The Influence of the Arts on my Writing (pt. 3b)
What music can impart on the written word 2/2
The syntax of storytelling in music
Music has so many useful analogies that writers can borrow in order to make their writing better. I’m only presenting a few here that immediately come to mind and that influence my writing the most.
Flow in music is what enables you to tap your foot to the beat, but is also embodied by the notes and chords in the melody that tell a story around the beats. A good example is jazz improvisers, the best of which demonstrate how to keep the flow of the beat and melody going no matter what note gets played.
The opposite of flow in music is sputtering.
Sputtering and involuntary slowdowns happen when there’s confusion, hesitation, and doubt. I don’t drive much, but it’s like approaching a terrible pothole you can’t avoid. Dread accumulates. You approach with closing eyes, prematurely wincing in anticipation of a bad crash. You may or may not crash, but the sputtering has already happened. Flow is interrupted.
Flow in writing is to keep the larger picture always in mind at all scales. The inter-relationships between words, sentences, paragraphs and sections are paramount and must be well-negotiated. Some things to pay attention to:
pacing of information; not too shallow, not too deep
the legibility of the journey you are bringing your reader along; light the path, leave plenty of breadcrumbs, and do not save all your best stuff for last (unless you’re a mystery novel)
no jarring switches, flip-flops and u-turns (unless you are very intentionally doing this for a greater effect)
no such thing as filler parts; every part needs a job in pushing the story. Boring parts create friction in flow.
I put huge emphasis on flow in my writing. Conceptual, rhythmic, emotional, vibey flow. Flow is so important that it can cause me to abort a piece of writing.
Crescendo and climax
Crescendos. It’s a very common and effective musical effect that is easiest described as the gradual increase in power. At the top level of power lies *cue dramatic low pitch voice* …the climax.
Crescendos are like wayfinding. They point the way to the climax: the most important local point on the map. Dramatic crescendos are present in both classical music as well as electronic music. It’s a very pleasant effect because it offers the conditions for prolonged gratification over and over again.
When I write and keep crescendo in mind, I am mindful of always starting with simple relatable things. During the crescendo, the gap widens between familiar and unfamiliar terrain, and the writer has to give the reader the sense of FOMO so they choose to follow along for the rest of the reading journey.
Yes, FOMO. Don’t feel bad about it. Just feel bad that you didn’t know about this killer trick before I just invented it now 😂
Staccato as short sentences. Legato as long rambling ones.
Learning a bit more Italian: Staccato is to play something as short and crisp as possible, while Legato is to play notes as smoothly connected as possible.
They’re great for paragraph-scale articulation. In a paragraph, there can be a section where you want to emphasize the many qualities of an item. Hit them with a series of words to drive a point home. For example: it’s size. Shape. Strength. Power. Or, bring them deep into your thoughts as you describe the chaotic environment in your head, how one hunch can lead to another tangent which can seem completely offside for a while but in reality you can use the effect of a long sentence to bring the user around a longwinded orbit and unexpectedly end up in a similar place to where you started.
Harmonies are so powerful in music. It’s what gives Bohemian Rhapsody its full sound. I think of it as bandwidth, as in how much meaningful oomph can you inject into a musical moment without it becoming just plain loud or muddled sound?
Writing can increase its bandwidth by presenting contextual content that complements the main subject. While music widens the bandwidth by playing different instruments in harmonies, writing can do the same by presenting contextual content like culture, symbolism and discourse of a subject. And some authors do it really really well.
Full bandwidth music = orchestra, anthems, acapella
Full bandwidth writing = Maria Popova, David Foster Wallace, J. R. R. Tolkien
Thanks for reading all the way through 😊 Please remember that all of these rules can be broken in the name of creating the desired effect in your writing.
A long rambling sentence can show the messy and chaotic thinking of a character.
Using obscure words on purpose can be code to a certain audience that you understand them.
If you have a "fall asleep to me rambling about something" ASMR channel, you may want to forget about crescendos and climax.
If you are a writer, did any of these insights resonate with you? Which one and why?
Give the letter a 💖 if you like it, and I’ll see you next week!
I’ve really been enjoying these posts, there is definitely a lot of parallels between something such as music and writing
Great insight as usual! For my writing (mainly poetry) I try to keep it simple and to the point. Some poems are way too vague for me to grasp but then, it is probably much appreciated by other people. It's all a matter of preference.