Friday, November 23, 2012

Making a Soundtrack for Your Book: How Music and Images Help Free the Nonverbal Creative Brain

Over Thanksgiving week I decided to take a creative retreat.  The plan was to make a soundtrack for my novel-in-revision, which could use more sound and image.

Most writers know about freewriting.  It can literally "free" the random word associations inside your linear brain.

In the same way, exploration of sound and images can free the right brain--an important player in creation of theme, voice, and pacing during revision.

My daily writing brought completion of Acts 1 and 2 revision in early November.  Woo-hoo!  Then I hit Act 3.  And it's acting tough.  Thousands of threads to tie up.  Themes to recognize and build. 

It's making me tense.

I tried my usual writing exercises, but even the best freewriting and word play wasn't cutting it.

I needed to make a soundtrack for my book.

Soundtracks:  Invisibly Bringing Meaning to ScenesSoundtracks are one of the best parts of a great movie.  Of course I love good acting, excellent setting details, and brilliant cinematography. 

But when the soundtrack is stellar, it can really intensify the meaning and emotion of each scene.

Fly Away Home is a older movie, a poignant story about wild geese and a young girl whose mother dies.  I remember watching it and enjoying it, but my heart was truly pierced when Mary Chapin Carpenter's song ("10,000 Miles") swept behind the final scene. 

The song is all about letting go--loss paired with the strength to go on living. 

Maybe you saw the movie.  Maybe you didn't even notice the song.  Soundtracks aren't meant to stand out, truthfully.  Most of us enjoy a movie without really paying attention to what's playing behind the scene. 

But savvy filmmakers know how powerful sound is--how it can transform our understanding of a character, the meaning of a decision, the poignant departure. 

As a writer who loves sound, I pay close attention to the music in films.

In your book, there's also an invisible soundtrack.  It's the music of your words, the pacing you choose, and the movement of your players on stage. 

If done well, this invisible soundtrack touches your reader, makes your story more memorable.   Knowing about it while you write, makes your story more memorable for you, too. 

Selecting Your Book's Soundtrack
What if you were aware of the music that ran behind a certain moment in your book?  Or which theme song informed a certain character or narrator?   Imagine how it could bring you a much deeper understanding of that action or player.

Many professional writers use this technique to trigger nonverbal associations in the brain.  We know that sound can take the writer beyond words into images--where the real emotion lies.

One student in my book-writing class did this exercise.  She selected a sultry jazz piece for her character, Penny, during a chapter in the middle of the book.  Penny's on the hunt for a criminal in the underworld of midnight bars. 

Jazz has a quality of smokiness, so this writer discovered that, once she chose a jazz piece for Penny, the character began to talk differently, move through the room more slowly.  She even slid up to the bar herself, surprising for a character who is rather uptight on the job. 

Such is the magic of soundtrack.  It can change what you write--for the better.

How Your Soundtrack Can Change Your Writing
When I do this soundtrack exercise, I use my family's CD collection instead of Spotify, iTunes, or Pandora.  I like the tactile experience of handling the CDs, scanning the lyric sheets, and choosing songs.  A side benefit is revisiting the music we've collected over the years.

Today, I pulled out Eva Cassidy's final record.  I love her music and her voice always brings one of my characters to mind--a bold and fiery woman who causes a lot of trouble for one of my main characters. 

As I listened to Eva sing a spiritual and then a blues piece, I realized I didn't have enough variation in my character, Zoe's, voice.  I opened a few of the Act 2 chapters and began inserting small changes that would vary her movements and voice. 

Suddenly her choices in Act 3 (where I was stuck) got clearer.

Then I found a few classical CDs, with pieces by modern composers.  One was a choral arrangement of Mark Hayes' "Te Deum."  It's full of sturm und drang, and it gave me new ideas for my reclusive artist character, Mel. 

Mel is pretty quiet but when he's alone likes to listen with the volume up.  It takes this kind of privacy to free him into the sounds he loves.  I opened a few chapters where Mel is painting alone in his studio, and I turned up the volume.

I saw that a slow sections of "Te Deum" might bring him to tears.  I added that moment to Act 3.

Thanking the World for Music
Thanksgiving is all about gratitude, and I want to take a moment to say thanks for all the music in the world.  Thanks to all the musicians, singer/songwriters, and recording artists who are busy making music so us writers can benefit.

Today, you might enjoy making a selection of music for your book's soundtrack.  Burn a CD for yourself or create a playlist on your computer, phone, or ipod or ipad when you're done. 

I recommend playing your soundtrack while you're writing, especially when you need to switch over to image and emotion.  Try choosing specific tracks to help you "see" your scenes and characters a bit differently.
You may find, as I did, the unexpected gifts your soundtrack brings to your book.


  1. I'm usually one who likes quiet when I write, but I enjoyed the post and made me think differently about music as I write. Thank you.

  2. it's an interesting exercise, Lynn--hope you try it!