I could start this article series with any musical term, and it would still end out okay. But there’s special significance (several, actually) in beginning with melody.
First, melody is the most fundamental part of music, and often the thing humans think they can do well, even if it just ain’t so. If you need evidence of this, watch the American Idol auditions. I’m not a fan of the show, since I think it shortcuts an important career process, but I’ll blog that another time. The point is that there are hosts of shower-singing idols out there, who we’d be better off remanding to the showers.
Don’t get me wrong. Reach for your dreams. Sing loud and long—I like gusto not tentativeness in my vocalists. But shower-singing is not rehearsal for a real profession, nor is car-radio singing, fine activities though they both may be.
And where fiction is concerned, efforts at melody are efforts to find ones voice, or at least the voice of a particular piece of work. Sometimes this comes naturally to a writer, just as there are a few vocalists who spring up almost fully formed artists. But mostly it doesn’t happen this way. It takes cultivation, which of itself is worth the trouble. I know I never regret a vocal practice session—I am singing for hells sake—any more than I ever regret a session at the keyboard making stuff up.
But let’s go deeper in. Hold on. “Melody may be defined as a series of individual pitches, one occurring after another in order so that the composite order of pitches constitute a recognizable entity.” Uh, did you see what just happened? Melody got all personified on your butt. You’ve heard the term “hook,” yes? It usually refers to the chorus of a song, as it’s the thing most often repeated and meant to get you slappin’ down a wad of cash to buy the album (or digital analog). It’s memorable! It takes on a life of its own, forcing itself into your mind. We often lament that some songs get “stuck in our heads.”
Well, so it is with voice as it applies to fiction. Now, while voice may describe the author’s use of language in the omniscient, or even the author’s use of language in toto, for my money, it’s the use of voice as applied to character that makes a novel memorable or even great.
Some authors are just “voicy” as hell. Stephen King is one of these. Now—patient article reader—you may not be a King fan, or maybe you hate horror, or have any of a dozen other hang-ups about Mr. King, but let’s not argue about his writing cred. Or, let’s do, and you better bring a bat. Point is: the man knows voice. Readers return in droves to his books, even those that are light on plot of frights, because the man can turn a phrase and make a character gritty and smelly and leap off the page. I’ll tell you Roland Deschain is a personal favorite. I feel like I know him so well that I’ve maybe had him to dinner and just forgotten when. And it’s not because I know his specs—weight, height, eye color, ad nauseum—but because his voice is so absolutely distinctive.
Characters like Roland have repeatable patterns, and even word use and phrases the recur. (Note: I’ll talk specifically about word choice and rhythm in other articles, but they do contribute here.) These things help create voice. Sticking with Roland, he’s seen as unsympathetic, angry at signs of cowardice or self-pity. He’s mentally scarred from the death of friends, and says of himself that he lacks imagination. He’s practical, with no real sense of humor. And he’ll tell you he’s “not very good in thinking around corners.” But he’s perceptive and smart; the gears in his head grind slow, but grind extremely well. He’s impatient, and has a silent desperation to reach the Dark Tower.
Now, are any of these things voice? No. Not by themselves. But they add up to a character who does. Roland talks often about how “I remember the face of my father.” It’s a reference to remembering honor and oaths, and is a phrase usage that is part of his voice; and is, viola, fictional melody—plus, it just sounds cool, doesn’t it. Say it out loud and see if you don’t find yourself even the least bit wistful or with the need to stand a bit taller. And just to put a fine point on it, a phrase like this helps build voice not only because it’s repeated (though that’s part of it), but because of the what the phrase means in the world and to Roland. It’s loaded.
“Repition of pitch and rhythm patterns is an important factor in any melody existing as an entity.” I think I’ve made my point. We’ve begun to see the relationship between melody and voice.
Let’s move on. “Melodic pitches are not randomly ordered, but are subject to basic principles of design … Music that has a strong melodic component takes on a linear character, as if the melodic line were tactile in space and time.” Okay, now they’re just making it easy for me. I mean, the great value of voice in fiction is that it makes the character vivid and real and interesting to read—“tactile in space and time.” Again, it happens through things like word choice, a character’s (often hard-earned) perspective and how they experience their world, and repeated phrases that often come to identify or tag the character, and ultimately the sum of these things.
