Songs Nobody Can Hear

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Describing a song nobody can hear is one of the oddest challenges a writer can face. Usually when a writer is tasked with describing something they can tackle our basic senses. They can describe how wet leaves smell, how a burger tasted, how a blast of snow felt on your face, or the bang of a gun. So where’s the difficulty when it comes to music? Isn’t it just a matter of appealing to a reader’s senses? Not exactly.

The previous examples reveal an interesting point about descriptions in general. They all deal with direct reference to our senses. With the wet leaves example, it triggers our memories of what wet leaves smell like. An author can basically instill the memory of wet leaves and so as you’re reading you get some indication of the smell. It really boils down to a matter of triggering a memory.

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Inhale Deeply

But what about if the reader hasn’t experienced the thing the author is talking about?

Take a sword fight for instance. Two characters are in a furious battle and at one point one of the character slashes the other across the chest. Chances are the reader has never been slashed by a sword themselves so the author can’t really rely on a reader’s memories of being slashed by a sword. Instead he relies on comparisons, associations that don’t necessarily rely on direct links, but rather what being cut by a sword is similar to. We’ve all been cut, and we’ve all felt the sting that accompanies it, writers can draw on that experience even if the reader has never been sliced by a sword specifically.

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Yes, like that

With these two things, memory triggers and association, writers have quite an arsenal at their disposal when it comes to describing things. We can describe incredibly complex and even intangible things in this manner and it’s really impressive at times. Through the power of words we can have a reader feel, smell, taste, and touch things that may not even exist at all.

Still though, this doesn’t seem to cover writing music scenes. There’s something missing there from our formula. So what’s the problem?

The trouble with writing about music is that it can’t rely on memory or association. Unless the writing mentions a specific song or an artist, chances are we can’t really rely on a reader’s memory to know what the music is supposed to sound like. After all if the song is from the author’s own imagination it’s hard to draw on the reader’s memory since, unless you’re a skilled telepath, you’re the only person who knows what the song is supposed to sound like.

What about association though? Surely we can say it sounds like something right? Can’t we just say that it sounds like a cross between the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”? Sure… If a comparison like that would make sense in your story. After all it’d be weird for a writer to describe the music at a king’s court to sound like a “ Bob Dylan tune with a touch of Judas Priest.” Because making analogies to things that don’t exist in the setting of the story is just… strange. Hilarious sure, but really awkward.

Okay, if not for direct comparison maybe we can rely on more basic sound description? We can describe what a heavy metal song sounds like; screeching and grinding guitars, growling vocals, beating thunderous drums etc. etc. But the trick here is that no matter how well I describe the song we’re all going to have drastically different interpretations of what that sounds like.

But isn’t that just a matter of human perspective in general? You know that whole, “there’s no way of communicating what red is and there’s no way of knowing if the red we see is the same as what others see” deal? Its interesting for sure but somehow civilization hasn’t collapsed into a frenzied madness whenever we say, “that’s a red balloon”

The End of Civilization

The End of Civilization

With colors especially even if our perceptions of the color differ slightly there’s enough overlap in our perspectives that we’ve come to an agreement that the balloon is red.  Basically, there’s enough agreement on what “red” is that we’re willing to accept that red is what red is. Music on the other hand is a bit more complex.

The thing with sound association is that there’s so much room to move around in. Sound descriptions when it comes to music can invoke radically different interpretations between readers much more than just than just a red balloon. Sure we all have some agreed upon notion of what “bang” “pop” “fizzle” “crack” and “splat” sound like, but music can’t be accurately described just by sprouting off onomatopoeia. With that in mind it’s easy to see that writing music scenes is more than just getting the description of the sound right.

Music scenes have to make the reader imagine a song they’ve never heard before. Go ahead and try to describe a song that doesn’t exist to a friend without making a comparison, singing, dancing, playing an instrument or doing anything else except talking about it. Chances are they’ll stare at you confused and bewildered as they slowly inch their way towards the door.

So what’s a writer to do? After all music is important, otherwise it wouldn’t be included in the first place. The important thing here is to realize that the point of music is to set a mood, to invoke a feeling. In the end it doesn’t really matter if six different readers imagine the song different ways. What matters is that they set a similar mood, aid in establishing a scene and invoke a similar feeling.

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…or maybe it’s more than that

At times its best to let your reader decide how to feel about a particular piece, since leaving it up to your reader can give your scene flexibility. Other times its best to directly state how it should make them feel by describing a character’s reaction to it. Maybe they dance wildly, maybe they gasp in awe, or maybe they hold their hands over their ears and pray for the end of their torture.

