Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Story is a Song

Greetings, fellow castaways!

I was listening to some music the other day and it hit me. I was really getting into the piece that was playing at the time, and when the next piece came on, it just punctuated my epiphany.

So pardon me if you already got this, but it's a big thing to me. A story is like a song.

The music I was listening to was from Rush's album Moving Pictures, specifically YYZ and The Camera Eye:

It's a challenge for a songwriter to create an audio panting in one's brain. There must be breaks, changes, segues, alterations to keep one's brain stimulated and interesting. This is especially true when there are extended instrumental passages like the pieces I mentioned above, and I hope you checked out the links to see what I mean. If not, feel free.

As writers, we also want to vary things through our stories to create the same kind of stimulus. We vary the pace by creating slower passages and breaks in tension. We tease by only revealing our world a little at a time. We drop cliffhangers and hooks in your visual path, making connections between your eyes and brain in the same way a musician creates a connection between your ear and your brain. And I think we're stimulating many of the same areas.

We may open with a mind-blowing chase or a fight, or with a slow, easy introduction to a day in the life of our main character. But sooner or later, things have to change. The tension must be either ramped up, or spooled down. New elements need to be brought in. The pace has to change.

Sean McMullen's novel The Centurion's Empire  is an excellent example.

The story begins in a storm on the Mediterranean Sea and a shipwreck that leaves our main character awash on a far shore. McMullen goes from there to a mysterious chamber in another land, where ancient, timeless beings have been watching our young centurion for their own end. The pace actually stays pretty slow for the first half of the book, but McMullen teases is with so many loose ends, we're dying to find out how they all fit together.

Then, when they do come together, he ramps up the pace and tension to a blood-pumping pace with international chase scenes, high-tech weapons and clever spy-gags that officially have us hooked. The pace continues in this rapid pace until the characters force a slow-down and a revelation that literally made me point at the page and say, "I never  saw that coming!"

The main reason I picked that particular book as an example, is that the author staggers the pace and does things in such a different way, it seems to go against what we've become used to in a book. He uses so many different tools and techniques, and brings them all together, bending them to his will like a composer for a complex music piece.

And the thing is, if any piece isn't doing its job, the whole suffers. If Alex Lifeson puts his guitar down and walks off to the nearest pub letting Geddy and Neil carry the tune, folks would surely notice.

So, as writers, this may come as a challenge, to look at your work in a new way, to create prose that slides through your reader's brain not like a lyric, but as a bass line. Make your scenery a drum beat. Make your characters the lead solos that give us the melody.

And if you're a reader, look for these elements in your favorite book, so when you come to that special part, you hear the story's own special song in your mind, and come away with a new appreciation for your entire library.

See you next week.

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