Similarly, in music, a melody is defined by its note selection, the musician’s performance (and how their experience informs that performance), repeated musical phrases, etc. In fact, if you’re cool enough to have hung out around musicians enough, you’ll have heard the term “chord voicings.” This refers to the various ways a chord can be played and still contain its basic parts. I worked with a guitar player once who was a master contortionist with his hand in stretching his fingers out over the fret board to hit the same note on a different string. It really was a little Tim Burton-esque. But it gave the chords and solos he played a unique timbre. A melody is a single linear series of pitches, but each note can be struck in a unique way, and groups of notes repeated or emphasized. And fictional voice is the putting down of words in a unique way, sometimes repeating or emphasizing words in much the say manner.
My own melodic sensibilities evolved when I heard Alice in Chains. If you don’t know them, stop reading now and go listen to “Rooster” or “Down in Hole” or “Would.” It will help you with what comes next. Because, you see, melody has range. It’s the distance between the lowest and highest pitches. If the distance is great, the melody has wide range. If the distance is small, the melody has narrow range. Why mention this? Because your fictional voice can likewise have range. The words you choose to use in relation to a character, the variety and number of emotions through which the character will experience his world, these things will influence voice.
Now as a rule, I dig roller coasters. Anymore, while the turbo kind at California Adventure get my blood pumping, there’s something about roller coasters on those high lattice-like white-washed wood frames that give me more of a thrill. They feel more like they’re going to throw your car right from the track, that’s why! The rollercoaster reference is made to get you in a wide-range state of melody/voice mind—get it, way up then way down? Voice that has this kind of variety will lead to a more animated character than a narrow-ranging voice. It also impacts mood, which brings me back to Alice in Chains. See, Lane Staley (the lead singer of Alice who overdosed, RIP), was a master at smooth, flowing melodic lines that took a dark tone because they often hit notes in what is called a musical second—the note right next to another note in a scale, and part of a narrow-range approach.
Ironically, melodies that progress by leaping notes are said to have disjunct motion. The point is that as a writer, you can create voice and mood that moves in broad swings or tight circles. Both can be impactful, they’re simply different. Though, as in music, it is often easier to write conjunct—“smooth” flowing voices—than those with broad leaps, e.g. wide ranging vernacular and perceptions.
But let’s get to the meat of melody, which is singing. Sure, there’s instrumental music, and there’s melody in instrumental music, too. In fact, music not associated with text is known as “pure music.” The subject matter of pure music is melody. But listeners of melody (in any form) respond to it intellectually, emotionally and, often, spiritually. As an analogy for voice in fiction, then, there are few things a writer wants to do better than voice. Take a break and think about the last several novels you’ve read. I’m betting those you remember best are those in which the characters had the strongest voices. You can fairly hear them speaking to you now, right? Or at a minimum, there’s a kind of emotional resonance you still feel with the book or character. While there are a few other things that may contribute to this, you can bet voice is high (if not chief) on that list.
Now think about how singing must have got its start. Cave men grunting out “Happy Birthday” … no, inflection. Spoken language is inflected. You and I do it all the time. When we ask a question, there’s usually a slight lilting rise in pitch at the last word: “Did you remember to put the seat down?” Or think about the strong use of certain words, like “hate” or “damn.” Nine times out of ten, when you use such words, you’re hitting (emphasizing) their use in your sentence. Try a few out loud for fun, but maybe shut the door first.
Then you carry inflection to its next logical step, and you’re singing. It’s really just a matter of the duration of your inflection. So, singing is stylized speaking. It enhances or intensifies the message. It’s melody offered by a singer using words—usually, anyway; we’ll talk about scatting another day. The effect on the listener is heightened; and the effect on your reader when voice is done well is likewise striking, imbuing the words with greater meaning and/or impact.
I’m a singer. I instinctively get the stringing together of notes to turn a musical phrase and make a melody. I spent four years in classical voice training improving my ability to deliver a melody. Part of that was because I had an obsessive desire for vocal strength and range—ask me sometime to hit a high note for you; it’s one of my favorite things. But part of it was to build confidence in my ability since as a singer, I’d be standing up front when the band starts to play.
