Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Sound of Story

By Suzanne Y. Cordatos

The cool music director of my daughter’s 5th grade band goes for classic rock ‘n roll and traditional marches— the stuff that sounds good really loud. The young people haven't yet developed the ability to play a range of sounds through their shiny new instruments, so these pieces sound good the louder the better!

Does your work-in-progress sound too one-note?

  • Is your writing packed with lightning-paced action?
  •  Do you play tour guide for your readers, meandering through description (and avoiding nasty things like confronting your beloved character with bad guys and car chases?)
  • Is witty, contemporary dialogue your thing?
  • Do you stay in your comfort zone by relying heavily on one of these elements?

A radio hit tells us we’ll “miss the sun when it starts to snow” and we'll know you "love her when you let her go.” Without contrasts, it is difficult to recognize what is sometimes right in front of our noses. In a good book, readers are more compelled to turn pages when emotional highs and lows pull them along. Who doesn't like to cheer in the stands when a favorite character is the underdog?

Layer notes in your composition

  •          Make satisfying “ups” by writing worst-case “downs”
  •          If your story flies at a fast pace, how will the climax stand out?
  •          If the characters don’t slow down to offer their thoughts, when will the reader identify with a character and process what is happening?
  •     Talking-head characters need feet grounded in reminders of setting, so a reader can walk along. 

Musicians grow in talent when they add notes and technique to their repertoire. The conductor guides an ensemble through the score to convey the composer’s intended volume and feeling: soft pianissimo, loud forte, dramatic rhythm, or soothing flow. Music can play upon emotions like a dance, a falling in and out of love. My other talented daughter is singing this weekend in a production of Les Miserables with Colchester Community Theater. The music in Les Mis has the power to make one feel hope, anger, love, determination, longing and despair—and I’m probably missing another half dozen emotions in this list! Who doesn't love a good show (OR BOOK) that makes us laugh and cry, often at the same time?

Warning: One-note novels can be boring and exhausting to read.  
For a more interesting balance, alternate scenes with moments of contemplation—a quiet opportunity for your main character to reflect on what has gone down. More importantly, it will give your reader time to worry about what comes next. 

Have you enjoyed a book especially "musical" in its emotional complexity? When you read, do you like to feel you are in the competent hands of a good conductor? Share some titles!


  1. Love the post, Suzanne. Reading our stories out loud shows whether the rhythm or "sound" is right. I love your suggestions & plan on particularly working on that alternating scenes. You're so right, stories should ebb & flow like a song.

  2. Hello Janet! I agree, reading aloud is important. I used to think it was important only for my picture book manuscripts but didn't realize any work will improve by trying it, not just children's writing.

  3. Dear Suzanne,
    Thank you for your musical way of evaluating our manuscripts. It was enlightening and fun to read.

    Never Give Up

  4. Thank you, Joan, for commenting that it was fun to read. Somewhere between editing and query letters it is easy for writers to forget we are in the entertainment industry. Happy writing!

  5. Your musical comparisons make it easy to remember to mix it up in the novel writing adventure. I vote for The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart as a novel that was filled with complexity, layers and fun. Ms. Stuart has the conductor bit down to a science.

    1. Hi Kristi, thank you for sharing the title. What a GREAT adult read, "The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise." Julia Stuart's a master conductor in that fascinating novel.

  6. Suzanne, great post. I love the music analogy!

  7. Glad you stopped by, Karen! Next month I'll continue the theme with ways to incorporate the music of poetry in our novel writing.