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Every Chapter is a Song

Every Chapter is a Song

Stories with music woven into their fabric have carried many different labels over the years; my personal favorite is “musical fiction.” Still, it can be a struggle to describe stories like Believe in Me and Never Break the Chain in a way that truly captures how central music is to the lives of their characters. I’m perfectly happy to throw around terms like “musical fiction”—not to mention the more musical-genre-specific “rock novels”—but for the last decade I’ve also been calling them stories “infused with music.”

Isolated open book

“Infused with music” resonates with me because it captures both of the senses in which I aim to incorporate music into stories.

The first is literal. The characters in Believe in Me and Never Break the Chain narrator Tim Green’s world eat, breathe, and live music. For most of them, listening to, talking about, and/or making music is as essential a part of their existence as air and water. And even when they aren’t actively engaged with it, music infiltrates key moments in their lives in ways that underscore how important it is to them. When perpetually intense Stormseye drummer Seth Lamiroult tells Tim Green “I just want to play, man,” he’s sharing his innermost truth. When Tim and Malcolm Saunders listen to music on the entire drive from Malibu to Big Sur and back—four hours each way—it’s not just to pass the time. It’s because for them, music is a vehicle for connection.

The second is more metaphorical. I enjoy a lot of different styles of writing, from the stripped-down prose of Robert B. Parker to the big-hearted warmth of Anne Lamott to the hyper-verbal exuberance of Michael Chabon. What all of the writing that truly gets under my skin has in common, though, is that the writing itself is infused with music. It pays attention to the sounds of words and the rhythm and cadence of sentences and paragraphs. It orchestrates on the fly, building and falling back, repeating choruses for emphasis and pausing for solos.

From an audience perspective, writing, like music, can both reflect and affect your mood. Sometimes you want the reliable four-on-the-floor backbeat of a sturdy rock song. Sometimes you’re jonesing for a blues ballad, sultry and pointed. Sometimes you crave power pop, fizzy and punchy. And sometimes you’re hungry for some jazz—maybe not free jazz, unless you’re writing poetry—but a good hard bop with a swing that sets your toes tapping.  And so on.

The point is, language is inherently musical. (Want to know where opera came from? Sit on a park bench in any city in Italy and just listen.)

That means you need to pay attention to the arrangement you’re creating as you write. If you don’t, your rhythm section could get out of sync with the instruments playing the melody, or the player who’s clamoring for a solo might bust into the middle of a verse and wreck it. That might be the effect you’re going for, and that’s okay—the important thing is to listen carefully to the music at the heart of your story. Every word is a note, every scene is a verse, every chapter is a song.

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