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Soundtrack to a Scene: my misadventures in writing to music

The hero slides along the wall, leaving a streak of blood from his wounds. His heartbeat pounds in his ears, drowning out his shallow breath as he hobbles forward, desperately trying to see them before they see him...

In my head, this scene has a rhythm to it.

There is a tone and tempo to every scene. When it's done right, there are little clues to help us find the wavelengths embedded in a story. Finding that wavelength guides us to the right balance of focus versus awareness. Put another way: in this scene, should we be paying close attention to details or thinking about the bigger picture?

What other descriptions could we drop in the background? Maybe police or fire sirens? Maybe blue or red light flashing through broken windows or holes blasted through the walls? Maybe people are shouting, maybe there's gunfire. Maybe there's actual fire – and smoke is starting to fill the hallway. Maybe there's a fire alarm or evacuation klaxon, and an automated voice announce to "reach minimum safe distance."

All of these points add texture, and underneath that texture, our minds interpret the speed that we're pulled through the words as "tempo" – the same kind of tempo that comes from music.

Hold that thought.

If we step outside of the long form of narrative writing and step into scripts, there might be an actual soundtrack to the scene that unfolds. Think of your favorite movies, whether they are an action piece or a comedy or a sentimental drama ... and let those scenes swirl around your head a second.

How would "Jaws" have struck you without the "Baaaaaa-dum. Baaaaaaa-dum. Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun..."? How would Luke, returning home after the stormtroopers had been there, have struck you without the wistful melody of John Williams? The music of these scenes often inspire us to write – and often, to write with music that we feel connect us to our own scene.

When I first started writing to music, it was an epiphany. Or, actually, it was more of a timpani: the big kettle drums meant high drama (at least in what I'd been watching). I put on the headphones, cranked the music and cranked out the scene. It was glorious. I read it back, I heard the music, and I knew I'd written one of the most gripping scenes to ever be rendered in the English language.

When my English class read it back, they complained that it was flat and uninspired. At that point, I thought the same thing about my classmates. Who were these fools and how could they miss the brilliance of James Horner playing from my words?

Actually reading it though ...? Well, that was rude.

They were right. How could that be? Just... LISTEN TO THE SONG WHILE YOU READ THE SCENE! It's that easy! And it would be – if I had a magic book.

The aftermath of that particular class was fueled by equal parts coffee and whiskey. The next draft was more of a forensics session than an editing pass. I looked at this thing like somebody else wrote it; the technical aspects of character action were in there, but half the texture and color of the scene was missing. Turned out to be one of those "forest for the trees" moments where my brain was filling in details that I wanted to be there, but that the words never actually articulated.

Fortunately, there was a quick fix: it only took about 15 years of analyzing music as narrative to figure it out! Note: "quick" is used in the geologic sense here, because timpani rock! (and I didn't want to leave music behind as inspiration).

Boiling 15 years into 15 seconds: listen to the music that's connecting to you. Listen to it over and over. Listen to it with different levels of awareness: a few times while you're doing other things: driving, doing the dishes, etc., versus ultra-focus: putting on headphones, closing your eyes, and listening to the attack and decay of every single note. Listen to the music until you feel the texture of the percussion and the color of the melody.

Now, listen to the music again while you "play" your scene in your head. It's a little like pre-writing, and the timing will rarely match perfectly, but this is the moment that helps fuse the muse to the music.

When you reach for the pencil (or the keyboard), make sure the only thing going through your headphones is noise-cancellation. Remember that pass of listening as you let your scene play out – and recreate that!

Whether it's a moment to hear a soft breath, feel a hesitant touch ... or dive toward the shadows as boots echo down the hallway, recreate the mood of the music by letting your words be your notes.

How about you, writers? Ever experience a case of the "scene in my head" versus the "scene on paper?” Ever have any music mistranslate its way into your scenes? Share your challenges and successes in the comments below.

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