On Choosing the Right Soundtrack

Last time was pretty serious. Well, maybe not serious–maybe more like incredibly straight forward and academic. And <em>boring.</em>

So I thought I’d get a little loose this time—talk about something I like, with the stipulation that I tell you at least twice that it’s something I like.

And that would be assigning a soundtrack for my stories.

Now, before you navigate away, I should specify a few things. Firstly, I use the term “soundtrack” loosely—more on that in a bit. Secondly, I do believe that if you don’t already do this, it can actually help your writing. Thirdly, that is as long as you do it… in moderation.

Firstly, Not Really a Soundtrack

I’m a weird guy when it comes to music (at least). I’m admittedly terrible with actual, normal music; I honestly would not be able to name a single Led Zeppelin song for you. And at the same time, no, I also would not be able to name a Katy Perry song for you—I defy genres and generations with my musical ignorance.

However, I can hear five seconds of original soundtrack from two rooms away, come over, and, without even looking at the television it’s coming from, tell you, “Jurassic Park. The scene when Grant and the kids are climbing over the wire fence. That track is called ‘High Wire Stunts’.”

I’ll go right on to immediately add that I know this is a problem.

However, what I want to specify immediately is that my goal here is not to make that your problem; I’m absolutely not suggesting that you compile a detailed and complete soundtrack. Aside from the fact that it would be incredibly hard to find music that matches all of your scenes and all matches the same tone, it would just be a huge waste of time.

Because, let’s be real—if you compiled a soundtrack worthy of worldwide distribution… who are you showing that to? How are you planning to use it? I don’t want to assume you don’t get it, but this leads right into how you should think of your “soundtrack”—basically, as a writing tool.

I’ll lead with an example: here’s a part of my soundtrack (and yes, it’s more Castlevania). But immediately, let me point out a few things:

1) This song is the theme for an abandoned gallery my characters find at one point. But not all of the song is the gallery’s theme—more like everything but 1:32-2:02 or any other part where it gets insanely Castlevania…y). Those organ solos don’t fit the tone of my story at all.

2) Regardless, there is no point where the piano portion of this song could actually play anywhere in my story; in an animated or live-action version of my story, there just honestly would not be enough suitable time in that gallery.

3) I would also absolutely never write to this song or even reread my work while listening to it; it’s just too distracting.

So how exactly do I use this song at all? Before I write any scenes in the gallery. When I’m thinking about the gallery—how it looks and sounds. When I need to figure out an aspect of it. When I want to remember how it feels to stand in it.

And that means that, like the rest of my “soundtrack,” that song is a kind of personal tool that’s detached from my writing in every way an actual soundtrack shouldn’t be. And that’s what I’m suggesting; that you find whole songs, parts of songs—maybe even clips that are only seconds long—that you compile as writing tools, not expressly as a playlist. And not even expressly music; this is what I played for the weeks it took me to get through chapters 10 and 11, and having this, looped, helped to a degree that’s embarrassing to admit.

Secondly, How This Can Actually Help

Consider what I said last week about assigning a theme song for your characters. I explained that, in my mind, a theme song is a perfect way to hone what you know about your characters. If you can find the right one, they can serve as beautiful, simple summaries of your characters and, when necessary, remind you who the character is and what they’re going through. And if you manage to keep the theme from changing your character, they serve as a great way to hone your understanding of a character.

Well, add to that the idea that your scenes and settings (for the sake of simplicity) are characters. At the very least, they share similar traits; setting can (and should) have a tone. A scene can have a certain mood. A location can and should convey a story, if only briefly and subtly. A cave can be small and close, warm from the fresh fire at its center, where a friend looks up from their book as you enter. Or the fire could be dead, the air acrid with the stench of the charred cook pot hanging over it, your friend’s chair overturned, the man himself missing. In any of those cases, a song used as reference always helps you to find the words that match that tone.

In the case of the example I gave above, the song for the gallery, it’s full of the exact kind of muted, drowned beauty that embodies that setting to me. It easily helps me remember everything about it, from the wet gray color of the gallery’s walls to the sad, sunlit half-silence of it.

I suppose the simplest way to say this is, if you’ve never tried using a song as inspiration, you should absolutely give it a shot. I believe that you can create awesome characters without assigning a theme, but I think having reference music for your scenes is borderline essential.

Thirdly, Be Casual About It

I’m a firm believer that any extra work that’s meant to supplement your writing can eventually hurt it instead. I want to say, “excepts for like, making up a custom language for your world.” But even in that case… if you’ve spent ten years perfecting that custom language … that’s probably not helping your stories in the long run. Particularly because, if you’re like me, you’re an amateur; we don’t have the luxury of spending years honing any one detail because, honestly, the point at which we should’ve been writing—and letting that experience dictate how we refine our worlds—is always. If we spent the majority of our time working on a language or compiling a detailed soundtrack, it would be like someone calling out of work to spend the day sorting their pennies. Probably a horrible comparison, but my overall point is that actually taking time out of a writing session to hunt down relevant tracks? Not a good idea. Using any time that you could spend writing to instead find the perfect pairing for your campfire scene? Not better than just taking a shot at writing that scene.

What I’m saying is, the best way to handle this soundtrack business is to put the entire idea in the back of your mind—not out of mind, but somewhere easily recalled—while you watch movies, play video games, or pretty much do anything. You should take from this the idea to listen to what you hear with the background knowledge that you can apply anything to your writing. Maybe that sounds a little bizarre, being ready to relate everything you hear to your stories.

But, honestly, that’s writing 101. If you haven’t started insanely thinking of everything in relation to some plot you’ve been working on, well, there’s no time like the present to go the writing-appropriate amount of crazy.

All kidding aside, you are a writer. Either you’re sitting here thinking, “I already do this,” or you should be.

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