosely classified as conflict, although some may say that this is stretching things a bit too far.

1. Man against Nature (or God or Fate)
2. Man against Man
3. Man against Society
4. Man against Himself


1. Songs presume a basic sincerity, unless there has been prior indication of the opposite, or that the musical is a satire or spoof.
2. Important events take place on stage and not merely reported.
3. Principle of Opposition: for example if a character feels unhappy, he should sing a slightly more upbeat or optimistic song. On the other hand, if a character feels unhappy and he sings an unhappy song and wallows in self-pity, the net result is comedy.


1. Identification, Empathy

Create a real human being, with imperfections and flaws. Example: A reluctant hero.

2. Sympathy

a) Jeopardy: forcibly separate a loved one, or have the loved one die, or have a close relative hate the main character, or make the protagonist gives reasons why he or she should give up the quest or the fight.
b) Hardship: inflict the protagonist with misfortunes, physical or mental handicap, or the loss of all one’s money.
c) Underdog: show the young naive protagonist battling against a ruthless corrupt corporation, an unreasonable dogma, or an unsympathetic government or institution.
d) Vulnerable: examples include the battered wife or child running away from an abusive psychopathic husband or parent.

3. Likeable

Ideally the protagonist should have attractive attributes such as selflessness, generosity, helpful to others, has a keen sense of humor, and forgiving of others.

4. Inner Conflict

The protagonist should display internal struggles, such as being plagued with doubts and uncertainties, divided loyalties, torn between a sense of duty and upholding his or her own principles and integrity.


NAME: ______________________________________________________

AGE: ________________________________________________________

APPEARANCE: _______________________________________________ (hair, eye color, height, weight, build, etc.)

MARITAL STATUS: ___________________________________________

CURRENT HOME: _____________________________________________

OCCUPATION: ________________________________________________

PARENTS: ____________________________________________________ (alive or dead?)

SIBLINGS: ____________________________________________________ (names, ages, marital status, etc.)

CHILDHOOD: _________________________________________________ (happy, sad, traumatic, etc.)

EDUCATION: _________________________________________________

QUALIFICATIONS: ____________________________________________

RELATIONSHIPS: _____________________________________________ (past and present)

PERSONALITY: _______________________________________________

SPECIAL SKILLS: _____________________________________________

STRENGTHS: _________________________________________________

WEAKNESSES: _______________________________________________

ANY OTHER RELEVANT INFORMATION: ________________________



(From "Heroes and Heroines: 16 Master Archetypes," by Caro LeFever, Tami Cowden, & Sue Viders.)


1. The Chief: The honcho, tough, decisive, and goal-oriented.
2. The Bad Boy: Dangerous, but absolutely fascinating, charismatically attractive, street smart, hates rules and regulations.
3. The Best Friend: Everybody’s ideal hero, kind, decent, and responsible.
4. The Charmer: The smooth operator, the fun guy, irresistible, and unreliable.
5. The Lost Soul: Tortured and secretive, he's got a vulnerable heart and discerning eyes
6. The Professor: Intelligent nerd, logical, introverted and inflexible, but also genuine in feelings, extremely faithful and honest.
7. The Swashbuckler: The person who is on the go, loves adventure, physical, daring, mercurial.
8. The Warrior: The reluctant rescuer, dark and dangerous, driven and remote


1. The Boss: eloquent, self-confident, competitive, and persuasive.
2. The Seductress: mysterious, cunning, devious, distrusting, and cynical.
3. The Tomboy: Spirited, loyal, reliable and supportive.
4. The Free Spirit: Hedonistic, impetuous, “flaky”.
5. The Waif: The damsel in distress, child-like innocence, naive, gentle, and compliant.
6. The Librarian: Conscientious, meticulous, conventional, methodical, leads with her brain, not her looks
7. The Crusader: A woman on a mission, determined, obstinate, and courageous.
8. The Nurturer: Altruistic to a fault, kind, pleasant, generous, optimistic, a listener, and looks after everybody.


1. Bad Book

There is a saying “You live by the book, you die by the book.” Most musicals fail because the plot is absent or weak, and there is little to make one care for the story. It has often been pointed out that Cats and Hair have no substantial plot. However, these are the isolated exceptions to the rule.

2. Unsympathetic Leads

Lead actors that you not care for, with no redeeming qualities, is disastrous. Eg George M, Jamaica.

3. Lack of Romance

Although not all musicals have romance, the lack of it can be a significant reason for its failure.

4. Unremarkable Music

This may not be as serious as it first seems, provided that the book (story and characters) are strong and can compensate. However, if the music is mediocre, it is an additional nail to the coffin of a moribund musical.

5. Difficult Genre

Certain genres do not translate well into live theater, such as horror, and action.

6. Wrong Media

The story may be better told as a novel, on film, or on television.

7. Incompetent Execution

Bad direction, wrong theater, poor production values, can conspire to cause a musical to fail.

8. Too Much Dialogue

If the musical has a mixture of dialogue and song, too much dialogue makes it a play with music, rather than a musical. There are no hard and fast rules, but in general one expects a musical to have at least half the time devoted to song and/or dance, and the remainder to action and dialogue.


I Thou shalt not bore thine audience.
II Thou shalt not use cliches, tired plots and feeble jokes.
III Thou shalt not preach to thine audience.
IV Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s ideas.
V Thou shalt not procrastinate but shalt strive to meet all writing deadlines.
VI Thou shalt not kill the melody, for the melody maker may enter the kingdom of song.
VII Thou shalt not have a dying actor sing an interminable dying song.
VIII Thou shalt not become a total idiot and abandon thine commercial sensibilities.
XI Thou shalt be generous and smile and listen to thine critics before thou sockest him or her one.
X Above all, thou shalt be true to thyself.


There are three possible endings:

a) Positive Ending
b) Negative Ending
c) Ambiguous Ending

Complicate an ending by:

a) “Positive” Ending: Protagonist gets what he wants, but the end result is bad.
b) “Negative” Ending: Protagonist does not get what he wants, but the end result turns out good.


The book is considered the most important element of a musical. It contains the story, and it integrates all the elements (action, dance, song, dialogue). If the book writer is a member of the collaborative team, there needs to be good understanding of the characters, the plot, and the style of the musical by all the members. A good working relation between the collaborators, with good lines of communication, are essential. Conflict should be confined to the story, and hopefully not too excessively between team members. Indeed, conflict is central to a good book. In the classical 3-act play, quite early on, the needs of the protagonist must be clearly presented. There needs to be blocks to achieving these goals, causing escalating complications, and this should occupy most of the musical. Crisis and its resolution then concludes the drama. However, it is common for the 3-act structure to be modified, for the sequence of events to be nonlinear, and for the outcome to remain unresolved and ambiguous. There are even musicals without songs or dialogue. While all these changes are quite acceptable nowadays, one should not forget that musical theatre is first and foremost entertainment. Above all, the audience should not be bored!


Words With Music by Lehman Engel (revised 2006)
Writing Musical Theater by Allen Cohen and Steven L Rosenhaus (2006)
The Musical Theatre Writer's Survival Guide by David Spencer (2005)
Writing the Broadway Musical by Aaron Frankel (2000)
Making Musicals by Tom Jones (2004)
The Musical from the Inside Out by Stephen Citron (1991)
Second Act Trouble : Behind the Scenes at Broadway's Big Musical Bombs by Steven Suskin (2006)
The Art Of The American Musical: Conversations With The Creators edited by Jackson R. Bryer & Richard Allan Davison (2005)
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