Words and music

This week I’m underlining the link between music and the written word, mainly by the shameless use of other peoples’ words to prove my point.

Music and words have in common that they are both made of small separate parts that can be placed together in a variety of ways to produce a greater whole, one that reveals meaning and emotion to the listener or reader.

But it’s not only poetry that has a rhythm or musical, melodic features. Prose whether  fiction or non-fiction makes use of rhythm and even tempo to draw in the reader, whether it be repeated use of phrases or words to prove a point in a speech or a polemic article or essay, or whether it is a deliberate use of stylistic elements to lull the reader into a certain mood or to create tension and dramatic emphasis.

But don’t take my word for it, let’s hear from some notable people much better equipped to comment than me.

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words, and that which cannot remain silent. Victor Hugo

Okay, true he has just unproved my point there but bear with me. He created a link between words and music and the emotional power each of them seek to demonstrate.

And those who were seen dancing were thought insane by those who could not hear the music. Friedrich Nietzsche

We all dance to our own (unheard) music, at least, I hope we do, inside if not actual dancing. But I believe it’s true that as a reader it’s hard to completely capture the author’s vision, and as an author, it’s hard to put onto the page in concrete terms something you’ve only glimpsed in a dream. Not everyone will hear your music.

Most people die with their music still locked up inside them. Benjamin Disraeli

Don’t be one of these people! I think creative expression of all kinds can only enhance and beautify an otherwise difficult life. Reading—and listening to music—promotes good mental health, stimulates creativity, positivity, intelligence, compassion, socialisation and arguably conversation. So it’s a good thing to surround yourself with artistic endeavours and to enjoy them.

Here are a few more, in case you still need convincing. Read books, listen to music and prosper, as Mr Spock probably would have said if a writer had given him those lines.

It is always fatal to have music or poetry interrupted. George Eliot: Middlemarch

Poetry, plays, novels, music, they are the cry of the human spirit trying to understand itself and make sense of our world. Laura Malone Elliott: Annie Between the States

A fine work of art – music, dance, painting, story – has the power to silence the chatter in the mind and lift us to another place. Robert McKee: Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

If you were music, I would listen to you ceaselessly, and my low spirits would brighten up. Anna Akhmatova: The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea. Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy

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In Media Res – don’t start at the beginning!

This is an old blog post I’m recycling due to having had a conversation with several people lately about the right place to start a story.

In Media Res

For a writer it can be a bit tricky to know where to start your story. Whether you are writing a mystery, a children’s novel, a family saga, or a paranormal romance, you often feel a need to tell the whole story. This can mean beginning far too early. You tell the reader in painstaking detail that your protagonist got up, had a shower, got dressed, had breakfast, went to work and that it was a day just like any other. Maybe you talk about how the steam fogs up the bathroom mirror and then describe the colour of her nail polish as she wipes it away, or you describe the pattern made by her cereal as it drifts around in the milk, and how that reminds her of the time when…

But there is a better way… What you could do, is to start in the middle of things. In Media Res. Begin your story right there in the middle of the action. Let your reader meet your protagonist at the crossroads where everything begins to happen, or change, when something new is coming. We don’t want to meet them a year before it happens. Or even a day before. The action is what will make or break your main character, and it will make or break your story. The first time I meet your protagonist, I want to meet him crouched and panting in a dark alley, his heart in his mouth, in constant expectation of hearing a footstep, wondering if they have found him.

Or, let’s meet her for the first time as she comes down the stairs in the dark and falls over the dead body. Show me how she raises a bloody hand in the candlelight. Or show me the new kid’s first day at school when he has to walk past everyone to reach his seat. Or maybe the new baby has got sick and a nervous young dad has to beg a lift to get to the doctor’s surgery in t he next town. Or let me see the moon rising behind darkling clouds as I hear the sound of a werewolf baying for blood. 

Let me see your protagonist as they step on the brake at the top of the hill and discover the brakeline has been cut; let me watch as they career perilously ever closer to the wall or lumber-truck or cliff edge and their apparently unavoidable doom.

Cut to the chase. Literally.

No more lengthy introductory scenes a la Proust, unless you are Proust. No more stage dressing. Does the audience arrive to see the rehearsal? No, they only arrive for the main event. Don’t bother to tell your reader what your character had for breakfast unless that’s what killed them.

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