Story Structure vs. Music Theory — a guest post by Steve Steuart

The following is a guest article by writer and musician Steve Steuart. 

I was a musician, and then I was a writer.  Actually, both, once music gets in your blood it’s there for good. 

As I began an in-depth study of storytelling, both here on Storyfix and elsewhere (including Larry’s ebooks), I quickly noticed something.  Wasn’t sure it was meaningful at first, but the deeper I went, the more this struck me as important.

What I realized was this: a song, or any composed musical piece, has an underlying structure that is almost identical to that of good story writing.

Western music theory, that little construct used by Beethoven and Bach and Mozart and Chopin and Chi-cough-ski and you name it, allowed for the world’s most beautiful sounds ever produced to come alive in such a way that hundreds of years later causes us to still hold those sounds in high regard.  They are regarded as the best music ever written. We all have our favorites and might not even really like classical music, but that’s not the point. The point is creative genius was made possible because of an adherence to an underlying and dependable structure.

As I read and came across terms like Plot Point and Conflict and Foreshadowing and the subsequent definitions and examples of those terms, I couldn’t get the words Modulation, Syncopation and Dissonance, out of my head. We all relate what we learn to what we know, but in this particular case the relationship between writing a story and composing a song was undeniably a close one. Even as the years passed and my connection to song writing had become strained for lack of doing, I never forgot the way these certain things were described in my music composition classes as a means to create variety in music. Listen to jazz or classical music and you will find a lot of variety within a piece. Jazz could almost be described as never repeating what you’ve already done, or if it is repeated it’s completely different. Charlie Parker and Bill Evans are masters of variety in their improvisations. They weave a story of sorts, that’s pleasant, not only because of their natural talent but because of their knowledge of what makes music good. Just like a good story teller, they know where they’re going when they start the journey and why.

(Note from Larry: to my pantser friends, this helps clarify the need for understanding story structure before you write your story, even if you don’t have a clue what your story will be, which I don’t recommend.  Imagine trying to write a symphony without understanding music theory.  And yet, the default process of newer writers who don’t have a command of storytelling principles is, in fact, to “just sit down and start writing.”  A better approach is to sit down and starting learning the principles of storytelling.  They won’t allow a pantser to get their any quicker or more efficiently, but it’ll allow anyone, including pansters, a fighting chance at ending up with something that works.  Without that understanding, no matter how you write, you don’t stand a chance.  Sadly, too many writers don’t get this Steve addresses this point toward the end of his article, as well.)

So let’s look at some of those associations between song and story.

Click HERE to read the rest of this fascinating post.

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One Response to Story Structure vs. Music Theory — a guest post by Steve Steuart

  1. Chris Lawson

    “Note from Larry: to my pantser friends…”

    Not sure you have any panster friends, Larry. Or at least ones who don’t think of you and cry themselves to sleep.