WRITING: Inspiration and Music

One of the oldest questions in the book for writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Every writer tries to answer this question, from the masters to the nobodies, and this is one possible answer from one specific nobody: Music. After the jump, an exploration of how I find music useful in developing new ideas, and a game-slash-method for thinking up new concepts to play with.

I live my life to music. It wouldn’t be a stretch if I legally married my iPod, as we’re attached at the earbuds. Listening to it offers my life not only a drumbeat to walk to, but a never-ending eddy of stories and emotions to draw new ideas from.

For example, a few nights ago, I started listening to my iPod and a couple hours later had a concept for a dramatic about a group of friends and siblings who, twenty-five years after being close friends, fight over the custody and care of one’s daughter after he dies, starring Hope Davis and Michelle Forbes. I won’t be pursuing the idea, but I was able to flesh out the lead and her backstory with the rest in pretty decent detail before I was done for the night.

What I do is, I use the shuffle feature on my iPod to give myself a mix of different concepts, ideas and emotions to look at, and begin to feel out some thematic commonalities that hint at a story. I’ll walk you through it in this post, going through every step of the ‘inspiration’ as I work through it.

Usually I’ll use the first thirteen as an episode title list, and use that as a jumping off point for the rest of the idea. Here’s what I got:

1.01: What’s a Girl to Do?
1.02: Rehab
1.03: Prime-Time Deliverance
1.04: Crawl
1.05: The Space Song
1.06: Tables and Chairs
1.07: The Perfect Fit
1.08: Stains of Saints
1.09: Spinney
1.10: Time of Our Lives
1.11: Somewhere Out There
1.12:  The Laws Have Changed
1.13: I Do Not Love You Anymore

Notes as I shuffled:

1: The first title is always very key to the eventual idea, as the title of the pilot speaks to the origins of the concept. Based on “What’s a Girl to Do?”, it implies I’ve got a female protagonist in a quandary, possibly facing a Catch-22 situation.
2: The emotional content of the first song is semi-gothic, chilling, and a story of falling out of love with a paramour. This could work into the story I’m developing.
3: The second song, ‘Rehab’, could literally apply to a rehabilitation centre or dealing with drugs/alcohol, or it could be a thematic point, possibly relating to the idea of ‘rehab’ and dealing with one’s addiction to something. Perhaps this is a reaction or a consequence of the choice in 1.01?
4: The song itself in a song about holding one’s ground in the face of others’ judgements. Though I’m not fond of break-up stories, this could connect with the story of the first: the idea of leaving behind a no-longer-needed lover.
5:  The third song is one I’m less familiar with, but the title has some religious themes, as well as some capitalistic ones. A reference to television, as well. The song itself is grim.
6:  The fourth title, “Crawl”, continues the sense of darkness and struggle within the show. The idea forming in my head is one of repentance, with a female lead forced to make a horrible decision (1.01), and spends the next few episodes seeking some kind of amends: dealing with her damage (1.02), looking into religion (1.03), and punishing herself for her mistake(1.04).
7:  The fifth title, ‘The Space Song’, feels a bit off from the rest. A reference to space and music, neither of which tie into the prominent themes so far. The song itself, however, offers the idea of space as a place of freedom and wonder, perhaps injecting some peace and happiness into our protagonist’s life? Also, space hits on the idea of ‘reaching for the stars’ — could that be a reference to ambition of some sort?
8:  The sixth title, ‘Tables and Chairs’, is very evocative of a domestic setting, possibly very conversation-based.
9:  The seventh title is about being a ‘perfect fit’, possibly a reference to our protagonist finally finding where she belongs – only to have it ripped out from under her?
10:  1.08’s title, ‘Stains of Saints’, seems to be a call to our protagonist to realise she isn’t perfect, as nobody is. Perhaps this episode, it even becomes clear that the incident may not rest on her shoulders alone?
11:  I’m not quite sure ‘Spinney’ adds to the proceedings, except perhaps a trip to England, or a sense of disorientation.
12:  ‘Our’ is the first reference to a group, and the title implies a positive group experience. The song itself offers, “Who of us can tell what these dark days will bring?”
13:  ‘Somewhere Out There’ is very interesting, particularly this close to end-of-season. A sense of yearning and hope, and a search for something good.
14:  The penultimate episode of the season offers ‘The Laws Have Changed’, which has always spoken to me of a sense of something being taken away- the laws have changed, and your behaviour or possessions are no longer legal, and must be abandoned.
15:  And the finale title, which is very evocative of a sense of closure: a rejection. But who is rejected by whom?
16: I get the sense of three ‘arcs’ or steps through the season: 1.01-1.05, the lead’s search for repentance and forgiveness; 1.06-1.09, a sense of stabilising with new information coming to light, and 1.10-1.13, where everything suddenly changes and seems bigger than it was before.

Summary: A series about a choice, and what happens after that choice, as the female lead struggles to come to terms with what happened. There must be more, though, as that isn’t enough for a series, but merely a seasonal arc. More to explore.

