What Is The Soundtrack To Your Story? (and some pointers about song lyrics in fiction)

2013 Artwork Music writing sketch

It doesn’t matter if it’s a mixtape, an album, a playlist or even just a single song – finding the right songs to listen to when you’re writing (or before you start writing if you find music to be a distraction) can really work wonders for several reasons:

1) It can help you get into the right mood for writing – This is pretty self-explanatory, but it can also be useful on days when you aren’t really feeling that inspired too. If you’ve been writing for a while and you associate a particular song or a group of songs with your story, then it can help you to get back into the same frame of mind you were in on the days when you were feeling more creative. Hmm… Maybe I should have added this to my list of advice about writer’s block ?

2) It helps you to think cinematically – This might not apply to literally every writer, but if (like me) you tend to think of your stories in a fairly visual way – then having a soundtrack can make the writing process feel slightly more cinematic and help you to imagine the events of your story in a more dramatic way.

3) It can be useful as “bonus content” for fans – If you are trying to promote your story, then a list of songs which accompany your story might be a good thing to mention on your website or blog. Your readers might find this interesting and it has the added bonus of attracting readers who have never heard of you before, but like the same kind of music as you do.

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What about quoting song lyrics in my story ?

I don’t know the exact details of this, but due to the stupid way that most copyright laws are set up – you can apparently sometimes end up getting ripped off charged surprising amounts of money to get permission to quote small portions of song lyrics in your stories or even get sued if you don’t get permission.

A quote which might be considered to be fair use/fair dealing in a non-fiction work probably won’t be in a fictional work. So, as a general rule for an unpublished writer, it isn’t a good idea to quote song lyrics in your stories.

However, if you’re submitting your work to a large publisher then this might not be as much of an issue, since they’re usually fairly well-equipped to deal with sorting out all of the various legal issues and paying the various fees/royalties for the lyrics in question.

However, there are a few ways of getting round this particular problem (although I should obviously point out that I’m not a lawyer):

1) Titles cannot be copyrighted: This is the easiest way to show a particular song in your story without actually quoting from it – just mention the title of the song (and the musician/band) in your story. If your readers doesn’t know the song in question, then they’ll either look it up for themselves or just skip over it and carry on reading the story.

If you don’t want your readers to skip over a particular song and if the song (as a whole) is absolutely critical to one part of your story, then it might be an idea to briefly describe the general style and tone of the song in your story.

For example: “When I walked into the goth club, the chorus of Bauhaus’s ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ echoed around the dancefloor like an oddly cheerful funeral lament. I clacked three pound coins onto the coffin-wood bar and asked for a snakebite and black. The music kept ticking and groaning behind me like a haunted grandfather clock.”

2) Ask the band for permission yourself: Unsigned bands may be happy to give you permission to quote their lyrics (it’s also free advertising for them too – free signed copies of your story or book for the band are probably a good idea though). Or if you’re friends with anyone in the band in question, then they may be happy for you to quote their lyrics in your story if you ask them.

Likewise, if a band has released any of their stuff under a Creative Commons licence, then you may or may not (it depends on the licence) need to ask permission to quote their lyrics. It’s probably worth asking and if it doesn’t work out, then see the previous point on this list.

3) Make up your own lyrics: This is probably easier if you’re more into writing poetry or have written lyrics before, but even if you haven’t then you don’t have to come up with a whole song – just a fictional band name/song title and a couple of lines from a song – just be sure to mention the genre and general atmosphere of the song (see #1 on this list).

The best example I’ve seen of this technique is in an absolutely excellent novel called “Lost Souls” by Poppy Z.Brite (the pen name of Billy Martin before he retired from writing).

Although I could probably dedicate several blog posts to this book and Martin’s other novels, I’ll just stick to pointing out that the song lyrics in this book (especially to “World” – seriously, I’d love to hear an actual recording of this song!) are probably better than the lyrics of many actual songs and it is the perfect example of invented song lyrics in fiction.

However, making your band name/song lyrics sound believeable can take practice and it can be very easy to come up with an obviously cheesy band name or obviously “fake” lyrics.

One thing which might help with this is to stick to writing lyrics in a genre of music which you are very familiar with (eg: if you’re really into heavy metal \m/ , then then coming up with believable pop music lyrics in your story may be more difficult than coming up with believeable metal lyrics. Then again, this is probably a bad example. After all, there are plenty of wonderfully cheesy songs in both genres…)

8 comments on “What Is The Soundtrack To Your Story? (and some pointers about song lyrics in fiction)

  1. Vince says:

    Oh my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thank you However I am experiencing issue with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting identical rss problem? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

    • pekoeblaze says:

      I’m glad that you liked the article 🙂 I’m sorry that I can’t help with the RSS thing though, since I don’t really use RSS feeds.

      Sorry about the very late reply too. For some reason, your comment got mistakenly caught by the spam filter on this site and I only just noticed it.

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  3. […] avoid copyright/trademark issues (I’m not a lawyer or an expert on this subject – but things like quoting song lyrics usually aren’t a good idea […]

  4. […] it helps to immerse yourself in your stories or to geek out about them. It also helps if you listen to a lot of music which is appropriate to your story when you’re writing or find a way to evoke the emotions which you need in order to write […]

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  6. […] Music: Like with the subject of themes, I’ve already written about this subject in more detail. But it can be a good idea, when it fits into the context of your story, for your characters to […]

  7. […] What Is The Soundtrack To Your Story? (and some pointers about song lyrics in fiction) […]

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