Every writer has a trick. A secret short cut to hack their brains and tap into the creative juices that help their fingers fly across the keyboard or their pen scratch across the page and frees the characters and stories into the real world.
Mine just happens to be music.
I've always loved telling stories through different mediums, and a well cultivated and structured playlist is a way to do just that. I took a lot of notes from High Fidelity when it comes to creating the perfect playlist, and I like to think that I use that power for good, and not evil, when it comes to structuring stories and fleshing out characters.
During the initial phases of story planning, even before the first word is tapped out on the screen -- I usually have already made a full book playlist. Certain songs are the soundtracks to certain scenes. Certain bands or artists just have the right "voice" to match with a character. And there's always that one instrumental track that carries the emotional heart of the manuscript.
The process of musical playlist storytelling often means applying the principles of the basic three act plot structure to your song choice. Don't believe me?
THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE: IN SONG FORM
Things start out good -- you've got groovy, feel-good music playing. You're setting the scene. Maybe there's a little romance, maybe something a little dramatic or upbeat. It's all intriguing and filled with hooks and rhythm.
And then the darkness descends. The struggle, the conflict -- the music turns a little eerie and twisted. There's conflict and struggle. And when it finally seems as if all hope is lost -- the HOPE TRACK EMERGES. Something REALLY emotionally punchy and inspirational. And then you hit 'em with some smooshy love jams, dotted with more inspirational tracks. A few weird or quirky bits because you're coming to the finale.
Finally, FINALLY you tack on the banger/bad-ass track to the end -- the one that wraps up the whole emotional journey in a neat little bow and carries your listeners out with a sense of comfort and ease. Life is tricky baby, but it will all be OK in the end.
HOW TO MAKE IT HAPPEN
This process evolved over time with the writing of the three books for the Metal Heart trilogy. The first draft of Metal Heart came before the official playlist, but Radiohead was ALWAYS lurking in the background. And with Radiohead serving as the emotional lynchpin, everything sprang out from there.
As I *hopefully* got better at writing books, I also evolved in my ability to map out the music that inspires them.
1. Pick your instrumental/emotional track
This is going to be the bedrock foundation of not only your playlist, but of the whole damn story itself. Every time you push play on this track, the entire heart of the story should unfurl before you and you should FEEL THAT SURGE OF EMOTION. The passion and drive to tell this story is buried deep in the music and lyrics and it should inspire you to write. This track is your lighthouse in the storm, the true north of your story. Love and cherish it and listen to it as often as you need to in order to feeling inspired and emotionally connected to your writing.
2. Pick your scenes
This *might* require you to know just what those scenes are -- this is best done when you have some semblance of an outline or at least a one page synopsis of your story and know the general direction of where it's going. For Rosita -- I know I needed music to heist to. I knew the crew would be stealing money so the early version of the playlist featured that theme -- money, stealing, robbing -- quite heavily.
3. Pick your characters
Once you have the main book playlist sussed out, you can start to use individual playlists to explore the emotional interiority of your characters. I usually character build and create character playlists in tandem. I start to sketch out who the character is on paper and then I find songs to match their moods. This process of weeding through character-related songs also helps me find the one true artist whose music reflects the soul of that character.
Once you have selected all the elements of a solid playlist: your "theme song," your pivotal "scenes," and your "main characters" -- you should be well on your way to constructing an instant mood/brain shifter/booster that can help you immerse yourself in the music of the story that you've either yet to craft, already crafted, or are in the middle of re-crafting.
For me, and likely a lot of you, writing is an emotional process that can be tricky to turn on and off, even though I'm often required to do so because of my various life responsibilities. Having these songs playing in the background helps bypass that transitional phase and quickly delve right back into the interior of the story.
It's not a trick guaranteed to work for everyone. But for those of us who utilize this trick? It's so, so important to the process.
And guess what? You can check out many of my book related playlists on my Spotify profile. What do you think? Does music help or hinder your writing process? Why or why not?
Other Writer's Block Strategies
After decades of only having a vague idea of a story and then diving in to the novel writing process with little to no planning on my part -- I've evolved into a more refined writing creature. Somewhat. Not even really by choice. Heh.
I've had the bones of a new WIP rattling around in my head for the last few months and decided this week to sit down and actually structure it before a single "word" ever hit the page. I might have had about ten pages of notes already written. Maybe. Mostly because this book features heists and heists require planning. So writing a heist book naturally ALSO requires much more planning than I'm used to.
To that end, I dusted off my copy of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and created two writing tools that have been incredibly helpful in outlining my next book.
THREE ACT BEAT SHEET
One of them is a Three Act Beat Sheet (in table form) complete with demarcations for each section and descriptions of what should be included. It works for my brain, and hopefully it will be useful for yours! I should mention that Jessica Brody also has beat sheets available on her website as well.
The most important aspect of any main character is what they want and how their desires and actions effect the story. That hasn't always come easily to me (I usually come up with the concept before the character want), so in plotting out my current manuscript, it felt really important to fully know and understand who my main character is and how their flaws and desires will wreak havoc on everything and everyone around them. You know, the good stuff.
So I created another Character Sheet (in table form). It's primarily for the main character, but any good story features more than one character with their own unique motivations, so it's a good tool for understanding any character you're writing.
Now fill these tables out and get to writing! ;)
Melinda Jasmine Crouchley, YA science fiction author and professional editor.