The Pulse of a Story: A Playlist
Follow along with this set of songs as you journey into a realm waiting on the blank page.
Circa 2010, I think every writer I knew made playlists to go along with their novel drafts. It was "the thing" to do at the time for writers (especially after Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame made it a point to acknowledge her musical muses in the acknowledgements of all her books). I was nineteen, an aspiring writer with her head full of bits and bobs and fantastical fluff, and who was I to deny the allure of the beats to be found for my own stories?
I know: what does that have to do with zen and mindfulness? What about music spurs me on not to dance or zone out or meditate—but write? Let me be honest. It is quite the rare writing hour when I am not listening to music while I write. Music gives me that creative jolt that few other things do. And what better place to go for inspiration than the gift that keeps on giving known as song?
The beautiful thing about music, no matter if it has lyrics or not, is that everyone comes away with different impressions regardless of genre. Even if I gave you a song (as I will below, keep your eyes peeled) and told you to write for fifteen minutes with that song on repeat, I doubt you would come up with a similar story/scene/sentiment to the one I was writing myself. Why is that? Because we are all wonderfully different in the way we view things—and even in the way we respond to music. What impulse does the song invoke? What images come to the forefront as you listen? Just what do you envision within your mind's eye?
Listed below are ten songs I've chosen from various novel playlists I've compiled over the years (recent or otherwise). To me, each one could be a story on its own or together they could link different characters/plot points/impressions. As I go through each song, I'll elaborate on what I "see" in regards to a story (or one I left behind in a yesteryear long ago). Take a little walk with me as we explore the realm of story and imagery through the shape of a playlist.
(Disclaimer: again, everyone is different, so your mileage may vary depending on how you mesh with the playlist. I apologize if none of the music is to your taste! This playlist was curated originally by me for me.)
Blue October - "My Never"
I had a dream that you were with me
It wasn't my fault
You rolled me over, flipped me over
Like a somersault
That doesn't happen to me
I've never been here before
It is not lost on me that this song was an inspiration to Stephenie Meyer, whom I mentioned way at the beginning of this article. Doesn't matter, I still love it.
This song came out when I was still in high school, and I remembered thinking how romantic it was even though Blue October isn't known for the most, er, uplifting songs. But when I listen to this song and close my eyes, I see someone who's lonely while trying to pretend he isn't—but only in dreams is he able to be with the one he loves. Is it a protagonist, or perhaps an enemy who may become a lover to the actual protagonist? Dunno! The song's lyrics are like sketch marks that reveal hints at what the eventual image is.
But let's just say that I still come back to this song years and years after its release because to me it just screams characterization, motives, and so many feelings. And that's why I love it. I never go away from this song without a new idea as to a character who wants someone so much yet, for some reason, will just "never" be able to be with that person. ("My Never," get it?)
Florence + the Machine - "Falling"
Sometimes I wish for falling
Wish for the release
Wish for falling through the air
To give me some relief
Because falling is not the problem
Florence Welch may as well be my muse. There, I said it. I've been listening to her music ever since the debut of Florence + the Machine, and my writing life has never been the same since. Her songs are moody, atmospheric, and drenched in double-meanings and hints of emotion. You know how some people used to feel about Evanescence? That's how I feel about Florence + the Machine.
"Falling" is an interesting song to listen to if you're looking for inspiration as far as story goes. All of Florence's music feels atmospheric like fairy tales to me, and this song is no different. But even if you just take the lyrics verbatim, you can come away with a character who doesn't quite know what falling in love means (yes, that's my interpretation of it; not suicidal ideation) and must adjust her (yes, I'm taking liberties) mindset to that fact about herself. (But the mental illness read is valid too.)
This song just proves to me one thing that I will reiterate (and likely mention again many times before this piece is done): every song will inspire something different in each person. And it doesn't matter if you're a creative mind or not. My best friend may listen to this song and go, "Wow, this is depressing," while I admire the ethereal quality to the vocals and instrumentals and imagine a fairy realm where dying is near impossible. Again? Your mileage may vary.
The Script - "The Man Who Can't Be Moved (Acoustic)"
And maybe I'll get famous as the man who can't be moved
Maybe you won't mean to but you'll see me on the news
And you'll come running to the corner
'Cause you'll know it's just for you
Here's a secret: this was an anthem for all my male leads/love interests when I was writing my early novel drafts in the late 00's. Whenever I wanted to get in the mind and heart of a male character, this was the song I went to. "What does steadfast love feel like? What kind of man would act this way after a break-up? What would make him so sure about this girl he lost?"
(Yes, I look way too much into this stuff, friends.)
Although I've gone the way of trying not to focus as much on heteronormative relationships in my writing, I still think back to this song and how layered it is despite its simplicity. Does that mean it still inspires me all this time later? Definitely.
