The following is a guest article by Steve Steuart.
(Picking up from the post, which appears HERE.)
A story has a beginning a middle and an end and like the story, a song also has a beginning a middle and an end. Brilliant!
In classical music they use the terms Exposition (not to be confused with its coincidental use as a writing term although they do still kind of mean the same thing but in a different way), Development and Recapitulation. These are more specifically used in describing the structure of a sonata but the general structure is essential to any music that’s going to be considered pleasing. These coincide with all the parts of story structure whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay. Act I, Act II, Act III are the same as Part 1 (Set up), Part 2 and 3 (Response and Attack), Part 4 (Resolution). Exposition, Development, Recapitulation.
Exposition gets the ball rolling, it let’s you in on the musical world you’re about to experience. It sets up a mood and a situation for change. In a story we learn about the hero and receive hints of the major conflict to come. Development is where all the changes occur, changes in key, tempo and time. In a story, this is the part where our hero’s world is turned upside down. Recapitulation is the end where everything is resolved and brought together harmoniously and concluded. Usually it’s a revisit to the beginning with changes in the chord structure or melody which makes it the same, but different. In the story our hero has gone through the process of character arc. Same person, but different. Within the three act structure or four part novel structure are the essential elements that comprise the qualities of change in a story. They all have relative essential elements in music. Modulation, Syncopation and Dissonance are the three that stand out to me. These are very common terms in music theory and they encompass a wide range of possibilities in their execution in a song. Far too many to be completely comprehensive here and frankly, over my head. Let’s keep it simple.
Modulation relates to a change in key. In classical music it’s like a fresh new look at the song, a new beginning. In a story it’s the transition from Act I to Act II, or the set up and response. The chord that finally forces that change in key, is the same as the inciting incident, or first plot point. It’s the same story but it’s playing out with a new perspective. As a story (song) moves along (with other modulations or pinch points) toward the inevitable final change, we get another glimpse back at the beginning with that defining last change. In general a screenplay or novel is building to a crescendo that we all expect and when we arrive at that final sequence where everything will be resolved, a change occurs that feels different, yet familiar. A change back to the key of origin in composed music. In our story, our hero carries with him, the weight of experience and acquired knowledge through the struggles, defeats and triumphs over the course of the story. This manifests as wisdom and strength for a hero and for a composed piece, a richer understanding of rhythm and tone in the context of the Exposition. A composed piece might repeat a melody note for note, but the way it’s composed will be different.
Syncopation relates to the idea of emphasizing a part of the rhythm that is unexpected. In standard 4/4 time, the simplest and most straight forward time (the music you can easily clap your hands to), we all know where the beat is (incidentally this usually, for most of us, refers to the down beat on 1 and 3. Gospel music in churches emphasize the up beat on 2 and 4, which generally coincides with the snare drum beat in rock music). A misplaced beat or an alternate interval playing against a rhythm counting in 4/4, can throw us off. In a story this is conflict. Our hero likes to count in 4. That’s his home and school and neighborhood. This is Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction. Everything where it should be, predictable. What happens when you put the emphasis on an interval that is slightly shorter than the normal 4/4 beat? You start out on 1 (great everybody’s here) then just before 2 hits, an unexpected guest shows up. Nobody invited the dotted eighth note, but he’s here. What’s going on? And before anybody answers you, there’s that annoying dotted eighth again, and this time he’s way out of line, in fact in direct opposition to everybody. Ok something’s got to give, the party is ruined, this guy’s a jerk. Ready everyone on 3. And again the dotted eighth intruder spoils the fun by jumping in too late. One more chance and this guy’s gone. He better get it together on 4. Thank you. You can stay, that’s better. Nope spoke to soon, this guy’s nuts. Well the next party is just around the corner and guess who shows up half past? Yep, you guessed it. Now everything is completely different. Nobody is happy. What I’ve described is a 3 feel, over a 4 feel. If you keep this going, each measure will be a completely new rhythm, until you’ve completed 4 measures. Then it starts all over again. One little dotted eighth note caused a lot of conflict just by being a 16th note short of the normal beat in 4/4. Harold Crick’s watch stopped and changed his life forever.
