In November 2010 I introduced Inspiration and Music, a post showing off a game I created to aid in idea development. I haven’t played the game in a long time, and I thought it might be fun to play it again publicly, with my very different musical landscape and, hopefully, keener creative instincts. Stand by for more…
First, 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. I take notes as each episode title is revealed. Here’s what I got:
1.01: The First Five Times
1.03: I Always Knew
1.06: Have You Got It In You?
1.09: Sound of Silence
1.10: Hide and Seek
1.13: A Reminder
1: The first song is always crucial, as the opening story often tells us something about the show. The First Five Times always feels like a sexual reference, and it feels perfect for the pilot title for a romantic dramedy. It’s the perfect origin story for a romantic drama, I think.
2: Halcyon is a reference to good times: calm, peace, happiness, wealth. It’s also a reference to a mythical bird that brings calm seas. Not a very potent dramatic centre, is it?
3: However, if the ‘halcyon’ is referring to a person, perhaps a supporting character whose presence helps romantic couples experience good times? It feels like a classic sitcom plot for the central couple, challenged with the existence of this miracle friend, to see if they can keep the good times flowing on their own and causing hijinks to ensue. Sitcom?
4: The song itself, Halycon, is about comfort and someone being a place of safety. If this show skews more dramatic, this could be the episode where tragedy strikes and one lead must take refuge in the other’s arms.
5: The third title, “I Always Knew”, is very evocative. It feels like the revelation that a secret was never, in fact, a secret. Is this a romantic secret? A family secret? A friendship secret?
6: Not sure what “Flicks” offers, to be honest. One to come back to.
7: Dreamaniacs is interesting. If the show skews more dramatic, could this be the episode where the cast addresses the dreams that drive them? If a sitcom, probably a farcical sleepwalking episode. Or sleepfighting?
8: Coming up on midseason, we get the rather dramatic “Have You Got It In You”. A challenge – can you make this decision? Can you do what you’ve committed to do? I think this title, of all of them, sways the show towards the dramatic. Combining this with Halcyon and I Always Knew, I keep thinking that there’s some kind of tragedy or secret in the cast’s background that is coming to light. I’m still not getting a sense of the cast of this thing, though, and we’re a long way from the romantic dramedy of the pilot.
9: “Sometimes you sulk, sometimes you burn,” go the lyrics at the centre of episode’s title. I’m starting to feel like emotions are key to this series. A therapy drama? Perhaps a romantic therapy drama? ‘The First Five Times’ could be ironic; at first glance a reference to the sexual exploits of the lead’s youth, only to actually refer to marriage counselling. This offers a compelling new perspective on the comfort/peace of Halcyon, the revelation of I Always Knew, the danger of Have You Got It In You.
10: Who is Sarah? I’d suspect it’s either a castmate, implying this is a tightly focused episode on one of the leads or supporting players; or, it’s a guest star whose actions have huge consequences for the cast. Is Sarah the name of an affair? Is her identity a mystery? Who is Sarah? In the lead-up to the final pod, it’s an intriguing mystery.
11: With the adultery implications of the previous episode, I definitely see “Sound of Silence” as an episode about the core couple living apart. The silence that haunts them after the revelation of Sarah’s identity forced them to take time apart, perhaps leading to a final separation.
12: Hide and Seek implies that someone has vanished, and someone is seeking. A playfulness to it; I can almost hear one of the core couple derisively referring to the others’ disappearance as a “game of hide and seek”, cynical after the drama of past weeks. Of course, it may end up being more than a game…
13: Atlantis is puzzling, in the context of the run up to the end of the season. What does a mysterious underwater city have to do with the domestic drama unfurling so far? It carries odd evocations considering Halcyon’s particular mythologies about calm seas.
14: The penultimate episode’s title is very dramatic, and worrying, considering the disappearance in ‘Hide and Seek’. There’s a question of, where did this separation come from? Is there a greater mystery at the heart of this broken relationship? A missing child, perhaps? And Handcuffs, of course, bringing the arc started in Hide and Seek to a head.
15: And the season finale is very intriguing. Ending the season on A Reminder. Just as I was thinking on the past, the backstory of the series, the season finale is an explicit reference to the past being pulled into the present: A Reminder. Something that pulls the issues back into focus, allowing both for a small sense of closure and an opening up towards the issues still in play.
16: I’m getting a sense of three arcs: 1.01-1.05 laying things out in a ‘issue of the week’ format, 1.06-1.08 a deepening of the drama heading up to the revelations of Sarah, and then the final arc, 1.09-1.13, spinning out towards a conclusion.
Summary: A series about a couple whose relationship was thrown into chaos after the tragic disappearance/death of their child, and their struggles to reconnect in counselling. Over the course of the season their emotional dynamic is explored closely even as dramatic turns – separations, disappearances, revelations – keep the story chugging forward.
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.
CHARACTER ONE: SPOUSE 1
Imogen Heap – “Speeding Cars”
Black Lab – “Weightless”
The All-American Rejects feat. The Pierces – “Another Heart Calls”
The Pierces – “Louisa”
Notes as I shuffled:
1: I know you think it’s more than just bad luck. There there baby, it’s just textbook stuff. It’s in the ABC of growing up. Now now darling, don’t kill yourself, ’cause none of us were angels and you know I love you yeah. An excellent song for this premise, a song about guilt and self-destruction and love. But are these words coming from this character, or to
them? Also, It’s okay by me, it was a long time ago… Are these cracks just starting to form, perhaps years after the shattering event?