The next step I take is to look at a cluster of four songs per character, using the inherent differences and contradictions to build a potentially complex character, while drawing on subtle thematic ties to bond the character’s disparate sides together. As this one requires a better sense of each song’s emotional truth, I now move to my more-listened to playlist.

CHARACTER ONE: FEMALE PROTAGONIST

Glee Cast – “Empire State of Mind”
Arcade Fire – “Ready to Start”
Garbage – “Breaking Up the Girl”
Garbage – “The World is Not Enough”

Notes as I shuffled:

1: The first song has always felt like an expression of joy at the urban environment and the potential of life, giving me a character who possibly feels something like that at her core. Lives in New York, or just a metaphor for all cities?
2:  A dark, brooding song that feels very much to me about being in a dark place and struggling to get out. The lyrics look at the idea of distrusting authority, but “they bow down to him anyway, ’cause its better than being alone.” Also, this key lyric pops out: “I would rather be alone than pretend I’m alright.” There’s also the elements of those left outside of the psychological cave, trying to get in and pull her out of her funk. And, “now I’m ready to start”, giving us that she’s ready to start moving forward. Also, there’s elements of either a love interest or an ex character whom tries to get involved.
3:  The third song, is all about letting go of someone because you could destroy them: “It’s a drag, I know it’s hard, but you’re tearing her apart; walk away cause you’re breaking up the girl.” Could she be clinging too hard to someone, perhaps in her search to fix her mistake? She’s trying to find some relief and fix everything, but its only making things worse.
4:  A heavily sexualised song, twisted up in themes of overwhelming ambition and possessiveness. Power struggles and manipulation, hinting that this character may be someone with less-than-sterling moral fibre. “No one ever died from wanting too much,” after all, though I suspect the series would disprove this particular theory.
5: Here’s what I’m getting: a fiercely independent urbanite in a high-pressure job, with plenty of ambition to spare. There’s a lot of anger and confidence in these songs, as well as a healthy dollop of sadness. I’m getting the sense that ‘the girl’ and the choice are family oriented, perhaps making the choice between her own life and the life of another? Maybe she could have saved someone and decided not to, so a peripheral figure is placed in Protagonist’s care.

I think to unfurl more, we need to look at:

CHARACTER: THE GIRL

Who is the girl that is at the heart of the matter?

Alanis Morissette – “Narcissus”
OK Go – “A Million Ways”
A Fine Frenzy – “Electric Twist”
Alanis Morissette – “Incomplete”

Notes as I shuffle:

1: The first song offers a portrait of a narcissistic personality, as well as someone who consistently dismissed women and/or their love interests. It offers, “Why do I try to change you when you really don’t want me to?”, possibly hinting at the relationship with the protagonist developed with “Breaking Up the Girl”.
2:  These songs are painting a much different picture than I expected. The seed of the character comes from someone being destroyed by Protagonist’s clinging, while sese songs are offering a much different portrait. Not only a narcissist, but someone who is “a million ways to be cruel”. A ton of false confidence paved over the trauma of the pilot’s event?
3:  “You should be wilder, you’re no fun at all,” The Girl tells her confidante as she dances through life, giving an electric twist that kicks like a pony and gets away with it, but it’s a risk. And “He says, ‘Don’t think, don’t talk, don’t think’,” and “the touch of your lips, it’s a shock not a kiss,”: a relationship where affection is attack and communication is only used to silence. Could ‘the girl’ character, who could easily be male or female, be the Protagonist’s love interest, tied into the tragedy with her? The idea of a caustic relationship at the centre of the series is very interesting. Also, this offers the idea that ‘the girl’ is also the subject of the dialogue in “Ready to Start”, begging the Protagonist to come out and dance the electric twist…
4: “Incomplete” offers a sense of yearning, and a challenge to the idea that we can ever be what we want to be. “One day I will be healed… I have been running so sweaty my whole life, urgent for a finish line, and I have been missing the rapture this whole time of being forever incomplete,” offering us a look at The Girl’s inner secret: insecurity and a yearning to realise her potential, perhaps coming up on the realisation at the core of Morissette’s song.
5: A cruel, confident, sensuous, damaged, desrespectful, caustic figure tied deeply into the Protagonists journey to peace. Interesting.
6: Knowing the relationship at the centre of the season, and the idea that Protagonist has to let go of The Girl in order to not destroy her, the finale carries much more resonance. Could “I Do Not Love You Anymore” be Protagonist’s gambit to detach herself from The Girl upon realising how their relationship is destroying them?
7: Also, now that there’s a key relationship, 1.10 “Time of Our Lives” could easily apply to our lead couple. Could they have a moment of perfect synchronicity late in the season that changes how they view each other?