(Yes, I did write too many idealistic male leads who just wouldn't let go of "the one(s) that got away," how did you know?)
Jokes aside, this song is still one of my favorites from The Script just because I like the story it invokes in my head. For today's world, I can just imagine people taking cell phone videos of this guy hanging out every day in Times Square as he keeps appealing to this unknown girl over social media feeds. It would be fantabulous as a story, I'm sure.
Robyn - "Eclipse"
Some words are just unspoken
Then it all just falls apart
Robyn wasn't always known for her EDM-style music; once upon a time, she released an album that was born from hip-hop roots (or so it sounded to me). But this is one of the songs that flies under the radar when it comes to her musicology because of how low-key it is.
If you listened to "The Man Who Can't Be Moved" above, then I could easily imagine this being the "response" to the guy who's waiting out there every day in Times Square. She's getting tired of being guilt-tripped by her friends and family who say he's a good guy who just deserves a second chance, but she goes to him...and refuses to do the thing (i.e., get back together with him). Does this make her a villain? Perhaps. Or maybe she's the protagonist who just wants to move on with her life even as, per 2021 internet culture, she gets death threats for being "such a b*tch." Who can say?
But what does this example show again? You can listen to two totally unrelated songs, yet miraculously—thanks to the creative brain—you can find a way to link the chains together and form a stronger narrative force. Will I write this story? Er, well, we'll see, but isn't it interesting how music can inspire these things?
If you get anything else out of this piece, recognize that you as a writer can look to music as a guiding point. You don't have to stare at a blank page and suffer as you mull through in silence. I may not be a writing teacher, but art reinforces other art. Take that bit away for your writing toolbox.
Lifehouse ft. Natasha Bedingfield - "Between the Raindrops"
Living like there's nothing left to lose
Chasing after gold mines
Crossing the fine lines we knew
Hold on and take a breath
Let's go on a road trip! Wait, what? Sorry, this song is one I can always imagine playing along to shots of someone driving down a highway into the great unknown.
Lifehouse has been a musical force for my writing (personally) ever since I heard the song "You and Me" back on some pre-CW-era show some long, long time ago. Ever since, I've followed the group sporadically. And this song with Natasha Bedingfield? Perfection. The lead singer's voice and Natasha's voice just go together like peanut butter and jelly—just a very satisfying thing, like a comfort food.
But the song on lyrical and sound levels just gives me this forward-motion feel that you should always have in the middle of a playlist—and in any stories you may be writing. If there's no momentum, all is lost. You may as well just write a line saying to the reader, "I've checked out. Come back later." Yikes.
There are always guideposts, though, if you're willing to look for them. If this song doesn't do it for you, find something else. Look up other writers' playlists. Go watch a YouTube video on obscure history. Google art from your favorite artists. See if something sparks. And when you're stuck? Walking away from the page is okay, as long as you don't make a bad habit of it. You can only walk away for so long before you've given up the thing entirely. Don't let that be you!
Halsey - "Haunting"
'Cause I've done some things that I can't speak
And I tried to wash you away, but you just won't leave
So won't you take a breath and dive in deep?
'Cause I came here so you'd come for me
Halsey may be runner-up to Florence's title as My Muse. I think her voice is very distinct in ways few singers have; you could probably never confuse her with another female singer sound-wise. And the songs she performs? They are all microcosmic stories in and of themselves. As a writer, it's a joy to listen to Halsey's plethora of music.
What about this song? It's another complex-relationship song that could foretell a star-crossed romance—if you wanted to write it that way, of course. The music may inspire in you something quite different. Whether the "haunting" is literal or figurative, you could go either way on that one and see what the results would be with a little free-writing.
To me, though, this song makes me think back to my days of devouring paranormal young-adult novels and wonder just how a genre demographic got so convoluted and watered-down (and currently almost-nonexistent in the publishing market). I'd love to write my own urban fantasy-lite novel someday, and this song would probably find its way onto some upcoming playlist. Stay tuned!
Silversun Pickups - "Growing Old Is Getting Old"
Put out the fear of silence
Put out the need for guidance
Put out your own devices
Don't be afraid of the cold
Silversun Pickups! Another flashback to my 2010 writerly self! "The Royal We" was my go-to for background music as I plotted out drafts (that were always abandoned), but "Growing Old Is Getting Old" was my second favorite to come to. And? I think it's one that has aged better than some of the group's other songs. (Timing is everything when it comes to music AND books, especially in a market sense.)
