Content Dictates Form – Thoughts on Stephen Sondheim’s Rules

In my writing room I have several printed promps that hang in front of me. One of these is:

SONDHEIM THREE RULES

1 Content Dictates Form

2 Less Is More

3 God is in the Details

All in the services of CLARITY, without which nothing else matters.

In the seven promps that hang in my writing room, these three short rules by Sondheim are the ones that I put that most importance on. “Less Is More” can be simply interpreted as “Don’t Do What You Don’t Have To Do”, or don’t write what doesn’t need to be written. “God Is In the Details” can be simply put as “Do your homework, work hard and uncover every needed nuance and needed detail.” But for me, “Content Dictates Form” is the one that keeps coming back to alternately reward me and slap me in the face.

“Content Dictates Form” is the rule that I keep discovering over and over again. Let me share with you the mistakes and successes I have had with this rule.

Every time I have broken this rule in musical theater, I have paid a price. And invariably when I listen to new musicals from first time musical theater writers, they break this rule in spades. A fairly good scene will all of a sudden have a song that breaks the listener out of the story and you can totally see the writer saying, “Hey, we should have a funny uptempo song here” or “This is the perfect place for a heart-felt ballad of inner dialogue.” It rarely works when you pidgeon-hole formulas into a script like that. The writers really need to first identify what has to be said. It’s a painful process but necessary for organic flow to keep the audience engaged (in my experience).

MISTAKES I’ve made with “Content Dictates Form”

  1. In the writing of my first musical, I would have vague concepts for a song and then I would wait until I heard a song that inspired the style and feel for that piece. Then I would write the piece in that style. The mistake I made was in waiting for the FORM to inspire the CONTENT. Inevitably these songs seemed awesome at the time, but they failed to engage an audience at a gut emotional level. Audiences as a group are very smart and they can sense when something is not authentic.
  2.  How many of you writer’s have thought this: “I love the musical Hamilton and I want to write a musical in that style.” (Yes, I raise my hand too). The inherent problem with this approach is that you are letting FORM dictate the CONTENT. Better to identify the story you want to tell and the identify the best style, or form, to tell that story.
  3. Again back to my first musical: I recorded the soundtrack into Ableton Live which in itself was amazing and went very smooth. The problem was that I had access to such a large sound library that I ended up with wildly different orchestrations which resulted in wildly different song forms. I would switch from Classical Early Music with recorder to full hip-hop raps to full club dance beat arrangements. The result was entertaining in one aspect, but it switched the world of the musical landscape around too much which then also changed approach to lyrics. In other words, I wrote most of the musical with a focus on FORM and let that dictate the content. In my latest musical I focused squarely on content and then the form came naturally from that. I experience a big difference in how the material resonated with the audience. The approach of Content Dictates Form was much more powerful for the audience.

 

SUCCESSES I’ve had with “Content Dictates Form”

  1. I have a particular song in a musical that needs to be created. I dig deep into what needs to be said in the song, what sort of character sings the song, the other contingencies the song needs to express and THEN I look at what the best style, or form, would be to express those things. Every time I have created a musical theater song that really landed with an audience, it was done in this way. In short, figure out WHAT you need to say before you decide HOW you’re going to say it.
  2. I now will say NO to most projects that focus on form before content. It’s usually a sign that the creators have skipped the painful, and necessary, step of digging deep into WHAT they are trying to say. I count this as a “success” because it saves me precious time to not be involved with a project where the co-creators are skipping the most important steps of discovery.
  3. In my experience, you can’t really know what a literary work is about until you’ve written some of it. This counts not just for musical theatre but also for fiction and even biopics. For that reason, I’m not sure you can really identify the form until you already into the creation and discovery process. You don’t really know what you’re writing about until you start getting it written down. Only so much can be dreamt or thought about before the actual writing work begins. So for that reason, I currently won’t bother with thinking about form until I start to flesh out a new project. The beauty is that this process clears the forest and makes the landscape a clear slate to strictly serve the content. As always, easy to say but surprisingly difficult to do.

There’s a great podcast interview that goes into depth on Sondheim’s rule of “Content Dictates Form” and even takes the concept further into how we can apply the concept to our everyday lives. The interview is at:

https://thelongandtheshortpodcast.com/5-content-dictates-form#:~:text=In%20any%20case%2C%20Stephen%20Sondheim,output%20his%20extraordinary%2C%20genius%20work.

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