Using Music to Find Your Story’s Voice

As comfortable as I am with the other elements of a story, voice is mysterious and magical to me (but Christie says that a strong voice is one of three things found in great stories). It’s not something I can pull out of my writer’s toolbox–I feel like it’s something I have to discover when I’m not directly looking for it, if that makes sense. Finding a story’s voice for me is like meeting a new best friend at a party, or discovering a new favorite food on a menu I can barely read. This is one reason I rely heavily on music to help me find voice.

As a writer, I think it’s easy for me to get bogged down in my head, on the black font on the screen or on the page, and to forget the power our words have when they are vocalized. When I listen to music, I remember that language has texture and rhythm and density. I’m going to link to a few songs and artists who change the way I think about prose. Whether or not you listen to them, I hope you will consider and respond to the following:

What techniques or tricks do you use to help you discover your narrative and your characters’ voices?

What do you think are some of the most distinctive voices in music, film, history, or fiction? How do they inspire or influence your writing?

The first singer that comes to mind when I think of distinctive voices is Tom Waits. Love him or hate him, Tom Waits is a powerful storyteller, and he is his gravely, smoke and whiskey-stained voice. Imagine how our experiences of “And The Earth Died Screaming” would change if it were voiced by Paul Simon? Or Regina Spektor? Or how Waits might transform Tori Amos’ “Crucify” or “Cornflake Girl”?

Amanda Palmer has a range of storytelling voices, but one that she does really well is someone who is struggling with her sanity. I’ve used “Runs in the Family” to inspire a frenetic narrative voice:

The vocalist I’m most fascinated with right now is System of a Down’s Serge Tankian. In “Chop Suey” you can listen to him jump from a whisper to a yell, from syncopation to ballad-like segments. Someday, I’d like to experiment with the texture and rhythm of prose in similar ways.

For the last example, I’m going to link to three performances/covers of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” It’s the same song, note how the three distinct voices completely transform it:

Trent Reznor:

Johnny Cash:

Sad Kermit (warning graphic and disturbing NSFW muppet imagery!):

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  • Erika Holt

    I so relate to this post! I use music extensively when I write, not so much to inspire the voice of a particular character, but to set the tone for a piece and put myself in the right mood. Before putting fingers to keyboard I often listen to IAMX, Radiohead, or MUSE, and even pause now and then while writing to reconnect with this music. I’ve also based characters on singers (Chris Corner, for example) and the plot of one of my recent stories is loosely based on lyrics to “Locked in the Trunk of Car” and “At the Hundreth Meridian,” by The Tragically Hip. Music inspires me in a way nothing else does.

    And, of course, I love all the songs showcased above! Can’t wait to see what you create from them. 🙂

  • I often create a music playlist for stories and listen to them on repeat while I’m working. The story I have coming out in Crossed Genres was written to Florence + the Machine. I think there’s a sort of meta relationship between music and stories — a pollination of sorts. Tapping into that can lead to some awesome results.

  • I often create a music playlist for stories and listen to them on repeat while I’m working. The story I have coming out in Crossed Genres was written to Florence + the Machine. I think there’s a sort of meta relationship between music and stories — a pollination of sorts. Tapping into that can lead to some awesome results.

  • Personally, I’ve actively looked at the lyrics/vocals in a song while I’m writing. For the most part, songs with vocals distract me while I’m trying to write. I see where you were going with the whole playing with the sounds and rhythm of language.

    I once started to brainstorm a short story based on the lyrics to “The Siren’s Song” by Australian metal band Parkway Drive. It never got beyond the outline phase. It would have been the most “mainstream” aka least SF/F story I’d ever written.