Whether or not you outline your entire novel before you begin or leave plenty of room for surprises along the way, many writers will reach a point where they struggle with a story. Maybe you wrote yourself into a corner. Maybe you’re having trouble bridging main plot points with smaller scenes of character development. Maybe the characters feel flat. Maybe you want to add an unforeseen subplot but nothing fits just right. Whatever it may be, story speed-bumps are out there waiting for you, but I’ve found a little “game” I like to play that can help flesh out a story idea and possibly turn a handful of outlined scenes into an expansive epic full of action, drama, and tension.
The trick is, when I have a general idea for a novel, or when I get stuck with the storyline already underway, I’ll create a special playlist for my iPod that serves as the soundtrack for the story.
Other writers I’ve spoken with use this method too, especially those who write in genres such as crime, noir, sci-fi, westerns, horror, fantasy, or any of their various sub-genres. Soundtrack creation lends itself particularly well to these styles, but it can also be helpful in more literary works. Don’t brush off the idea just yet if you don’t think it will help you with a more “serious” creation, because like most films, novels can benefit from a little musical encouragement now and again.
As you already know, a soundtrack or film score accompanies a film’s visual story as a secondary element to enhance a scene’s core emotion or intention. A composer will work closely with the director to choose some key emotions or ideas that they want the audience to feel. The composer will create original scores to accompany each major scene in the film based on those key feelings. A music director for the film might also choose some popular songs by other performers depending on the genre or style of the film. The result should satisfy both the audience in the theaters as well as those who purchase and listen to the soundtrack at home, reliving the story in their minds through the power of the music.
This is what you are looking for when you create your own soundtrack—you want to relive a story that you haven’t yet written through a choice selection of music.
It may be easier to explain this through an example. Over the last year, I’ve developed a plot for a western with trace elements of dark fantasy and paranormal themes. While I had the beginning and ending in my head (don’t ask writers how they get their ideas—everyone’s muse works differently), I wanted the entire arc planned out before I began, while leaving some wiggle room for inspiration and changes later in the writing process.
Once I realized I only had the shell of a story with a starting and ending point, I did what I often do when I need to think about my writing: I went for a walk at night. And when I walk, I usually bring my old, dependable iPod with me. Since I was thinking about a western story, I decided to download music from some of my favorite western soundtracks, as well as songs from films that aren’t “classic” westerns but might add to the aesthetic I was looking for in my story.
First, I added works by composers such as Ennio Morricone, famous for his spaghetti western collaborations with Sergio Leone. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly soundtrack is rife with music both instantly recognizable and amendable to any barren western scene. For example, the track “Il Tramonto” (The Sundown) has a particular sadness and isolation to it. When I heard it, I saw my protagonist on a hillside at sundown with the red and orange sun bleeding across the plateaus and desert vista. Why is he there? What is he feeling? Where does this scene fit in the grand scheme of the story? Perhaps it occurs on the first evening after he returns to the town where he grew up, and things have changed in his absence. This once familiar place is now strange and dangerous. It’s a contemplative transition scene, but by listening to the music and asking myself these types of questions, by allowing the character to wander a scene in which this kind of music might be used, the scene was able to take shape in my mind and find its place in the story almost by itself.
Lalo Schifrin is another film composer I like, and I pulled some tracks from his Kelly’s Heroes soundtrack. This World War II caper starring Clint Eastwood used music that played off the spaghetti westerns Eastwood had become famous for. Dramatic, tension-building tracks such as “Tiger Tank” (which also appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) and “Quick Draw Kelly” are easily applied to a western aesthetic when placed in the right moments and surrounded by other classic western film tracks such as Elmer Bernstein’s “Main Title” for The Magnificent Seven and Morricone’s dizzying “The Ecstasy of Gold.”
At this point, iconic images from some of the best known westerns began shaping my story in my mind, becoming something new, and giving the story arc a traditional, accessible feel. But I also added some tracks from more contemporary composers. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have created some astounding soundtracks for films such as The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and The Road. I added key to my soundtrack and allowed my characters to roam within them. What would the hero do with this music playing? What about his love interest? The villain? The secondary villain? These tracks are vivid, hauntingly stark, and sometimes otherworldly, and they helped shift my vision for the book from a traditional western to something more intrinsic and artful.
Another favorite is Joe Kraemer’s work on The Way of the Gun, which combines an orchestra with timpani drums and castanets, giving it a southwestern feel while retaining a neo-noir/crime aesthetic that is both harrowing and hardboiled. It brought to mind scenes of suspicion, of pre-gunfight moments of realization that one is being followed or is about to fall into a trap. His work on this soundtrack and others might be helpful for those working in the crime or neo-noir genres as well as westerns.
I also wanted to give a far-away feeling to some scenes that take place in strange towns full of bounty hunters, thieves, and scoundrels, so I pulled tracks from old samurai films like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, both of which inspired western films that became classics in the genre. These jaunty, almost jazzy tunes gave these scenes (which involved a Mexican bounty hunter character I created) the perfect amount of adventurous, devil-may-care attitude that I wanted.
Finally, I scoured the rest of my own music collection and found some songs that seemed to leap out and speak to my now burgeoning story arc. Songs such as “Greyish Tapering Ash” by Balmorhea offers a reflective, dreamlike journey scene on a train, and “Hands” by The Dutchess & The Duke (with lyrics Sun comes up/I'm counting the days I've got left/I'm counting the time on my hands, watch the days roll by…) brought to mind the protagonist going about his day in a bustling western town while contemplating the feelings of regret weighing down on him. He knows his peaceful days in the town are coming to an end, and it is almost time to move on before his past catches up with him.
But it’s important to remember that each song will bring different visions to different authors. By building your own soundtrack—be it from classic films known by all or lesser known artists and art house features—and playing your soundtrack over and over, you will create a unique and individual storyline that will shift and change with each listen.
Move the tracks around in your playlist, see how the story looks if you shift this scene back in the story, or introduce this character earlier than you originally planned. In this manner, you will be able to see when too many action sequences are piled together, or too many yearning, romantic tracks are clumped up in the middle. By creating the right flow of tracks, you can create the desired flow of rising and falling action in your story.
Don’t forget that you can use some tracks more than once, as many films often do, especially if you’ve tied a certain character to a song.
Classical music is also heavily sampled in Hollywood films, often because works by composers such as Bach, Vivaldi, and Beethoven are now in the public domain, so don’t forget to run through the vast amounts of deeply emotional and compelling classical music available to you.
Regardless of what kind of music you’re into or what genre you’re most interested in, this activity may become one of the most entertaining parts of writing your book, as well as the most effective for sorting out the sagging middle sequences of your novel. I should note that I usually listen to my story’s soundtrack when I am not physically sitting down and typing. Some writers find ambient music, jazz, classical, or even their favorite brand of rock and roll inspirational while they are writing. Personally, I need silence when I’m typing, and I’ll use this soundtrack before and after to get my mind in the right place for the scene. Sometimes I’ll throw the music on once the first draft of the scene is written and I’ll play a certain track over and over as I tinker to infuse the scene with the spirit of the song.
But as I’ve said, every writer is different, so use your soundtrack however you best see fit. Just remember to leave some room for interpretation in your storyline. You don’t want your story arc too stiff, and you don’t want to rip off scenes directly from other films or writers just because that’s what the music brought to mind. Let the music inspire you in new ways, and make these beloved songs a one-of-a-kind experience that will shape and enhance your story.