How being a musician affects scriptwriting and storytelling –
The first in a series of short (OK, short-ish) articles –
1. Story ghosts
One of the amazing things about making digital music – especially working with laptops and sample libraries – is that you can follow a chain of thought that would have taken huge resources even 20 years ago, throwing all kinds of material in, calling on high-quality sounds every step of the way. It means you don’t have to always have to protect an investment in every stage of the work. Amazing sonic material doesn’t have to stay part of the music just because you feel you can’t scrap it.
I’m fond of a technique that involves building a composition from a central idea – some amazing sound or riff or melody – and then eventually ditching that initial sound, removing it as further layers and further ideas take over. Most of my compositions are like this these days. I don’t know if that counts as a strategy or a habit. But it kind of chimes with something by Brian Eno:
In organising a thought in any way an unsuspected dimension is added to it. It’s exactly the same way with music. You work on a piece of music, you put in certain ingredients, and suddenly they react in a way you hadn’t predicted. If you’re alert to that reaction, that’s what you work from. If you’re stupid, you try to cancel that reaction out.
A lot of people have such a fixed image of what the product should be that they refuse to allow any deviation. Again and again, they’ll force the music into a mold until it goes where they want it to go. This generally leads to quite uninteresting music – or uninteresting anything.
Recently I’ve begun to think more and more of scriptwriting, for any medium, as suffering most from the desire to mold a recognisable product rather than something vibrant. I’m the kind of writer who enjoys finding plot by putting a bunch of fictional people in a room together, in an interesting situation, and seeing how they react.
I mean I properly love the craft of scriptwriting – I enjoy making the pieces fit, and sometimes that means making them fit a style, a genre, an expectation. I enjoy this in scriptwriting in a way that I can’t really stomach in music-making.
But the more I write, the more scripted projects I work on, the more I’m finding my personal limits for those generic expectations and behaviours. I know some people go so far as to describe these behaviours as ‘the rules of storytelling’ – but if all you ever do is follow perceived rules, the result becomes rigid.
Outlines and synopses tend to make me ‘write in outline’, in a language, a form. I much prefer the surprises that come when the people on the page begin to assume life. When the story comes alive, the exposition falls away in much the same way that initial sound in my compositions fades down to nothing, and the drama is left to do its work. The original driving force is still there; it’s just doing its job in the past.
I’m watching a series at the moment which is excellent in so many ways, but every time the characters address anything that might be described as the story’s ‘theme’ they suddenly start speaking as though they’re expressing their own character outlines. In these moments the initial driving force of the drama looms large. It’s no longer needed, but is still sitting stubbornly in the middle of the mix, doing its job in front of us, cramping the style of everything else. If you completely removed it, the whole thing would breathe.