The Song of the Counter-Intuitive
Every writer has their quirks, I think. Whether it be a constant supply of coffee chuckling blackly to itself beside them, or a place where the sunlight is perfect, or even, as Annie Wilkes suggests in Misery, a pair of handmade writing slippers, every writer has a gimmick of their own, perhaps even the smallest talisman or routine that greases the wheels of the writing process. A lot of writers need peace and quiet, absolute silence when they create, but it’s fair to say that most authors I’ve spoken to listen to music when they write, perhaps with the volume cranked up to its apex, rattling the kitchenware like a poltergeist, perhaps with their ears couched in the intimate embrace of an isolating pair of headphones. They listen to what they like, what relaxes them. They listen to what their characters like, or the music that’s playing in a particular scene. They listen to movie soundtracks, something that fits or sets the mood of the moments they’re creating.
I’ve done that, and sometimes it works, but I’ve found something else that works, too. Ones instinct is to listen to music that’s appropriate for a scene, the driving beats of a chase or a struggle, the sweeping strings of a romantic interlude. That works, but I’ve also found it useful to take a different approach, to think counter-intuitively about what music might accompany certain given moments.
To offer an example. I’ve a scene in a novel I’ve written where a character is confronted by a horribly twisted version of a deceased family member. Let’s give this character the entirely fake name of Steve, just in case the novel is ever sold, and someone reading this reads the novel and is like, “Hey, I know what happens in this part! Spoilers! This novel is DEAD to me!” (how’s that for writerly optimism?). Anyways, Steve is trapped with this apparition, and I’ve paced the scene very quickly, nice and terse, lots of breathless paragraphs as Steve’s scared companion tries to break into the room in which he’s trapped with something monstrous.
And it is monstrous. Like most Horror writers, I’m pretty proud of my twisted track record, proud of any moments I’ve written that have touched the reader with fear or disgust or dread. I’d like to think I’ve done a few of those, but this scene … it’s dark. It’s the darkest thing I’ve ever written, maybe. Hopefully, there’s a raw, visceral quality to it that’ll unsettle. There’s imagery, yes, but I don’t think that’s where the Horror comes from. I don’t think it comes from how the monster moves, or what it’s saying, or the terrible transformation that the dead family member seems to have undergone. I think the Horror of that particular moment comes from how heartbreaking it is for Steve to see what’s happened to someone so well-loved, so very missed. He’s terrified, yes, but if we’re playing a kind of psychological rock-paper-scissors game here, then in this instance heartbreak vanquishes terror, hands down.
And so the Horror is borne not from what Steve can see, but what he can feel, and what he feels is a terrible, empty grief, a moment that needs not a soundtrack of action, where there’s an apparition advancing and a concerned companion trying to break in fast enough to rescue him, but a sadder tune, one that reflects the core of the scene. That was the kind of music I listened to when I wrote it, and it seemed to give the sequence the tone that it needed.
I’d suggest giving it a try. Maybe you’re writing something and the words are flowing but the mood of the scene, the beating heart of it, is stuttering on the page. It might be because the coffee is cold, or the sunlight is fading, or even that your handmade writing slippers are pinching your toes, but it might be that your chosen music isn’t oiling the cogs of your imagination like it should.
It might be that you, and the moment your characters find themselves in, need a different song.
Roger Jackson lives in the United Kingdom, drinking tea and owning more Geeky tee-shirts than he will ever live long enough to wear, unless he lives forever, which is sort of the plan. He writes scary stories because he has to, and the most recent to scramble from the graveyard of his brain are the short story, “No-Man’s Land” in the Grey Matter Press anthology Equilibrium Overturned, and his novella, “Cradle Of The Dead” from BloodBound Books. Writing about himself in the third person really creeps him out.