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Use Music to Make Your Pages Sing!

4 March 2015


 March 4, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

You know that old convention in movies, usually comedies, where the characters suddenly start singing and the scene becomes a musical number?  You may have been drifting off, but now you sit up straight and after about 30 seconds you’ve got a huge smile plastered on your face?


There’s a kind of sorcery that music can bring to your story, and this is true whether you’re writing a screenplay or a book. Our sense memory connections to certain pieces of music are so strong that they can often be used not just to ground the action of the narrative in a specific time or place, but to create emotion in the audience, help reveal your characters, and move the story forward.


It’s not necessary to write a musical like FROZEN to use the power of song.  Here are some strategies to use music to make your pages sing…


1.  Embrace music to create emotion in your story. Does one of your characters have an old song that he and his (ex) girlfriend used to love? And every time it comes on the radio, he starts crying? Does he meet a new woman, fall in love, lose her (like he lost the previous ex), get her back, then get a new song? Think about how music can be used to create emotional backstory or an arc for your characters.


2. Use it to reveal character.  What kind of music does your character listen to?  And how can this reveal his or her attitudes, passions and feelings?  A person who loves death metal has a different temperament than one who loves Tchaikovsky.  As a woman who danced the first dance at her wedding to “Nothing Else Matters” by  Metallica, I can attest to this.  Get specific.  It’ll make your character three-dimensional.


3.  Employ music to ground your narrative in a specific time or place. If you’re writing a story set in the sixties, what music would your main character listen to? The Beatles?  Stones?  Motown?  Does she listen to that music in your scenes? Does it inspire her? Do the lyrics have meaning that she can use to make sense of her own life?  Think about how to use music to evoke the time and place your character lives in.


4.  Use music to move your story forward. Does one character employ a piece of music to convince another character to take action? Does a character hear a song (that has some previous meaning you’ve set up) and it triggers them to take action? Just as music inspires you, how can you use it to inspire your characters?  Watch WHIPLASH as a primer.


5.  Listen to music while you’re writing. If you’re writing a dark, dramatic scene, some Beethoven maybe.  A light moment, some B-52’s.  A break-up, Alanis Morrisette.  Find music that matches the emotional core of what’s happening on the page, listen, feel it, and let the music flow through you onto the page.


I just watched the terrific movie SKELETON TWINS, with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. The winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, this is not a super hilarious movie by any stretch. It’s dark and twisty, and explores the complicated family dysfunction of fraternal twins who are both self destructive and suicidal.


It also has an incredible scene, where Kristen Wiig’s character, who has just cheated on her husband with her scuba instructor, is angry at herself and desperate about her sexually compulsive behavior. Her brother, in an attempt to connect with her and lighten her mood, turns on a song from their teenaged years, and starts to lip sync to it. At first, she refuses to participate, but then…


Watch below and see how music can create conflict in a scene, an emotional shift from the beginning to end, and three part structure (set up, development, resolution.) The music grounds the narrative in the present, provides backstory, generates and reveals emotion, and moves the story forward. Notice how you feel after watching.


Take action! Embrace music in your book or screenplay. Use it to reveal character, move the narrative forward, and inspire emotion in your reader.


Happy Writing!


xo Pat

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