I've been working on some original songs and music in the past few months, after shelving off that part of myself for almost a decade. It's been wonderful, both spritually and creatively. But it also got me thinking: writing and music really are very similar. Of course, all art forms are related, but I think there's a lot of parallels between music and writing.
What makes a song great and memorable? Is it the guitar solo? The chord progressions? The melodies? The lyrics? The performance? I'd have to say: It's all of the above. Take a classic song, You're So Vain, for example. I just heard it on the radio and caught myself saying, "Damn! That's such a great song." And not because I know the song, but because it really is very good. If I had heard it for the first time, I would have said the same thing. Damn, it's such a great song.
So why is it such a great song? Certainly the lyrics are just spectacular, especially the hook. "You're so vain, you think this song is about you. Don't you? Don't you?" How can we not love it? The message is simply awesome and so relatable. And it tells a story. -- the greatest songs in the world all tell stories. Then there's the melody, the ups and downs, twists and turns, and highs and lows just work together so well together to make up an extremely catchy melody and chorus. Then there's the production, musician arrangement, etc. They all work together so well. Not to mention Carly Simon's voice is just PERFECT for the song.
That's what makes a song GREAT.
So, what makes a great book? I'm thinking, it's the same thing. Let's see:
- Structure: All great music has structure, from symphonies to pop song. A great story also needs a great structure. People are structural animals, and structures make it easy for people to absorb and relate to the story. The classical Three Acts structure is there for a reason.
- Theme: Even if we don't think of themes when we write, eventually important, prevalent themes should emerge. Themes are what tie the whole thing together, to make it relevant to the readers on the high level. What is the story about? Good vs. evil? Redemption? Absolution? Themes not only make it easy to summarize the story, but they make the story so much more memorable.
- Tone and voice: Like a great song, the tone and voice of the instruments, arrangements and performances affect the song immensely. Who can ever forget Carly Simon's rendition? She's unique and memorable.
- Plot and pacing: like the best melodies, the ups and downs, twists and turns and progressions make the song exciting or pleasing. People listen to music for the tune, not random or flat, dull notes. Think on the best songs in the world -- they all have very hummable, catchy melodies. There is no original plot anymore, but it's all about making it unique and different than the ones others have done before. Pacing relates the movement of melody or plot -- they have to move. Up, down, sideways... movement excites people. It all builds to an incredible climax (then trail off for a satisfying denouement).
- Character: One may think lyrics are like plot. But I don't agree. I think lyrics is the characters and they make the whole story worthwhile. What is your message? Why do we care about these people? What are you telling us? Memorable lyrics don't just thrill, but they tell us a unique story, whether it's philosophical or personal. They tell us why we should care. Together with plot/melody, a great song or a story etch itself into our soul permanently.
- Hook: A great song needs a great hook. Again, who can ever forget "you're so vain, you think this song is a about you." A great book needs a great hook as well, and it's not just the first sentence. A good hook needs repeating. Like themes, the hook should resonate as often as necessary. Well placed repetitions are good in this case. So the world is coming to an end? Keep reminding us. Keep the tension high. Remind us.
- The whole shebang: Yes, somehow, you still have to put the whole thing together and they need to fit like gloves on hands. That's production. How do we pull all the chapters together to make it into a coherent, memorable read? It's also a cumulative experience. No song would thrill on one note or stanza alone. But together, it draws the audiences in and keeps them there. A good producer (music) or editor (book) can make a basic song or story shine like gems.
The fact is, not every songwriter can do everything and everything well. And not every writer can do everywhere well either. Some writers are great in plotting, while others are extraordinary in characters. Some have great style and are exquisite with words, while others are incredible with ideas. The trick is to find out what one does the best and focus on it.
Next, I'll talk about the writing process vs. that of songwriting. Again, I think there's a great deal of parallels in the two.