The Soundtrack of Suspense: How Music Influences My Words

Pace. Rhythm. Tension.

It’s no coincidence these terms describe both stories and music. In fact, for me, music has always helpedmohicanposter me create stories. When someone mentions a favorite scene from one of my novels, more often than not, I immediately remember the music that was playing in my headphones when I wrote it: Olaf’s attack on Brady and his son in Comes a Horseman (“Elk Hunt” from Last of the Mohicans); Stephen’s confrontation with the killer Atropos in Germ (“The Battle” from Gladiator); Hutch’s apprehensive readiness to rise from charred ground and fight at the end of Deadfall (“Death is the Road to Awe” from The Fountain). Music gets me in the mindset to write specific scenes—its rhythm reminds me of the pace I’m looking for as I work to find just the right words; its mood holds me in a sort of suspended animation within the scene, regardless of outside distractions or the time it takes to write it.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve listened to music as I wrote—through years of writing magazine articles and intermittent screenplays. It started as a way of deadening the sounds of screaming kids, vacuum cleaners, and when I rented an outside office, the shouts coming from the divorce attorney’s office next door. Then I started writing novels, and the type of music I played suddenly mattered.

Faster tempos do help keep the pace up—if not within the story, then at least with how fast my fingers move over a keyboard; but then, volume helps with that as well. The louder, the better. More important than tempo is how a piece of music makes me feel. A cue that starts off slow and builds to a triumphant crescendo can carry me through a fast-paced action sequence as well as any nonstop, staccato rhythm. “Chevaliers de Sangreal” from The Da Vinci Code, for example: a hero’s theme if ever there was one.

Over time, I’ve built a library of music categorized by the mood it puts me in when I write. Take, for instance, Clint Mansell’s haunting music for Requiem for a Dream. Its cues seem to be teetering on the edge of something, without relief or execution. No wonder several of the song titles have the word “Tense” in them. When I launch into a suspenseful scene, I’ll often queue up my Requiem playlist.

For example, a recent scene I wrote had a mixture of suspense and action, so I powered up “Betrayal” from Enemy at the Gates—from the scene in which they discover a young boy murdered and hanging from a crane. It’s emotive and heart-wrenching, and prior to the “discovery” almost painful in its anticipation.

My writing-music of choice is almost always film scores. It seems to me that movie moguls are the benefactors of today’s great composers, Hollywood the new Vienna. I like that the structure of a good story—with its cycle of tension and relief, despair and triumph—forces a wide variation in music within one recording. I used to think the strong bond between a movie’s images and its music would cause me to think only of those images while listening to the score—Russell Crowe plucking his violin in Master and Commander. However, I’ve found that the spirit of the music takes over and I can claim it for my own. That’s why filmmakers often listen to other movies’ scores while on set. They’re not trying to imitate another movie’s scene; they’re letting the music help them get in the mood for their own scene. The director Ridley Scott is known for doing this.

monkey-with-headphonesThankfully, most movie scores don’t have lyrics. I’m too much of a word geek to write with lyrics pounding into my eardrums: I’m always trying to listen to them. Every now and then, however, a song with lyrics is perfect for getting me into the groove of a scene (though usually it’s something in its rhythm, tempo or melody, rarely its words that attracts me to it). When that happens, I play it over and over until my mind stops trying to catch every word and hears the vocals as it does any other instrument. Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” comes to mind; I listened to it while writing the scene that introduced Brendan Page, my novel Deadlock’s villain, a true sinnerman with a penchant for “cool,” which the song captures.

It’s all about what works for the individual writer. When writing action scenes, Meg Gardiner (The Memory Collector) says that Gladiator, The Day After Tomorrow, Jarhead and 300 “get me in a fightin’ mood.” David Dun says he listened to “the womb-like sounds of a whirlpool hot tub with all the jets running” while writing his novel The Black Silent. Hey, whatever works.

0 thoughts on “The Soundtrack of Suspense: How Music Influences My Words

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  • Norb Vonnegut

    Bob, I was surprised that you don’t listen to lyrics. I play the blues when I write. Not so much to affect the pacing. But more to give action a southern feel. The songs make me feel good and I think, in an odd way, open me up to feeling the emotions of my characters. Loved the post.

  • Call Me Heretic

    I seem to be too keyed to music to attempt writing to it. Even if there aren’t words, the melody carries me away and I’ll start dancing in my seat. However, I do use music to get me into the correct emotion or mindset. It also helps me get into my character’s head. Their preferences say a lot about who they are and where they’re at in life.

  • Jeff

    Very cool. I completely agree re: songs with lyrics vs. instrumental. The lyrics demand too much attention from me as well, and I end up sitting back and contemplating them instead of creating my own!