Thoughts on Writing While Listening to Jazz

A few days ago I was listening to one of my favorite jazz albums (Diamond in the Rough by Roy Hargrove) and in particular to a song called “Confidentiality,” and I realized that jazz improvisations are the perfect analogy for explaining multiple point of view transitions for epic fantasy.  No, really.  They are.  And yes, that really is the way my brain works.  So sue me….

“Confidentiality” is an up tempo instrumental piece that begins as most jazz numbers do with a brief statement of the melody line, followed by a series of solos:  sax, trumpet, piano.  There is, at the end, a recapitulation of the melody, and then the piece ends.  Each solo includes echoes of that original melody, but the musicians then range fairly widely into their improvisations, the energy of their playing building to a climax before they hand the number off to the next soloist.  By the time the song is over, the listener has been treated to exciting, virtuosic playing that has enriched and deepened that original melody while remaining true enough to the original beat, tempo and tonal structure that you can always recognize the piece.

So, what does this have to do with writing?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.  When I write multiple point of view novels, I strive to have each point of view character do with the narrative what Roy Hargrove and his fellow musicians did with the melody to “Confidentiality.”  Each character has his or her story to tell, and by splitting up point of view I allow them to tell these stories in pieces.  Each of their stories is different, of course, but each is an element of the larger narrative thread of the novel.  And while I can follow their stories as they develop I always have to keep their threads connected to the larger context.  (Perhaps it’s not surprising that I don’t like atonal, free form jazz.)

I like to have each element of each character’s story have its own narrative arc.  In other words, since I will jump from one character’s POV to the next, switching viewpoints with each new chapter, I like those chapters to have some story structure of their own.  So, like an individual musician’s solo, I want each character’s chapter to begin at one energy level and build to a small peak before I switch to the next character.  I don’t necessarily resolve the tension — actually I rarely do, until we near the end of the book.  But I want those chapters to have an escalating story arc so that by the time my readers reach the end of a chapter, they’re desperate for more information about that character.  I then switch them to a new character, knowing that this may frustrate them to some degree, but knowing as well that they will soon be caught up in the rising tension of the next character’s story.  This allows me to build narrative momentum throughout the book even as I pass the story from one character to another.

Eventually of course, it all resolves, we return to the central themes and tones of the book, and the story ends.

Narrative, point of view, subplot; melody, instrumentation, improvisation.  They are analogous tools, and as a writer I find it enormously helpful to think about other art forms and how they relate back to my own.  I believe I can learn much about writing stories by listening to different musicians from different musical traditions.  Composers of symphonies play with structure, tonality, dynamics, musical tension in ways that can illustrative for those of us who make our living with the written word.  So can modern singer-songwriters who take care in piecing together an album.  (I believe that as we move away from “albums” toward the sale of individual songs, we lose an essential element of music’s storytelling power.  Look at Abbey Road or Blood on the Tracks or just about any album by Pink Floyd.  But that’s a topic for another post.)

Now, just because I find music illustrative for writing that doesn’t mean you will, too.  No problem.  Have you ever looked at Monet’s haystack work or his series of paintings of the facade of the Cathedral at Rouen and considered what the differing perspectives of an artist might tell us about the shifting viewpoints of our characters?  Because that can be pretty interesting, too….

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There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. CC

    No, I’ve never looked at paintings and considered how they’re relevant to the art of writing; but, music is definitely a must to me. I agree that many albums tell stories and that, in order to understand the process of the artists storytelling; buying the album is a must. (My idea of a short-story is a country song, but that’s just me…) Good post, and an intersting concept! How many other things can be traced back or relevant to writing?

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, CC. The chirp of the crickets was starting to get annoying….

    The short answer to that last question is that anything can be compared aptly to writing. Really. Music, art, acting, dance. I’ve heard writing compared to cooking, construction, prayer, sex, baseball. The possibilities really are endless.

  3. 3. Raethe

    Country music has some GREAT short stories. =) So does Jonathan Coulton’s music, for that matter…

    One could definitely make a case for an analogy between writing and a lot of other things. I think that’s because the skills involved in such a comparison are so often transferable. ‘Course, as a musician (a jazz musician, even!) and a writer I particularly appreciate this one. So thanks!

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    Thank you, Raethe. I don’t listen to much country, and I can’t listen to music with lyrics when I’m writing. But when I’m listening to rock or folk I am especially drawn to those songs that truly tell a story. Thanks for the comment!

  5. 5. Liam Dempsey

    Amazing just plain amazing.

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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