Write Me a Symphony, Play Me a Story

The other day I was talking with a writer friend about writing. What ELSE would two writers be talking about? Anyway, he had me read a page of his writing because he wanted my opinion on it. At one point I said that writing fiction is almost like writing music (nonfiction writers will most likely say what I’m about to opine also applies to them as well, and I will not dispute them), in that you must have a good ear for sound so that your writing flows and moves with a certain rhythm. You must infuse your fiction with musicality.

Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking more about how fiction writing relates to music. Every one knows that poets use rhythm to create a sense of movement through their poems. Even in non-rhyming free poetry, the poet still has to ensure that the words work together in harmony.

I would venture to say that writing fiction operates in the same on several different levels. What are the basic parts of music after all? (I googled these elements so if some of them are wrong – blame the Internet. Also, I know pretty much nothing about music theory so I am interpreting these elements as a complete ignoramus on the subject):

Beat and Meter – in other words rhythm and the different phases or progressions of rhythm. This certainly applies to fiction writing. Think about the overall pace of your story. Is it fast, a la parts of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” or a classic Fall Out Boy hit? Or does it unwind in a languorous stretch of language along the lines of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or “Yesterday” by the Beatles? Your story doesn’t stay with one pace for its entirety. That’s where meter comes in. Different sections can have varying paces. Don’t confuse this with tempo, another musical term. I’m not sure you can apply tempo to fiction as it refers to how fast you physically play the piece. If anyone else can see how that applies, I’m all ears!

Dynamics – apparently these are abbreviations that indicate the loudness or softness of a piece. I don’t normally hear the terms “loud” and “soft” used when describing fiction. But, if you think about it dynamics do apply: “soft” could mean understated, restrained, or romantic prose while loud could refer to stories that are sharp, terse, expletive-ridden, or about raucous subject matter. *Shrug* seems pretty open.

Melody – this is the tune or “song” in a piece of music. When I think of melody, I always think of that soul-shivering one from Beethoven’s 9th, “Ode to Joy.” Depending on your point of view as a writer, this could refer to either plot or characters. Or, I guess you could say it is the convergence of plot and characters. Me personally, I would stick with characters. I say that because it is the characters in a piece who stay relatively constant. Personal evolutions aside, your protagonist(s)/antagonist(s) are going to remain within the story, giving it life and movement, from start to finish (unless you’re George R.R. Martin and delight in killing off your main characters like the Queen of Hearts).

Harmony – the supportive group of notes underlying the melody. Hello, theme! The theme of a story is its backbone. It ties the moving pieces of the story together into a unified whole. While the theme in a piece of fiction should not be consciously thought out and written like the harmony in a piece of music, it is essential to have a theme so that your story, you know, MEANS something. So the characters aren’t just shambling around doing stuff for no reason.

Texture – the layers in a piece of music. This is one of the big ways music and fiction connect. Like a symphony, a well-crafted novel employs subplots, background information, foreshadowing, etc. to present a complex story full of suspense and emotion.

Timbre – I don’t trust myself to paraphrase this definition so I will quote from Espie Estrella, “Also known as tone color; it refers to the quality of sound that distinguishes one voice or instrument from another. Timbre may range anywhere from dull to lush, from dark to bright (such as the sound of glockenspiels).” Each character in your story needs to have a distinct and individual voice. NO STOCK CHARACTERS! Even secondary characters need to be unique and have enough impact on the story to justify their presence.

I couldn’t really think of clever ways to connect “key” or “pitch” so I will leave those alone.

My friend asked me how a writer improves his/her musicality. I told him a) Read ALOT and read a variation of authors and b) talent. Like a good musician, a good writer simply has an ear for sound. I am not sure how many great writers are also decent to good singers or musicians. I would be interested to see a study on that. My gut tells me there is a connection, but I have no way of knowing or proving that all talented writers also possess the ability (if not always the skill or knowledge) to produce passable sounds, vocally or on an instrument.

If you still doubt there is a connection between writing good fiction and music, I challenge you get an audiobook of a really good piece of literature (one that has a talented reader). Alan Rickman reading Return of the Native is a good example (although, that man could read instructions on how to install a toilet and I would be sweating and breathing heavily), or Donna Tartt reading True Grit.

Anyway, that’s my thesis on fiction and music. Bye, Bye now.

2 thoughts on “Write Me a Symphony, Play Me a Story

  1. Great analogy – it’s something I’m aware of when I write, without necessarily giving too much over to the mechanics of it. And yes, good shout on Alan Rickman!


    • Thanks Darren 🙂 I know I’m not the first person to make this connection, but the more I thought about it the more I wanted to kind of work out just how similar they are. And you’re right, it’s never good to over-think it. When you do, the story starts sounding fake and self-conscious. Long live Alan Rickman!


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