Dissonance relates to how two or more tones get along, harmonize or don’t. Go to a piano and hold down the C and B at the same time. That’s harsh dissonance. Hold down C and A or G or F or E or C (an octave) and you’re experiencing less dissonance and more harmony. Everybody knows this…well you do now. Forget about D. D sucks and should be banned from all pianos, in my opinion (D flat and D sharp can stay though). In story structure this reminds me of the concept of foreshadowing and characterization. C and B can hang out and have a good time but only if other friends are around. Leave them alone and watch out. Chances are they wouldn’t want to be around one another if nobody else is around anyway.
What’s implied here for characterization is how two people behave in the presence of certain other people. A woman wants to extort money from another woman and is usually condescending, with a dominating attitude toward the other woman. Enters a man the extorting, condescending woman doesn’t know, and she suddenly becomes the other woman’s best friend. Dissonance and harmony. C and B play it off perfectly, but just for a moment. Foreshadowing. We see them getting along but what’s to become of this questionable relationship. I sense a change. In classical music, the intent is to create subtle and pleasing sounds that change over time.
A modulation can be unpleasant if it’s not subtly hinted at before hand. A smooth transition from one key to another in classical music is what makes it soothing and fresh. Dissonant tones momentarily and carefully placed are what help that smooth transition (Foreshadowing). This is what allows a look in the eye to be a major shift in a story (Modulation) without it jolting you out of your seat.
Good music finds a balance. It can and should wander off into unexpected rhythms (conflict) and tones, abruptly throwing you off (in your face foreshadowing), or bring you along to experience changes you never saw coming (subtle foreshadowing) without you being able to detect the change occurring. But, there are fundamental rules which have been established through the experience of the masters, demonstrating that these necessary changes must be done in certain ways in order to be enjoyed by the listener. Regardless of what the composer intended the listener to experience, the song will always be balanced out and complete at the end, if the composer wants as many people to understand and enjoy the music as possible.
The same is true for the novel or screenplay writer. The human ear has expectations when the human is listening to music. The eyes have expectations when the human is reading a novel or watching a movie (eyes and ears in that case). These expectations can’t be ignored. Nobody wants to hear my composition of a whole C note in 1/2 time repeated for 48 measures. That’s not music (but if I add another dissonant tone, apparently it qualifies as music in The Zombie Diaries). Nobody wants to read about Sally filing her nails as she sits on hold on the telephone, popping her gum where the big ending is a yawn that exposes the fillings in her teeth. That’s not a story. Ok I’m almost done pretending to know what I’m talking about. Let’s Recapitulate shall we? Exposition is to music as Part 1 is to set up as it is to Act I. Development is to music as Parts 2 and 3 are to response and attack as they are to Act II. Recapitulation is to music as Part 4 is to resolution as it is to Act III.
Now to address organic writing.
If I hear a drummer say that he/she is more of an “organic drummer,” all it really tells me is that they haven’t taken the time to learn to read drum music. Sure they can eventually mimic beats in some songs, but when that rhythm becomes intricate, certain divisions of the beat are completely lost to their lack of understanding. This also speaks to the limit of their own ability to create. There are many unnatural things to overcome in order to play some very fundamental drum beats that will never be attempted by the “organic” drummer.
Can I learn to speak Spanish by picking up a dictionary, written in Spanish, just by memorizing the words without understanding what they mean? I would be able to mimic the language but I would not know what I was saying and therefore not be speaking Spanish. A writer can read mystery novels (I’ve heard this somewhere before), but if they don’t learn the underlying structure before they write they’re own mystery, they’re just mimicking. They don’t know what they’re saying.
Song and story have many structural elements in common that make them good.
What I’ve presented above is certainly open for debate, but what might be there is a seed that if you choose to plant it (learn music theory, learn story structure), could grow and give you some insights on how to finely manipulate the ideas and words of your stories, in terms of the timing and placement of some of the subtle elements. Structure leads to understanding, which leads to creative genius, which leads to organic. That’s the only way that cookie crumbles. From Chopin to Bjork, structure supports the genius of their art.
I hope this brings some useful insight into the world of writing and sparks some good ideas. I can say with certainty that Story Structure- Demystified helped me not only understand story structure but it also enriched my understanding of music. Synapse Connections Abound In A Carbon-based Sponge: News at 11.