So, we’ve got a vague sense of the kickoff and general emotional arc for the series, as well as a portrait of two of our leads and a potential finale event. Barring further analysis of the current elements, it’s time to add:

CHARACTER: SUPPORTING CHARACTER 1

Rilo Kiley – “I Never”
Alanis Morissette – “Giggle Again For No Reason”
Garbage – “Silence is Golden”
The Pierces – “Nobody Knows”

Notes as I shuffle:

1 – “I got nothing to give you see, except everything, all the good and the bad,” things start off, giving a sense of another relationship within the cast. Is this love romantic, friendship, familial? There’s a sense of tossing away all care and diving into a powerful feeling here.
2 –  Again, a song about utter joy in the face of escaping one’s problems. Is this the relastionship that brings Protagonist to that middle arc of peace and exploration?
3 –  “Silence is golden, I have been broken” goes the new character’s third song. A sense of trauma, of fear, and anger. Could ‘the girl’ be, in fact, both supporting characters so far? Or could this character be the Protagonist’s salvation? Or merely a distraction? Either way, a desperation to be heard and loved sits at the core of this character’s personality.
4 –  “Nobody shows you if they love you. They only try so hard to be above you.” Wow, the frustration at the centre of this supporting castmate grows even further. Nobody listens, and everyone prefers to overpower you than love you. There’s a sense that this character falls for Protagonist because of the attention she shows this character, not knowing that perhaps its part of her penitence. This adds an interesting sense to the series: Is this character an adult or a child? A victim of the Protagonist’s choice?

CHARACTER: SUPPORTING CHARACTER 2

Anya Marina – “Lullaby For a Realist”
The Animals – “House of the Rising Sun”
Buffy Cast – “Walk Through the Fire”
Martina Sorbara – “Cherry Rd.”

Notes as I shuffle:

1 – So much of the other characters is based around focusing on the good and avoiding or ignoring the bad, while “Lullaby for a Realist” clearly puts this character as someone able to face both the good and the bad. A sorely needed realist voice.
2 –  With the introduction of self-destructive behaviour here, like implied in 1.02’s title, I get the sense that SC2 is Protagonist’s sponsor for her addiction issues that reoccur after The Choice.
3 –  “Walk Through the Fire” is about feeling as if, after a symbolic death, the world is no longer something that can be felt. A numbness.
4 – “‘Cause in it’s wreckage and rubble and all that broken glass, I’ll find a stone that I can throw and I’ll find some peace and take a handful home,” this piece offers. Even in wreckage, even in numbness, there is peace and value that can be taken from it. Definitely a mentor figure, who even in the midst of a dissolution and numbness, is able to offer a new perspective.

And either one or two characters to fill out the ensemble:

CHARACTER: SUPPORTING CHARACTER 3

OK Go – “A Million Ways”
Alanis Morissette – “Crazy”
Alanis Morissette – “Giggle Again For No Reason”
Garbage – “Shut Your Mouth”

Notes as I shuffle:

1 –  Very interesting, as “A Million Ways” recurs with this character. Very interesting that the show will have two people who are a million ways to be cruel.
2 –  “But we’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy,” offers this foruth character. Intriguing.
3 –  And another recurrence, “Giggle Again For No Reason”, offers a bridge between The Girl and Supporting Character 2. Crazy, cruel and joyous. I expect the fourth song will offer their place in this ensemble.
4 – And the fourth song does indeed offer this character’s place. Just as SC2 struggled with being silenced, we are given a character who prizes their ability to silence others. There’s a specific, misogynistic voice to this song that makes it definitely male, and I’m feeling like this is either Protagonist or SC2’s father, and a recurring character who comes in to reopen wounds at the worst time possible.

CHARACTER: SUPPORTING CHARACTER 4

Garbage – “Silence is Golden”
Arcade Fire – “Rebellion (Lies)”
Garbage – “Cup of Coffee”
Evanescence – “Good Enough”

Notes as I shuffle:

1. Another recurrence, offering another similar dynamic to that between SC2 and SC3. Who is this?
2. “Rebellion (Lies)” implies someone who lies to make someone fear, possibly a sibling to SC2 and a fellow prisoner of SC3’s attacks. Someone, perhaps, whose reaction to the abuse was to follow a similar path?
3. “Cup of Coffee” is a song about rejection and disappointment – perhaps the poisoned familiar relationship has caused SC4 to withdraw from SC2?
4. “Good Enough” makes me think that SC4 is still seeking their father’s approval, to the point of self-destruction.

The resulting skeletal pitch:

“After a terrible accident, SALLY PROTAGONIST struggles with the difficult decision she had to make, and about whether to tell her girlfriend, THE GIRL, despite their increasingly toxic relationship. However, Sally finds comfort in a growing relationship with a fellow survivor, HANNAH SC 2, who brings her peace despite her caustic secret. PITCH is a dramatic new series about morality in the face of unimaginable circumstances, and the long road to recovery. It will explore issues of addiction, self-destruction, atonement, love and family.”

So, you can see that this experiment works, if you pursue it with a little creativity. Even though the above isn’t enough to secure a development deal, it is enough of a springboard to launch me into a larger, more complex idea that could be completely different in the end. It’s just the getting you kickstarted that’s important. Music is a great frame to start spitballing ideas, and getting an initial sense of interesting character dynamics. Try it sometime, as it’s also pretty fun.

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One response to “WRITING: Inspiration and Music

  1. Pingback: WRITING: Inspiration and Music II « The Diversionist

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