2: I can see you there, hanging weightless in their air… There’s something very comforting about this voice. A secret island in your mind, lost forever before your time… I’m getting a sense that this character is the comforting one, who is trying to connect to their guilt-ridden spouse. Broken glass, bleeding wrist, a second chance for a simple kiss. I waited for you at the edge. How could you take such a risk? On your knees, on your back, who’d you call when things got bad? Did they answer? Did you ask? Cause I would answer, I would tell you this… This character has been betrayed, this character is seeing their spouse vanishing into their grief in front of their eyes and they just want to keep both of them alive. This character can’t even focus on their own pain because they’re so afraid of losing their spouse.
3: Another song about communication, though this one is different. Talk to me, I’m throwing myself in front of you. […] All I ever do is give, it’s time you saw my point of view. I feel like this comforting character will lose patience, become frustrated. They are working so hard and no matter what they say, they are being ignored. Maybe they should be angry. I’m sorry! / I don’t care! You were never there! Maybe, after all this grief, this character is ready to address the problems instead of allowing their marriage to be swallowed by grief.
4: I heard about it last week, that you were thinking about leaving me. You can be so sweet, but you can be such a stubborn girl when you want to be. Louisa, won’t you think it over? The arc that’s become apparent throughout these songs is a supportive spouse slowly losing patience with their partner’s grief preventing them from making progress and getting frustrated. I feel like this episode tells us that this character eventually leaves – that they are the one who initiates the separation in Sound of Silence, vanishes in Hide and Seek. Probably the revelator of I Always Knew as well.
So, we’ve got Louisa, the wife of the pair who has done her best to comfort her guilt-ridden spouse over their child’s disappearance, but slowly comes to belief that very grief, that suicidal arc towards self-destructive, is away of turning the issue into a way for her spouse to dominate the conversation and the attention, and to keep her feeling like she needs to be there. This sets up an interesting partner 1 of the marriage, so let’s see partner two…
CHARACTER TWO: THERAPIST
Originally I thought this would be the second spouse, but it became apparent as the songs unfurled that this was the therapist. You’ll note I only figure this out at Song #3.
Andrew Bird – “Tables and Chairs”
Anna Nalick – “Breathe (2am)”
Alanis Morissette – “Incomplete”
Franz Ferdinand – “Dream Again”
1: Interesting that the second spouse’s songs start with this piece about loneliness, friendship, and the end of society as we know it. There’s a hopefulness to it, too, as the song stresses the closeness after the fall of civilisation, which works easily as a symbol for the catastrophic event in their pasts.
2: This song, which I’ve always interpreted as being about the inconvenient birth of a child (or, alternately, the sadness surrounding a necessary abortion), is very interesting. Perhaps this is backstory about the child at the centre of things? The child of a young mother and a charming alcoholic. Also strength in the face of problems: There’s a light at the end of this tunnel, you shout ’cause you’re in as you’ll ever be out, and these mistakes you’ll just make them again, if you’d only try turning about. In the context of this story, there’s the idea of pushing through the mistakes you’ve made to the other side. Very different from what I expected from the other character.
3: Another song about peace. This doesn’t fit the spouse at all, but I’m feeling like this might be the therapist. After all, it’s all about getting through trouble, coming to terms with their pasts, and surviving tragedy and moving forward.
4: Don’t be afraid if you’re descending the deepest despair without a handrail to guide you. Our therapist again a comforting figure.
CHARACTER THREE: SPOUSE TWO
My Latest Novel – “I Declare a Ceasefire”
Radiohead – “My Iron Lung”
Florence + the Machine – “Shake It Out”
Black Lab – “Something You Don’t Know”
1: “I Declare a Ceasefire” seems to be a beg for peace. Analysing dialogue, an arsenal so lightly thrown… Please, put down your guns, lower your weapons. As much as Louisa thinks she is being fair and comforting in the face of overwhelming grief, Spouse 2 feels that she blames him (as established in the above backstory, the alcoholic young man of “Breathe”) for what happened, for all of his mistakes, and is begging for her to honestly forgive him. A massive miscommunication between the two.
2: Very interesting. You’re driving me away, you do it everyday, you don’t mean it but it hurts like hell. So the husband understand that Louisa isn’t conscious of any anger, but still feels it under the surface and can’t handle it. He doesn’t trust her to know what she feels, and he definitely doesn’t trust the therapist: The headshrinkers, they want everything, after all. So he’s encased in an iron lung of grief to protect him from his life.
3: Regrets collect like old friends here to relive your darkest moments… And all of the ghouls come out to play. Every demon wants his pound of flesh, but I like to keep some thing to myself. I like to keep my issues drawn; it’s always darkest before the dawn. I feel like this song, like Louisa’s first song, is about his journey. It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off. He’s got to shed his regrets – I am done with my graceless heart, so tonight I’m going to cut it out ant then restart – he may have to end his marriage in order to bury his regrets. It’s a fine romance, but it’s left me so undone.
4. You’re a ghost town, maybe I’m a ghost. There’s something you don’t know: I’ll go wherever you go. After questioning whether he needs to end his marriage to shake his regrets, maybe he does, but he can’t leave Louisa. I see you and I swing for the fences. Whatever they’ve gone through, being with her still makes him want to fight for something, even if he’s had to struggle to get back to that place. So, the season ends with a reaffirmation of his commitment. A ‘reminder’, as it were.
So, we have a wrenching drama about a couple shattered by grief, and coming to terms with their loss and anger through therapy. I’m seeing the final arc because about the return of the person who killed their child, leading to Louisa’s disappearance in Hide and Seek and apprehended in Handcuffs, with A Reminder setting the stage for a reconciliation. This one feels like a miniseries.
And thus, again, the Music Inspiration game builds an interesting show with some slightly complex characters and a rough story arc! From here you can cut and change whatever you like; the game is, as ever, useful in building the foundations of an idea so that you can get your inspiration machine up and running!