Turn off that non-existent sound right this minute!

Turn off that non-existent sound right this minute!

Sometimes music can be used as a cruel tool of misdirection. Maybe there’s a light, classical even whimsical melody being played at a dinner party while the murdered slips behind the duchess and slits her throat. In this case, the music can make the murder feel that much more uncomfortable. Because a vicious act is now associated with a rather light feeling. Uncomfortable yet?

Music is often seen as the tool of television, video and er… music. Rarely is it seen as a weapon for print mediums. No other medium can establish subtext, invoke a feeling or portray thought as effectively as the written word can. That doesn’t stop with writing a scene with music. Music isn’t a weakness for writers, its just another tool in their arsenal.

And then there's the rest of the arsenal

And then there’s the rest of the arsenal

So what do you think? What makes a scene with music effective? Who does it well? How can we do it better? Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Comic Book Supervillains: Victims of Consequence

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Villains are notoriously hard to write, and perhaps none more so than comic book Supervillains. Suffering from the larger problem of consequence negation, villains have gone from threatening antagonist to monthly punching bags. Even world-shakers and cosmic level threats lose their luster after getting their butt’s kicked for almost 50 years. 

This is one of the biggest pitfalls comic book writers are forced to navigate around. How do you establish any real sense of danger or urgency without breaking the cardinal rule of the comic book industry: Don’t Kill the Money. After all, who’s going to make the villain that kills Spider-Man?

Nobody

Nobody

Nobody at Marvel is going to kill Spider-Man and yes I mean actually kill him. No going back in time, no alternate time lines, no dreams, no warped reality, no “this is just one possible future”, no clones, no “dude pretending to be spider-man”. I’m talking straight up, Peter Parker, Spider-Man Earth 616 completely and utterly and permanently dead. The villain who pulls that off is going to hold a  place in every comic fan’s heart as… The villain that ended their favorite series. That writer would need to be able to justify killing off Marvel’s poster-boy, and flagship character that has in turn generated billions of dollars for the company. It’s just a stupid move from a business stand-point.

Protected by consequence-immunity and legacy, it’s really not fair for super-villains. How are they supposed to stand a chance against an enemy who is completely immune to death? How do you create a sense of danger and panic in your foes when your latest world conquest is brushed aside so effortlessly? We have villains who have been around for over 40 years who have a track record of being defeated for just as long and we’re still looking to our writers to create danger for our protagonist.

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Do writers need to keep rehashing Dr. Doom’s master plans for readers who have the full knowledge and certainty that whatever Victor does it’s just going to fail anyways? Even if we’re going to introduce an entirely new villain (note that all of your favorite supervillains are at least 30 years old)  and invest in them as a recurrent characters, they’re eventually going to go through the same cycle and ultimately face the same fate. Even if their debut does something heart-stopping and incredibly wicked they all meet the same destiny of being used over and over again until their appearance generates little more than a sarcastic, “oh no, what are they going to do now…”

Don’t get me wrong. Certain writers have taken this restriction and have done incredibly innovative takes on the villain. They recognize that super-villains are much more than just “the bad guy” They have written them with a level of sympathy and have blurred the fine line of morality far more than anyone gives them credit for.

Furthermore, writers know that mortality is a jagged mountain face that no one can really climb but simply hope to hang there for a few moments. With that in mind, they’ve had to substitute “death” for other forms of danger; other ways to invoke urgency and fear in their readers. Some have done this by killing off family members, friends, and innocent bystanders. Others have done this by attacking the hero’s mental state or appealing to their vices. In many ways the restrictive nature of the medium has prompted writers to push the genre to incredible depths. There’s no denying that over the years comic writers have managed to maintain our fear, and our sense of danger in super-villains despite all this.

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No other form of writing calls on its creators to write compelling canonical storylines for anywhere near the amount of time, or consistency. While there have been series in other mediums that have run for decades, none of them are held to the same standards of established story arc, strict character guidelines, frequency and fan backlash like comics. We’re looking for that never-ending story.

I think that’s part of what makes comic books so compelling. They appeal to a childlike reassurance that “everything is going to be okay, your hero will be there for you.” Questions of quality and craft aside, could we really stomach removing the “immortal and invincible” complex that protects our heroes? That’s precisely what writers need to do if they want villains that don’t eventually become a diminishing and irrelevant threat.

