A wiseman once said, “Okay, give me the bag and I’ll wait here until you get back.” However, wisdom is subjective and he’s now serving 5-10 in Attica. My point? I just told you. Wisdom is subjective, so don’t take all the advice you hear as gospel. Except when I’m giving advice. Well, if I’m giving it on writing. If I were slinging advice about physics, things might be different. If you were to ask my advice about nuclear fission, you would probably end up in a melted house with a five-headed cat. However, today my advice is on writing, and to be specific, sounds.
I’ve read tons of writing articles, and many about the importance of using the five senses in one’s prose. Yes, readers need to touch things in the story, to see things in the story, to smell things in the story, to taste things in the story, and finally, to hear things in the story.
Sound may be the most important part of writing, because it’s the one sense, besides sight, that a writer can use to compete with a movie. Neither book nor movie can make a reader or viewer smell and taste. However, movies are big on sound, and any writer who fails to utilize sound to their fullest advantage is losing readers.
Clever writers know how to adjust the sound for writing. For instance, in a movie, the viewer may hear someone roll up the window of their car with the touch of a button. How does a writer compete with that? James Lee Burke used the line, “The car’s window hummed back up.” A lesser writer may have written, “The car’s window went back up,” or “He rolled up the car’s window.” However, Burke wanted the reader to hear the electric hum of an automatic window being rolled up, and the reader experienced it as surely as if he had been watching a movie.
However, movies also get to use music to create mood. Why, there are even soundtracks featuring songs used in movies. Too few writers utilize music to their advantage when considering the sense of sound. If certain scenes in TV and movies stand out in your mind because of the song used in the background, use the same technique in your writing.
Consider your story a screenplay, and you’re the director adding the music. I don’t know who decided to use “Stuck In the Middle with You” during the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, but it had a hell of an effect on the scene. To this day, when I hear that song I see knives, gasoline, and a flicked match.
Songs can appear anywhere you want. If a character jumps into a getaway car, why have the scene go like this?
He just made it into the car as it peeled out and burned rubber down the street.
Add some music:
He dove into the car’s passenger side, the vehicle fishtailing down the street, “Run Through the Jungle” blaring through its speakers. Now the reader has both the rhythm of the writing and the beat of the song. In fact, they don’t even have to know the Creedence classic to know that a song called “Run Through the Jungle” during a getaway scene is probably a badass song.
Far too often, a character will walk into a “noisy” bar with “loud music playing on the jukebox.” I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. What song hits the character when he opens the barroom door? If you pick the right song, your reader will have the perfect backdrop for the upcoming action…or non action if you choose a melancholy song for a sad scene.
You don’t need to be in a car or bar, or anywhere in particular to add music to your scene. A particular song can just start playing in a character’s head during the scene. How many times have you been in a situation, and then a certain song apropos of the setting pops into your head?
Don’t deprive your reader of one of the greatest tools in a writer’s toolbox; music! Oh, and don’t fret over copyrights. If you’re just referencing the title of the song and composer, you don’t need any rights. A snippet of lyrics should be okay, as well. In fact, don’t worry about lawsuits until you start selling like Stephen King, and if you’re doing that, the stress will be worth it. Trust me, I’m a wise man.