Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, April 17, 2017

6 writing tips from Hamilton

Hey so I'm not sure if you've heard, but there's the musical called Hamilton and it's pretty good.

I finally had the chance to see this rather incredible blockbuster show a few months back, and it's one of those rare pieces of art that manages to live up to whatever crazy expectations have been established for it. It's really, truly good.

And I was especially pleased to learn that writing is hugely central to the story in Hamilton. In the very first song, about Alexander Hamilton's childhood, James Madison raps that Hamilton "Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain," and the rest becomes history. (How awesome is it to write the words "James Madison raps.")

Alexander Hamilton lived and ultimately died from his writing. From his early days, to his letters during the American Revolution, to the Federalist Papers, to the editorials that soured his relationship with Aaron Burr, writing was everything to Hamilton.

And within Hamilton and through Lin-Manuel Miranda's experience writing it, I found some inspiration that has helped me think about my own writing. (Mild spoilers below)

Don't throw away your shot 

Let's start with the obvious one.

It's impossible to watch "Hamilton" and not want to immediately run home and start writing. Characters marvel how Hamilton is writing "like he's running out of time," and Hamilton repeatedly vows that he's not going to throw away his shot.

Hamilton, through and through, is a writer, and a massively driven one.

Hamilton raps that "I'm just like my country, I'm young scrappy and hungry" and when he agrees to be George Washington's right hand man he immediately starts cataloguing the letters he needs to write.

Hamilton is hungry, writing is deeply woven into his identity, and the scrappy way he's presented in Hamilton is infectious.

It's all about the story

Lin-Manuel Miranda took copious, at times wild liberties with Hamilton's life and nearly everyone in the musical.

For just one illustrative example, there's a moment where Aaron Burr raps that Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after Hamilton, and Hamilton says, "That's true!"

It's not true. But it's a funny moment!

Would Hamilton be better if Miranda had strictly stuck to historical accuracy? No! He opts for meaning and story over strict accuracy, and Hamilton is better as a result.

Don't neglect your personal life

Hamilton was a rising star, before he was brought down politically by one of the early country's first sex scandals, where he was caught paying hush money to his lover's husband. Which also led to...

Don't be overconfident

Hamilton is so used to solving problems through writing that he catastrophically miscalculates with the Reynolds Pamphlet, where he confesses the affair and self-immolates his political career.

He thinks he can save himself with his writing. He can't. Jefferson, Madison, and Burr cackle that "he's never gon' be president now" and "You ever see somebody ruin their own life?"

Hamilton's pride also led him to accept Aaron Burr's challenge for a duel, which of course led to his untimely death and one of the greatest commercials of all time.

Take the time you need

It took Miranda six years to write Hamilton. It was worth it.

Keep writing

Let's take this one straight from the man himself (if you're reading this via email, please click through to see the tweet):
Got it? Good.

Now don't throw away your shot.

And if you want to hear from Miranda himself, check out this interview with the Nieman Foundation, this summary of some lessons from Hamilton: The Revolution, and this interview with NPR.

Have you seen Hamilton? What did you think, and what inspiration did you take from it?

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.


Jacqueline said...

I'm doing a breakout session at the Wisconsin SCBWI conference in September on what writers can learn from Hamilton. It's more about the actual lyrics than the process, but I loved your post!

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Great post, Nathan! All it needs is music. Then you can sing it on YouTube.

Kathy said...

I've listened to the soundtrack on several long car trips the last few months. Three generations of our family are using Hamilton as inspiration for our art. Someday ...

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