Infusing your Fiction With Heart and Soul: An Exercise

In the realm of art, including the writing of stories that reach into people’s hearts and minds to leave an indelible mark – or, depending on your genre, perhaps a scar – we are very much alone with our muse.  And too often that muse doesn’t know any more about how to pull it off than you do.

It feels as if we are on our own to elevate our game to a form in which the parts – all those fundamental elements and executional skills you read about here and are sweating bullets to understand and apply to your work – exceed the sum of their parts.  

Because that’s precisely what it takes. 

It is the very definition of art itself.

And so we dwell on those parts, we practice until our foreheads bleed, we obsess, we commiserate, we read blogs and books — some of us write them — and occasionally, in rare moments we later wish we could duplicate at will, we feel as if we are in touch with something larger than ourselves.

And from that moment we draw hope.

There is only one sure way to get there: we must go deep

We must find and then immerse ourselves in The Zone, a place where genius gels, clarity reigns, and the gates of possibility part to reveal a side of you that has heretofore only whispered its existence.

Here’s a way to do just that.

In my Tips ebook, I advocate the use of music to tap into a level of perception, appreciation and creative energy that seems otherwise inaccessible.  One way to write scenes with greater depth and emotional resonance is to select music – I suggest movie themes – that matches the contextual mission of the scene itself.

Another way is to simply lose yourself in a masterful composition and feel yourself go somewhere you can’t explain, and do it as a way to get yourself ready to engage with your story.

All artists and athletes prepare for performance.  They stretch, they mediate, they run the vocal scale.  They warm up whatever muscles are required, and they do it religiously and with great focus. 

They wouldn’t think of going to work without this preparation.  Because it takes them to where they need to be – their zone, their sweet spot – to perform.

As writers, our muscles are emotion, depth, perception, courage and wonder.  In other words, the inherent power and potential of the human heart and soul.

That is the currency, the zone, in which we deal as writers.  And sometimes we need to warm up to get there.

What I’m about to recommend is an exercise in how to go to that place. 

I’m going to ask you listen to three different songs.  To close your eyes and completely lose yourself in them.

It’s something you have to experience to explain or understand, and let me say this: if it doesn’t work for you, I’ve either picked the wrong songs or you’ve picked the wrong avocation.

Because the three songs I’m going to recommend should awaken something in you that sends you running straight for your computer to write.  They certainly do in me.

Music is very much like the storytelling we novelists and screenwriters undertake.   It is structurally driven, thematically dependent and artfully rendered.  It has both form and function, both heart and soul.

It also has words.

But the words – lyrics in their case, narrative in ours – only go so far.  It is the music that ignites them and makes them soar, that propels them into your conscious mind to summon the subconscious essence of your very humanity.

That connects the artist to the listener/reader in a way that defies definition.

Crazy as it sounds, we need to write that music into our stories, using nothing other than more words.  And you can’t do that until you hear the music of your story in your head… and feel it in your heart and soul.

These three songs are pure genius. 

And they will call forth the genius within you if you open yourself to it.  Because these songs, and your intentions, seek the very same thing.

Trust the process.  Listen with a depth and openness you’ve never applied to music before.  And when you do, you will begin to sense how you, using your words to color a framework of human experience, can elicit the same dramatic response.

Go on iTunes to find them, Google them, try Youtube, do what you have to do.  You can easily find the lyrics online, but that won’t do it, any more than reading a screenplay can deliver the experience of the film made from it.

Don’t cut that corner.  Listen to these songs, and be humbled by the power of art.  Be amazed.

Then go and be amazing.

Hallelujah, written by Leonard Cohen and preformed by Jeff Buckley.

Written in 1984 and covered by dozens of major artists, the Buckley version is arguably the most successful and moving (though Jon Bon Jovi does a killer version in his live show).  It’s a dark love story with a structure very much like that of a novel, and themes that are so poignant you’d think Shakespeare himself phoned in a consult.

