One of my passions outside of writing is music. I don’t just love the music itself, but also the creative process and the tools that go into making it. I ended up spending so much time at the Musical Instrument Museum here in Phoenix that I now volunteer there. Seeing all the amazing ways music is created around the world got me thinking about the parallels between an excellent musical arrangement and superior writing. A well written book is music to the eyes.
Like orchestral composers, writers have a lot of instruments at their disposal. In addition to different characters with diverse voices, we also call on things like location, weather, historical timeframe, and a host of other factors to breathe life into a narrative. So, let’s strike up the band and see how we can utilize these instruments to build our stories.
Just like a musical score every story needs a foundation to build on. I liken this to the percussion section in a band. Percussion sets the pace of the music and punctuates it, adding emphasis to specific moments and giving breathing room when needed.
Sentence lengths and punctuation marks perform the same function. The roll of a snare drum builds drama in the same way quick, short sentences do, while the crash of the cymbals adds the exclamation point!
The brass and string sections paint the mood and bring color to the music. I see the physical environment, such as weather and settings, in this section of the orchestra. Think about the first time you heard "The Flight of the Valkyries." The deep tones of the bigger horns conjure up visions of thunder clouds and raging storms, while the strings recall sweeping winds. The bright, brassy passages let the sun break through the clouds, lighting up the landscape.
Similarly, we can use the world around our characters to show what’s going on inside of them. We all know weather can set the mood for a scene, but how your characters interact with their environment also gives the readers clues to what drives them. One character may hold onto his hat, hunch over, and trudge through a downpour, while another might dance and sing, stomping in puddles like child at play.
The woodwinds can play the main melody in a movement, but quite often are called upon to play a counterpoint, filling spaces and adding to the overall mix. They can bring attention to specific details by complimenting or contrasting the other instruments as they play their parts.
Secondary characters perform the same function. They give your main character someone to bounce things off. It might be a conversation designed to introduce needed information or they may take the opposite side of an argument and complicate things. Sometimes secondary characters are called on to take the lead and fill the space when the main character isn’t present or is otherwise unable.
That brings us to the soloists—the featured players. These are the people you’re really paying to see. The whole orchestra may play the music, but the spotlight shines on these talented, creative, and sometimes surprising instrumentalists. The entire concert is built around them.
The soloists in our stories are the main protagonists and antagonists. Sometimes they play in harmony, other times they fight for the spotlight, creating conflict and tension. In the end, only one can be the star. Whether the monster our main character fights is internal or external, it’s that conflict that drives the story to its crescendo.
The entire arrangement is brought together by the conductor, the one standing between the players and the audience, signaling each movement to the group. While we, the authors, are the ones writing the music, it’s the conductor that emphasizes certain elements of the score and pulls the musicians back on others.
In third person, the narrator is the conductor. They point details out to the reader and lead them through the story, scene by scene. When we write in the first person, the conductor is usually the soloists, your main character. We see the performance through their eyes, allowing the reader to be a part of the experience.
Then again, your first-person conductor could be the music critic sitting in the wings watching the show and giving us the play by play as the concert unfolds. Think of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes was clearly the soloist and Watson, the reporter.
There’s always that one musician who was the last one to make the cut. They try their best but sometimes get a little out of tune and out of time. Everyone else in the orchestra struggles to figure out how to work together to recover from his missed beats and sour notes and bring the score back into balance.
This guy is the plot twist—the one who throws a monkey wrench into the gears. Just when things are rolling along smoothly, he drops a beat and plays one of his sour notes, sending everything sideways. Whenever things are going a little too well for your soloist, he throws in another one of those sour notes. Now you’ve got a story.
Sometimes we can get in a rut. We listen to the same style music from the same musicians over and over again. It’s a formula we don’t like to deviate from because it’s comfortable. The same thing can happen with our writing.
But why sit and strum the same three chords on the guitar when we have so many instruments at our disposal? By carefully combining all these elements in just the right mix, we can go from singing the same old song with a slightly different tune, to creating magnificent symphonies. Who knows? Maybe one of us will end up writing the next big hit.
Do you listen to music while writing? Are there certain songs you use to help create the right mood for a scene?
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
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