When I took part in NaNoWriMo 2007 one of the things that helped me through the novel that I ended up with was listening to movie soundtracks as I typed.
I hadn’t long been buying soundtracks and only had a small collection. Whilst it was all really good music, none of it fit with my style of writing.
Then one day I heard a piece of music from the movie Transformers called ‘Arrival on Earth’. Thirty minutes of sampling the rest of the tracks on that album and I went ahead and downloaded the whole damn thing.
I started to get a real liking for the atmosphere created by listening to this and similar soundtracks. It helped me block out distractions like people in other rooms or noises from the outside world. And with no lyrics it meant I couldn’t be distracted by humming along or singing to the good bits (which I never do, honest).
I found myself drawn to a lot of Hans Zimmer as well as some of his contemporaries. At first I was worried that listening to the music from movies I loved would just cause me to subconsciously repeat too much of the movies themselves. I worried that all I’d end up with was pure plagiarism.
But it didn’t happen like that. Instead I found that it just brought out more drama in my scenes and my ideas. Chase scenes felt more like chase scenes. Fight scenes felt more like fight scenes.
And so it continued.
What happened next was more important though. I found that I could listen to soundtracks at times when I wasn’t writing, like going for a walk with my son or doing the washing up. During these times I would picture certain scenes from various projects or create my own movie trailers for my novels.
Certain beats in the tracks I listened to would cause me to suddenly introduce a character into a scene because the music had changed to a slightly different theme. Other times the music would slow right down and maybe drop everything except violins. This would make me ponder if the character in the scene would stop and prepare themselves or realise something important at a critical moment.
I’ve always been aware of the power that music plays in movies as well as movie trailers. Personally I’m a sucker for music that starts soft before building up, bringing in more instruments and heading towards a crescendo of raw power. You know the trailers, the ones that have a lot of slow fades during the first half but switch to jump cut after jump cut as the action ramps up.
I recently used the music of Two Steps From Hell (like Immediate and ES Posthumus they create music to be used in movie trailers – you’d be surprised by how many you might recognise) to re plan books two and three from my [Project Death] trilogy.
It was pure chance that I was thinking about these novels at the same time as the three pieces of music played in the order they did. It’s hard to explain but after playing the music over and over for about half an hour I had three ‘trailers’ in my head and a lot of key moments to the stories than I had written down in my notes.
I now treat these like little audio notes and am able to remember it all again in really good detail just by listening to the required tracks. It was fluke but I guess we won’t see if it worked until I release the trilogy.
And so I plan to continue. Whenever I sit down to write or to plan I always go straight to soundtracks in my i-pod playlists and then let the music guide me to where I need the story to go.
What follows are my three favourite tracks and the key scenes that they have helped shape.
‘Fides en lucius dei’ -Immediate
(from the album Trailerhead)
[Project Death] NaNoWriMo 2007
This story’s climax revolves around the hero finally facing off against the villain in the centre of his home town. The only thing that divides them is a vicious sea of monsters out for blood. As the music slowly builds the hero begins to realise what he has to do and that he can still use his new found abilities to win this fight.
With rage building inside him he uses his weapon and cuts a swathe through the monsters before leaping into the air and straight at his enemy. In the original version of this scene the main character just walked down the empty high street while carrying out a verbal slanging match with the villain. It was boring.
The music builds in steps becoming louder and more intense. Key moments in the scene play out to key moments in the music; the sudden certainty, the run, the leap and finally the start of the final battle.
‘Molossus’ - Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
(from the soundtrack Batman Begins)
[Project Hero] NaNoWriMo 2009
With the heroes regrouped and ready to attack the villain’s base of operation I struggled to get a real scale of a small team of super powered beings attacking an island.
With ‘Molossus’ I was able to build up a picture of each member of the team being to sneak further inland until, one by one, they came up against resistance and were forced to fight. At the time this was the only piece I had downloaded from the Batman Begins soundtrack but, putting it on repeat and rewriting the scene in one evening I was able to build it up into an epic attack where no one held back.
I especially like the break about three and a half minutes in when things die down for a couple of seconds which pushed me into putting a breather into the fight, a moment when the heroes think they’ve beaten back the enemy forces only to discover the real threat waiting for them once they reach the base.
‘Shard’ - Steve Jablonsky
(from the soundtrack Transformer: Revenge of the Fallen)
[Project Mind] NaNoWriMo 2010
This piece of music helped me plan a critical scene during the climax of the second act of [Project Mind]. The hero has been captured and his three comrades have just worked out the villain’s true plan. There is a specific point within the city they must get to quickly if they have any hope of stopping the bad guy.
The first version had all three of them travelling across the rooftops together. Occasionally they spoke as they got closer, building their plan of attack. But the route was a straight line and description got boring.
After listening to ‘Shard’ at work one day I thought up a new way to present it. The track shifts dramatically in style and it felt to me like three different ‘themes’ were racing each other to the finishing line. I decided that the three characters were not near each other at the beginning of the scene and that each had a different way of traveling.
One drove through the rush hour streets, horn beeping as they shouted at people to get out of the way. Another used his brute strength to run across the windows of skyscrapers, leading between buildings where necessary. The last kept his route across the rooftops but I put obstacles in his way.
Their paths crossed at times as the music changed and I used that to switch the POV. It makes for a much more dramatic and jaw dropping scene than three guys going for a rooftop jog.
And that’s how I’ve used music while writing. It might not work for everyone but then again it might be what you’re missing. Give it a go and find composers you like. Think about your novels while you’re out and about and having the music on your MP3 player. See if a soundtrack makes you rethink a scene or even an entire novel.
See you in seven
- Batman Begins Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
- Bourne Supremacy, The John Powell
- Fellowship of the Ring Howard Shore
- Inception Hans Zimmer
- Man of Steel Hans Zimmer
- Pirates of the Caribbean Klaus Badelt
- Requiem for a Dream Clint Mansell
- Star Wars: Episode III John Williams
- Transformers Steve Jablonsky
- Unbreakable James Newton Howard