In my latest novel Death Troupe, the play’s gruff director Jerome Barron gives some advice to his playwright, main character Jack Glynn:
“Do me a favor, Jack. Get yourself a nice set of headphones and listen to a few classical tunes. Pick something that really hits you, that gets your blood going or the tears flowing, anything you like as long as it’s got a lot of different instruments.
“Here’s why I say that: While you’re listening, shut your eyes and try to pick out some of the moments when the song’s building, like where an oboe hops in or a fife flutters a few notes and then disappears. Be honest with yourself, and ask if you ever noticed those things before. Then go back and listen for the big moments, those soaring, sweeping passages where you feel like your heart’s going to explode in expectation.
“And after that, start writing. Write this play like a composer. I’ve always said that the best members of this troupe came from musicals, and I stand by that. To do what we do, you gotta be able to hear the music—even when it isn’t there.” (Death Troupe, 2011)
I have a modest background in music, having played saxophone in two championship-winning bands (one marching, one jazz) back in high school. And as a writer, I’ve been impressed many times with the similarities between the things we did in those bands and the things I currently do.
The high points of a story, like the high notes of a song, don’t just suddenly appear. Both compositions build toward those moments, and in most cases they’re easily distinguishable from the rest of the work. Just as the high points in music can be signified by increased tempo and louder volume, the big moments in writing are sometimes identified by faster pacing and intensified action.
That doesn’t mean the passages between these peaks (the valleys, so to speak) are merely filler. They serve more than one purpose, in that they convey the readers or listeners from one peak to the next while holding their attention and advancing the overall work. In novels, subplots and backstories frequently populate these valleys in much the same way as the supporting instruments of an orchestral piece.
So take a page out of Death Troupe and listen to a little music before you start writing or when you’re on a break. Movie soundtracks are particularly good for this exercise, and many of them are available on YouTube.
As Jerome Barron observes later in the book, the similarities between orchestral groups and theater troupes shouldn’t be all that surprising: After all, they’re both led by a Director. The same thing goes for writing, except that the composer, the playwright, the novelist, and the overall Director are one individual: You.