photo and music by C.D. Hersh
We went to a concert the other night put on by a local symphonic group. One of the pieces the orchestra played was Dream of a Soldier by Edward Santoro, a WWII army soldier who was a musician and band director. The piece is filled with pathos and emotions—pain, suffering, joy, pride, passion—that Santoro saw reflected in the faces of the soldiers he encountered during the war.
The music reminded us of the underscores one hears in the movies. The crashing sounds of intense, emotional buildup. The rich, melodious strains that support beautiful love scenes. The dissonant, harsh minor chords that underlay pain-laden story events. We heard every emotion played so clearly on the orchestra instruments that it felt like we were being taken on an emotional rollercoaster.
If you’ve ever watched a movie you’ll realize that even though you might not consciously hear an underscore of music (unless the volume is so overwhelming that one has to stuff their fingers in their ears), the music provides a subtext that enriches the story and pulls listeners toward an emotion that the director wants us to experience.
After the concert, ever the dissecting writers that we are, we began to wonder if writers apply the musical underscore concept to novel writing. What do we use that stirs the reader like the music in a movie stirs the viewer?
To underscore something means to accentuate it, to call attention to it, to emphasis or highlight. Music underscores do this in a fashion that supports the text the actors are saying or the actions they are performing. Because it’s visual and audible the two things work together quite well
Our musical underscores are the language we use, the details in the scenes that we set, and the internal insight we provide for our readers. Some writers might call this adding depth. This depth or, musical underscore writing as we’re calling it, is the difference between a book that reads flat, versus the richness of a manuscript that has internal narrative, sensory elements, and setting. For the written word, however, providing nuances that enrich and support the words on the page isn’t as simple as adding a single element such as music, since words are more one-dimensional than movies or television. To draw our readers in we need sensory information, emotional content, inner dialogue and ramped up tension.
To give you an idea of what we mean, here is an example that illustrates musical underscore writing. This is a piece of a scene from a Turning Stone Chronicles book WIP without the musical underscore.
Hugh jammed the cell phone and the handgun into LJ’s free hand. “Hurry. Get to the safe room. I’ll hold them off as long as I can. Don’t come out until I, or Mike, if he gets here in time, come to get you.” He kissed the top of the baby’s head and then grabbed his wife and held her close. “I’m sorry. This is all my fault. I should have been able to protect you two better. Hidden us where he would never find you. Find the baby.”
“You did the best you could, Hugh. Don’t blame yourself.” She kissed him and then ran toward the basement staircase for the safety of the hidden, steel panic room.
Hugh shouldered the vest of explosives he’d prepared and wheeled around for one last look at his family. When LJ reached the top of the steps, she turned and gasped.
“You’ll be safe in the panic room. I swear. The explosion won’t penetrate there.”
“Come with us,” she pleaded.
“They won’t stop unless they believe us dead. There’s no other way.”
She stood absolutely still.
Hugh waved her toward the staircase. When she’d left, he picked up the kill switch and turned to face the assassins he knew advanced.
Great setup here. We know killers are coming for them. We know Hugh is probably a bad ass, and that help is on the way. We can figure out from his actions that he probably loves his wife and the baby and that he’s feeling guilty about what is happening. We also know from her request that LJ probably loves Hugh, and she doesn’t want him to die. This paragraph could stand on its own, but, as it reads now, there is no emotional connection that the reader can grab on to. There’s nothing to force the reader to care about the characters and want to see what happens. No crescendo swells of music to tug on the readers’ hearts. Nothing but the basic information you need to tell part of the story.
Now let’s add some musical underscoring to this scene. The original text is bolded so you can see how musical underscore writing adds depth that tugs on your hearts.
Hugh jammed the cell phone and the handgun into LJ’s free hand. Her flesh was as cold as the metal of the magnum pressed against her palm. For a moment he wondered if she would actually fire it. Damn! He should have seen this coming and taken her to the pistol range so they’d be more prepared. He pressed her unwilling fingers around the weapon.
“Hurry.” His voice cracked, and he struggled to keep it strong for her. “Get to the safe room. I’ll hold them off as long as I can. Don’t come out until I or Mike, if he gets here in time, come to get you.”
He kissed the top of the baby’s head and then grabbed his wife and held her close, committing the feel of her to his memory. Was she doing the same? Because if he was right, he wasn’t going to survive tonight. Gazing into her eyes, he saw the depth of her fear. The baby’s chin started trembling as he caught his mother’s anxiety. LJ started shivering, too. He pulled them tighter in his embrace, unwilling to let them go, but knowing he must.
“I’m sorry. This is all my fault. I should have been able to protect you two better. Hidden us where he would never find you. Find the baby.”
“You did the best you could, Hugh. Don’t blame yourself.” She kissed him, and he felt the electricity of her passion surge through him. It gave him strength for what lay ahead. Strength to die for them. Strength to kill the men who were coming.
Reluctantly, he released her, and she ran toward the basement staircase for the safety of the hidden, steel panic room.
Hugh shouldered the vest of explosives he’d prepared and wheeled around for one last look at his family. When LJ reached the top of the steps, she turned and gasped. Her brown eyes rounded, dark pools of apprehension shining from her pale face.
“You’ll be safe in the panic room. I swear. The explosion won’t penetrate there.”
“Come with us,” she pleaded. She started toward him.
He motioned her back, the expression on her face nearly undoing in his resolve. Could they run one more time? Find someplace where they would be safe? At his hesitation her face brightened and she took another step in his direction.
“Don’t, LJ. We have to make a stand here and now. They won’t stop unless they believe us dead. There’s no other way.”
She stood absolutely still as disbelief, terror, anguish, and, finally, love, swept over her face.
The emotions flooded the room, nearly choking him with their intensity. Hugh waved her toward the staircase. When she’d left, he picked up the kill switch and turned to face the assassins he knew advanced. They would not take his family. Not as long as he had breath left in his body.
In this version we’ve added emotions, lots of emotions, because this is a highly emotional scene. There’s no need for much setting here, because we’re not trying to set a scene. It’s obvious from the words such as basement staircase and panic room that we are probably in the couple’s home. What we want to do here, in this highly charged scene, is grab the readers’ hearts and make them turn the next page to see who survives. We want them to ask, “Will Hugh survive? Will he actually blow himself up to protect his family? Or will the cavalry arrive in time to save everyone?” We want them to wait breathlessly for the next crashing crescendo of music to carry them farther into the story.
So what’s the easiest way to tell if you’ve added musical underscores? Try writing the dialogue first. Get the basic ideas and direction of your scene in place, then go back over the scene and reread it. If it’s a scene that needs setting, add that first. Then layer in some of the senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and auditory senses. Next add emotions. Sprinkle in inner thoughts where appropriate. Then make sure you have the tension on the page that Donald Maas advocates.
If you tend to write your musical underscores the first time around, go back and double-check that you have put the right things in the right amounts into your scene. A highly charged scene, such as a love scene, shouldn’t have a lot of back story dropped in, unless it’s relevant to something that starts or stops the emotional rollercoaster of a love scene. Don’t stop an action scene to have the character reminisce about how he got in this predicament. There will be time for that if he survives. When the setting is important to the scene, be sure and add the elements you need to create that dark and stormy night, or the peek at the rich and famous, or whatever you might be trying to set with your scene. Don’t neglect the senses, either. Smell, touch, and what we hear are three powerful senses that can transport the reader into your story in a matter of seconds. And above all, remember, you want to grab the reader, not overwhelm them with purple prose.
So, the next time you sit down to write, imagine a musical underscore for your scene, and compose the music with the things you know best—words.
How do you add your musical underscores in your books?