Lose yourself in the words, they’re off-the-charts brilliant.  Feel the power of the melody take you to a place of shock and awe, and know that merely by feeling this, by acknowledging the power and magic of what you are hearing, you have it in you to summon those same emotions to the pages of your manuscript.

You can’t write it if you don’t feel it.  And if you don’t feel it while listening to this song, switch genres.  Because it doesn’t get deeper or more honest than this.

Waiting in the Weeds, written and performed by Don Henley.

Two years ago The Eagles released a long-awaited album of new music.  One of the cuts, Waiting in the Weeds, is a tragic love story come to life, a masterpiece of lyric power.  Don Henley has long been considered the poet-laureate of contemporary songwriters, and this song demonstrates why.  The use of allegory and analogy is stunning, and the switching between that context and a painfully vulnerable first-person voice is as good as writing gets in any form of the craft.

Again, if you can hear it at that level, you will be empowered to take your writing to another level, too – perhaps deeper than you imagined you could ever go.

100 Years, written and performed by Five For Fighting.

If you like books that span generations and bring a life story alive, this song will fascinate you while it makes you feel your own mortality.  Where the first two are somber and dripping with poetic angst, this song is a soft celebration of life.

As your story can be, too.

Immerse yourself in this exercise and it just might change who you are as a writer.

Everything we do in our lives as writers serves to inform and unleash our ability to infuse our stories with poignance.  These songs do that with orders of magnitude more power, and in a mysterious yet infallible way, than any other experience, writing or otherwise, that I can recommend to you.

Even the process of listening at this level of focus is itself analogous of the writing life.  Because we, as writers, must live differently than others if we are to succeed in our craft. 

It’s there in these songs.  All the subtlety and context and nuance of life itself, poetically rendered.  Can you hear it?  Can you feel it?  Of course you can… you’re a writer.

We must notice the details, recognize the meaning, capture the nuance, beauty and pain and joy of the human experience.  Even if you are writing a whacy romantic comedy or a fantasy or a dark horror story.  Because none of it, in any genre, will work unless you bring life to your pages.

If you wait for it to happen to you, it may or it may not.  But if you study your craft as well as practice it – and this exercise is a way to do both – you may find that your craft transcends its parts to become art itself.

This just in… a fresh new review of Story Structure – Demystified from AndrewJackwriting.com.  Click here to check it out.

15 Comments

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15 Responses to Infusing your Fiction With Heart and Soul: An Exercise

  1. Mary E. Ulrich

    Where do you find these songs? What is the name of the albums?

  2. Easy to find, Mary. The best way, by far, is iTunes. If you don’t have iTunes, it’s an easy and FREE download. From there you go to the iTunes store and download the songs (they’re 99 cents). There are other online song libraries, as well. And, sometimes the artists have their music available from own websites.

    Or, you can also simply Google the song title with the artist, and you’ll immediately see several choices, including the names of albums. I encourage you to explore this… I just listened to all three again this morning, and believe me, it puts your head right where it needs to be to be creative and deep at the keyboard.

    Let me know how it goes!

  3. Patrick Sullivan

    First, if you want an alternate to iTunes that’s still a company you can trust, amazon has a solid mp3 store. You still need a (free) app to download full albums, but other than that it’s really easy. Plus regular deals of $5 albums (50 at a time, changing monthly) and every day some album or other for $3-$4 bucks, including brand new stuff.

    Second I’ve been considering doing the song per scene idea for my next (post-NaNo) book for a while, just to see how it works, taking the time to figure out what songs fit the mood of each given scene. The part I personally like about this is even if you don’t listen to the song while writing it, just the act of thinking about and picking a song (so long as you remember which song when you write the scene) makes you consider what emotions you are going for during that moment in time that makes up the scene. That alone arguably makes the exercise worth doing

  4. Bravo, Patrick. This is precisel the point of this exercise. Having tried it, you know how powerful this is. It probably sounds like a hassle to some, or maybe even silly (writers who think that heart/soul stuff is silly need a gut check), but it’s totally worth the effort.

