Soundtracks Part II: Every Hero Needs a Theme Song

John Slade (Bernie Casey) knows where it’s at!

If you recall my earlier post about book soundtracks in the writing phase [How I Use “Soundtracks” To Help Me Write When I’m Not Writing], then you remember how I said I use “soundtracks” to help me outline a manuscript by setting a mood for each scene or chapter using the movie technique of background or accompanying music. I’m going to expand on that a little bit by talking about theme music for various characters.

I realized when I put together my first soundtrack for a book while I was brainstorming The Complicity Doctrine, that some of the songs I chose went beyond a single scene in the story, and they could actually be played throughout the book to set the mood I was looking for. Then it dawned on me.

These songs weren’t just mood setters, they were theme music for the character I was writing about. In the case of The Complicity Doctrine, these were theme songs for the main protagonist and everyman hero Casey Shenk. Songs like “Duck and Run” by 3 Doors Down fit not only the character’s personality but how he dealt with the conflicts and trials that were thrown his way.

Like John Slade said, “It’s my theme music. Every good hero should have some.” I couldn’t agree more.

Where most of the music on the “soundtrack” is for mood and thematic tension while I’m piecing together the story, theme song(s) help me focus on character development, particularly that of the main protagonist.

Take my current project for example. The main character, Frank Torwood, knows all about the evil that men do. As both a witness and participant of that evil for two decades, Frank is looking for proof that goodness and morality still exists in a world which seems to him no better than Hell itself.

In writing Frank’s story, I chose a couple of songs that help me get inside his head as I’m breathing life into him on paper.

The first is “Lead Me Home” by Jamie N. Commons. The second primary theme song for Frank Torwood is “This Old Death” by Ben Nichols.

If you clicked those links, you will get an idea that Frank is not in a good place at the start of the novel. (You may also notice that both of those songs are from “The Walking Dead.” I assure there are NO walkers [zombies] in this book.)

Now, just like the mood can change from scene to scene, in both books and movies, so too can a character’s theme songs.

As the story progresses, Frank is forced to face his demons and overcome one trial after another. It is unfair to think that these trials wouldn’t change Frank, even just a little, right? So along with Frank’s emotional and psychological development, his theme music also changes with him.

Later in the outline/book, we…I mean “I”…start to hear “Oats in the Water” by Ben Howard, and later, “Broken Bones” by Kaleo.

You might be thinking, “Shit, Matt, this book is going to be depressing.” Well, I will tell you there are definitely going to be some uncomfortable parts for folks to read (and for me to write). But Frank has some badass theme music, doesn’t he?

It’s not Isaac Hayes, but then, Frank ain’t John Slade either.

I’ll be letting y’all in on some of the particulars of my current project in future posts, so stay tuned if you want to learn more.

How I Use “Soundtracks” To Help Me Write When I’m Not Writing

“The Official Motion Picture Soundtrack.” How many of those do you own? I know I owned a few soundtracks on cassette tape when I was growing up. Some of these albums were a central part of the film for which they were recorded, like Purple Rain (which I wore out listening to) or [insert musical title here] (which I did not own…because I don’t like musicals).

Purple Rain

But most soundtracks were recorded to provide an audible background intended to enhance the movie by putting the audience in the right mood or frame of mind at just the right time, so they would experience the film the way the director intended.

Remember the title track to Jaws?….Of course you do….It works, doesn’t it?

For movies, sure, but what about books? They don’t have soundtracks. They rely on the author’s ability to put words on the page to set the mood or guide the reader’s frame of mind. There’s no help from an awesome John Williams score to prod the reader into seeing the point the author was trying to make or feeling the emotion he was trying to evoke.

That’s all on the back end, though, after the book is published. What about before that point? When the book is being written? Does an author have an “Official Printed Page Soundtrack” while he’s putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, creating the next New York Times Bestseller?

I DO. I mean, I don’t have any delusions about getting on the NYT list anytime soon, but I do put together a soundtrack for each writing project.

Movies of the Mind

I talked about how I like to have to outline a book project on several different levels before I start writing in Planning: The Importance of Outlining (for me, anyway). I also mentioned in that post how the outlining process usually takes me a few months to get through. But for the outlining to work, I have to have an idea of where the story I brainstormed is going to go (how it will move from beginning to end…the middle part is always the most difficult, but also the most fun to develop).

Just as important as moving the plot along, though, is how the characters–particularly the main protagonist and antagonist–will develop throughout the story. At some point, these characters are going to run into conflicts, and they will need to adjust in order to overcome those obstacles. How they adjust to each new situation is tempered by their own personalities and abilities.

Sure, they will likely have to step outside their comfort zone, and they may even do things, or say things, they never thought they’d do or say. Sometimes the personal or emotional consequences are good–sometimes not so good.

And for each of these situations, in both the plot and character development progression, there is an accompanying song that plays in the background of the mental motion picture playing in my head. Those songs help me stay focused on the mood and emotion I want to convey to the reader at each point in the story when I do start writing–especially when I am in the scene-by-scene outlining phase. I like to think of myself as the director of a movie in my mind, and the music helps set the tone.

Writing without a Pen

This is where the book soundtrack really does its work.

Millions of people spend an average of 400 hours on the road commuting to and from work every year. (I just made that up…but at least I can admit when I’m pulling statistics from my hind end, unlike [DELETED BY DIRECTION OF WH COMM OFFICE].) Many people use that time in the car to “read” by listening to an audio book. I did that for years when I had a no-kidding full-time job in the Navy, and I was attending the National Intelligence University at night and on weekends. I got through mass quantities of possible research material for class papers that way.

I obviously wasn’t writing those papers while I was driving, but I was thinking about things I may or may not use as references as I listened. That’s what I do with the soundtracks I put together for each writing project.

For The Complicity Doctrine, one of the songs on my playlist was “Duck and Run” by 3 Doors Down. In that book, the protagonist, Casey Shenk, is the victim and witness to a bombing that killed several people and injured many more. He was eating an onion bagel when the explosion happened. That traumatic event could have caused Casey to say, “F— this, I’m outta here,” pack his bags, and move out of the Big Apple and back down to Savannah where life was much simpler. But he didn’t. Like the song, Casey refused to “duck and run,” because that’s not who he was…and the book would have ended around page 53, which wouldn’t do me any good.

That song helped me shape Casey’s actions in the subsequent chapters and scenes, as well. And that was just one of the 20-plus songs I put together for that book. I will listen to the book’s soundtrack every time I’m in the car–I burn the iTunes playlist onto CD(s)–and as I’m listening, I am picturing how the characters will act and interact as the plot unfolds. I am writing the manuscript in my head as the background music plays. When I get to where I’m going, whether it’s work or home or wherever, I’ll write down notes on whatever thoughts came to mind during my commute.

So even when I’m not writing, I’m still “writing.” Thanks to book soundtracks.