Writers have the monumental and often times paradoxical job of making everything new but staying exactly the same. And that’s one of the issues with villains. Honestly, I want to keep seeing Magneto, the Joker, Lex Luthor etc. etc. for years and years to come but I’m also bored to death of them. I want to see new villains, but at the same time I’d much rather read a comic with Magneto doing his thing than “New Super Badguy” that I’ve never heard of or really care about. I want there to be lasting consequence… but I don’t want there to be lasting consequence. Good luck trying to make me happy comic writers.

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What do you think? How do you feel about comic book villains today? Do writers need to step up their game in writing compelling, interesting and threatening villains or do they have it right? What are some examples of villains that you believe have transcended this problem? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

Horror is Hard

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With Halloween right around the corner, I find myself wondering a bit about horror. For all the movies, television series and games that have come out in recent years I’ve noticed that the horror genre in its written form is falling behind. As a piece of the speculative fiction trio, why has horror fallen to the wayside? Everyday science fiction and fantasy novels are finding spots on best sellers list and have rapidly growing fan bases, while more visual mediums have dominated horror. So what’s the deal here?

Writing horror for any medium is a challenge but the difficulty with printed mediums is primarily rooted in our culture. Television, films and even video games have cemented their superiority in a visual context and when it comes to bloody, gore-fest jump-scares, novels can’t really provide that kind of “instant-horror” we’ve grown accustomed to. Without the benefit of a visual component print mediums have to make up for it by appealing to a creeping psychological terror and warped perspective that is a challenge to keep up with for hundreds of pages. It doesn’t help that instant gratification turns modern day society’s gears.

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Think about the tempo of a horror film for instance. We set the mood, things get a little uncomfortable, then they get scary, then they get terrifying and then they end. All within the scope of two hours. Within those two hours so much of the story is padded by sinister music, violently graphic imagery and screaming that we forget what we’re even watching, we just know that this is scary and we love it.

What about the tempo of a horror novel? There is a sort of constant rise and fall of calm, and terror. Horror novels have to really dig their hooks in because they’re competing with a culture that insists that nothing frightens it. Horror novelist must transcend our goldfish level attention span and keep their reader hooked for what could be fifty pages of calm before anything really “scary” happens. That’s one of the real difficulties with horror, there’s not really a way to capture the “in your face, gut wrenching” feeling that we associate with the genre.

Instant culture, and our obsession with the visual can’t carry the full weight of the blame however. A lot of the challenge in horror is that supernatural monsters just aren’t scary anymore. It’s more difficult to scare people with the fantastical, the imagined or the supernatural than it was years ago. We’ve come to terms with the fact that reality and humanity are scarier than any vampire, mummy, werewolf or zombie.

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It’s come to a point where we’ve exhausted vampires and zombies from so many different angles that we approach them with what amounts to satirical riffing; a tell-tale sign that we’ve conquered our fear of “classic” monsters. As a society we’ve done something similar to what Harry Potter and Co. did with the boggart: We’ve been exposed to monsters of every variety and then learned to make them laughable. We’ve made such things amusing and ridiculous. The challenge of horror writing is pushing past that.

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Horror novelist need to rely on subtle psychological overtones that don’t necessarily “frighten” the reader but makes them uncomfortable. Way back when, authors like Edgar Allan Poe or even if we go back a bit further to Christopher Marlowe were masters at this sort of thing. But they were of a very different time, and in many respects a completely different world. It’s hard to capture that  feeling of terror that grows more after the fact as opposed to movies which seek to scare “in the moment”. Writing horror becomes a challenge of who can be the most disturbing; who can keep the reader up at night wondering.

Still though, literature isn’t completely defenseless. It has the benefit of subtext, inner thoughts and a more intimate portrayal of psychological terror than any other mediums. And to be fair because the medium can be so restrictive at times it’s made being a strong writer an absolute necessity with horror. Furthermore, if we look at short stories we see a way for horror writing to find its place in instant-culture. I think writers recognize that horror needs to be jump-started again, and in many respects the literary landscape is ripe with the opportunity to push those boundaries.

What do you think? Where does horror need to go from here? What is the genre missing? Why has horror lost ground while the other two pillars of speculative fiction have seen a surge of popularity and constant evolution? Why is it more compelling to push the boundaries of sci-fi and fantasy than in the horror genre? Let me know what you think in the comment section below and tell me your favorite horror novel from the last 10 years.