  5. Shirls

    The Hallelujah is achingly beautiful. Now I’m revisiting all my Leonard Cohen albums. And would like to get more Jeff Buckley. I need to listen to the other two a few more times, but Hallelujah is a total experience. Thanks Larry.

  6. How weird! Hallelujah is the inspirational song I am using for my current WIP. If you want to see a cover that will knock you off your chair, look up the KD Lang Juno version. It’s unbelievable.

  7. Carole (@tenderprey)

    Wow….
    Absolutely blown away by the effect this had on me. I’d never heard ‘Waiting in the Weeds’ before and it tapped directly into the part of me where my muse resides.

    I’m the kind of writer who needs silence or just natural everyday sounds in the background as I write. I use imagery, evocative pictures to inspire me but I’d neglected to use music to enhance the process and set the mood before diving into the ‘zone’.

    Thank you so much for this!

  8. @Holly — will do, love that song in any version. Have you heard Bon Jovi’s? His new documentary features a live performance, and says that Leonard Cohen claims that the Bon Jovi version is the best he’s ever heard… not small praise from the composer himself.

    @Carol — so glad this worked for you. I hope others will take your lead and give this magic bullet a try.

  9. Thank you for a fantastic post! I’m astounded that I’d never heard Hallelujah before. I found it easily on YouTube, and wow, what a beautiful song. It draws forth so much inspiration.
    Waiting in the Weeds and 100 Years are also lovely, emotional songs.
    Now I just want to pour out my heart on the page, and so I will.

  10. @ Deanna — music to my ears. No pun intended. Okay, a little intended.

    @Mary — did you find the music yet? See Deanna’s post above… easy to find ’em on Youtube. Hope you’ll go for it.

  11. Becca

    When I saw what the first song was I felt very happy. I have had Jeff Buckleys Hallelujah in my favorites with YouTub since March. I listen to that song every day! When I saw 100 years I wasn’t sure what song it was but the moment it started to play I knew it. That song is another one that is beyond wonderful. And then to end it with Waiting in the Weeds made my whole day such a soft happy day. I was able to write 3 scenes on one of my screenplays.
    From the bottom of my heart I want to thank you for sharing this with us.

    Becca

  12. Ben

    For those having trouble finding the songs, http://songite.com is a really easy way to listen to a specific song. You type in the title and artist and the site searches the web to find it (often off of Youtube) and plays it for you.

    I just did it myself and it works like a charm.

    As to the post itself, I completely agree that music is a powerful emotional stimulant that writers should take advantage of. I often listen to soundtracks from my collection to try to aid my writing.

  13. Pingback: 43 Most Inspiring Writing Advice Posts of 2009

  14. Larry, this post is spectacular. Music can have a powerful effect on the soul, and writers are particularly subject to things like that. We must feel deeply in order to write deeply. Music has the ability to transport us from one emotional state to another.

    “Hallelujah” is one of my favorite pieces of music ever (although I prefer the k.d. lang version — there’s just such a visceral ache in her voice). Another evocative piece is “Whiskey Lullaby” (performed by Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss). It’s nothing like the others you posted, but there’s something raw in the lyrics that is tremendously moving. Sarah McLachlin’s “In the Arms of the Angels” is another fave.

    Sometimes just a snippet of music heard accidentally will spark a scene in my head. I love it when that happens (though not so much when driving in traffic 😉 ).

  15. @Disorderly — thanks for commenting. I love both of the new songs you’ve added to my short list here, and I also really appreciate the K.D. Lang version of Leonard Cohen. I mentioned to another reader… Jon Bon Jovi does a killer version of Hallelujah” also, but only live, I can’t find it recorded (he performs it on his new DVD/cable documentary). He claims Cohen has said it’s the best version, but that’s a matter of personal preference, too, and Lang’s style is certainly just as moving.

    Thanks again. Keep writin’! L.