I just like the mood this song evokes. Since I pulled this from a paranormal novel playlist circa 2010/2011, I remember vague recollections of vampires (or some other immortal beings) where "being old" didn't necessarily show up in the physique of these characters—but their mentalities? Those continued to age like normal until these were grandpas and grandmas walking around in youthful skins. Nightmarish (in a way), right? I thought so.
(And, yeah, I could talk about Twilight and Stephenie Meyer again, but I think the joke jabbing is getting old—oh, see, another appropriate pun because of the song choice! I'm so clever!)
Bottom line? This song is still a bop, and I hope it will continue to inspire me for years to come (and maybe you too!).
Sarah Jarosz - "Build Me Up From Bones"
I held every inch of you
I wrote every line for you
I made time when time was all but gone
You're the love I've always known
I've never looked up the supposed "meaning" to be relayed through this song's lyrics, but I don't want to. It might ruin it for my imagination if it's somehow a metaphor for the divine. I like being able to interpret the lyrics as if it's a story I'm reading, so subtext doesn't always matter. It could be religious, or it could be not, and it's up to you how you take it!
This song isn't actually a pull from a writing or novel playlist of mine, but a friend of mine introduced me to Sarah Jarosz's music years ago and I've been in love ever since. I even have a secret playlist where I compile all the songs I wish I could translate into fully-formed books someday, and this song is on it. In the words of author Laini Taylor, this song "lights my mind on fire." I love the vocals, the lyrics, the sound, and my (interpreted) meanings (whatever they happen to be on any given day).
I like to imagine a character who can craft "something" from "nothing" (none of that equivalent exchange stuff, thanks, Fullmetal Alchemist) and how he (or she! or both?) is glorified because of this gift/curse. How does that play into a wider story? I'd have to flesh it out a bit more, but I'd imagine it would be a surreal and fantastical journey, potentially with winged cats (yes, I just added that for fun).
What do you take away from this song? Is it just a pretty-sounding thing to you, or does it invoke some sense of storytelling in you? I hope it does because that's the wonder of music for a creator (no matter your medium of choice). That's why it's so vital to stay in tune with the creative output of the world around you; you never know what fragments will become the puzzle pieces for your own work (if you use the "pick a song and run" method as I have done for many years).
The Fray - "How to Save a Life"
Where did I go wrong?
I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness
And I would have stayed up with you all night
Had I known how to save a life
Here we get to some deeper stuff. Everyone has probably heard of this song, "How to Save a Life," from The Fray. It was quite popular when it first came out (yes, I'm old, peeps). But when I first heard this song I didn't relate it much to real life at all. Mostly I thought of the season of Grey's Anatomy where the song made a cameo. (We won't discuss which season exactly because, again, old.)
But now, years later, what do I hear? I think of my mother and how I wanted to "save" her life in any way I could, no matter what that meant, to the point that I probably would have made a Faustian bargain if I could have. I may not have Mephistopheles on speed dial, but I do have a pen and paper. I wasn't able to save someone I loved. But would a protagonist of mine be able to? That's the main thread I see for me, story-wise, when it comes to this song in the here and now.
Do you ever go back to old(er) songs and find yourself inspired in ways that you hadn't done so before? It's an interesting exercise for the creative mind because even old stories can be revitalized through this method of trying to fill your creative well. Even if you may cringe when looking at your old writing, that doesn't mean everything is unsalvageable. Who knows, you may just find the seed of a new story ready to sprout at your fingertips.
Hozier (Cover by Jasmine Thompson) - "Take Me to Church"
I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I'll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life
I do love the original version of this song by Hozier, but there's something especially emblematic of Jasmine Thompson's cover. It's eerie and lovely and makes me think of beautiful yet creepy things. It also helps that this song is another one up for interpretation depending on who is listening when and where.
I imagine a love story that keeps happening in cycles, much like Groundhog Day, where someone falls in love over and over again with the same person on the same day until...something happens. (Plot, where are yoooooou?) It's not my most original take, but tomorrow the story seed could be something else entirely (and probably make just as little sense). But that's the beauty of combining music and writing: you never know what will come out of the process. You may think it's chaos, but even the most beautiful music can look like a mess when written out in notes and stanzas on a piece of paper. Your stories will start out the same way, no matter how you start them. But it's supposed to be messy. If you're a writer, you've signed the unwritten contract that you are going to go through sludge to get to the good bits.
Lucky for you, though, you have a start—especially if you curate your own playlist for story deviation and fun. There are no shortcuts when it comes to writing or storytelling, but that doesn't mean there aren't enriching experiences to be had along the way. Don't write in a vacuum. See, feel, hear, touch, taste—use all those senses to get to the roots of what you want to write. And the rest will follow through. You can bet on it.
Want the whole playlist? I included it below. Thank you for reading, and I hope this article was helpful and/or enjoyable to you!