If you’re not a musician yourself, when you attend a concert (large or small) you spend 90% of your time watching the vocalist. He’s carrying the melody. (Note: Musicians spread the love and watch all the band members pretty much equally—we’re sooo fair handed.) Briefly return to where we started this article, with shower-singers and car-radio rockstars; these folks aren’t singing guitar parts or keyboard lines, unless they happen to be solos—which by the way almost never sound good sung, so stop it—they’re singing the main melody.
This emphasis has a fiction corollary, and it goes like this. If you’ve got a good voice, people will read listen and you’re your gig (just as they’ll love your book); but if you’ve got a bad voice or are having a bad night, they’ll tune out, maybe go to the concession stand, buy something to eat—or something else to read! Before I strain the analogy to death, take heart in the fact that books are still bought and enjoyed on other merits besides voice. But don’t be deceived that it is not of primary importance. You have CDs in your collection that you only play for certain tracks. One arguable reason for this is that the melodies on those songs you skip aren’t memorable. Sure, there’ll be other reasons, but that’s the big one. And just like a songwriter can’t go long every time he writes a tune, it’s conceivable every book you write won’t be your strongest effort at voice. Try hard anyway. It matters.
And on the subject of stuff mattering. Let me say the incredibly obvious: Life affords us unexpected resonances. It happens so often, we should expect them. So it was that today, Memorial Day, I went to a local cemetery memorial service. There are a lot of reasons for this. Principally, I do believe it’s important to remember the fallen. Among the other reasons, high on the list is how much I love the bagpipes, which are a tradition at these services.
I mention this because it’s pertinent on a couple of levels. There was an army jazz band as part of the program. They played some standards to class up the affair—New York, New York, and a couple other tunes Sinatra made famous—but they also played the Star Spangled Banner. Think about that melody (or if you’re not an American citizen, think about your own national anthem). It’s recognizable, it stands for something, and it carries with it an emotional weight—or should. It’s a powerful melody. Got you thinking about voice yet?
Now switch to the closing portion of the program, where the piper comes forward and plays. He does some patriotic songs. And at the end he does Amazing Grace. You didn’t need to be religious to feel something then, especially as the man began to conclude and walked into the distance, continuing to play. With no words, just the focus on the melody, you can bet most folks there were stirred. It’s another melody that should have your fiction mind churning on voice.
Then something happened with words that took me by surprise. A soldier stood up to the podium, a man whose father had served in Korea. He let us know he was there to present an American flag to the daughter of a man who had died serving under her father. He came forward and stood in front of her, bent in a dignified way, and spoke these words, “On behalf of a grateful nation …” Unbidden and unexpectedly, I began to cry. The man presented the woman with three unfired rounds—the final salute—and then stood at attention and saluted this woman. It was an amazing moment to witness.
Think about the words he used. Think about the actions he took. Think about his context, her context, and all of us who were honored to watch. Now imagine writing it. The voice leaps out at you. It’s true that you could treat that event with many unique voices, any one of us present, for example. What I’m relating is a moment that—perhaps as a writing exercise—would afford you easy entrance to voice.
Still need more? Well, some of you (like me) happen to like musical theater. And if you don’t, pay attention anyway. You see, musical theater, like other music art forms, uses motifs to introduce and identify characters. A musical motif is a prominent sequence of notes that are associated with a character or idea or theme. I tend to like the “heavier” side of theater, so Les Miserables and Phantom are good examples here. Of course, the most famous motif in western music is the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Others of you will recollect Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (made famous in Apocalypse Now as the soundtrack for the hueys), or his The Ring of Nibelungen (made famous by Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in What’s Opera Doc?), both of which trade heavily on motifs. And if all of the above flew past you, think Star Wars; you can hear the musical voice John Williams gave Darth Vadar right now if you try. Why do I mention these? It’s to illustrate how music understands that a sequence of notes can form the basis of a character. See where this is going?
Like these motif melodies, the voice(s) you create in fiction can be (and should be) equally identifiable. For instance, if you wrote dialogue for a specific character, would your reader know who it is without attribution? Good question to think about.
Voice is the way the writing “sounds” on the page. It’s the things I’ve discussed and more (sorry, I have to curtail my non-fiction writing—there are book deadlines), but you can guess at them: syntax, punctuation, etc. But don’t get bogged down in thinking you must map all these out to nail down voice. For my money, getting a handle on your character and his or her background, paying attention to word choice (a typical cowboy won’t say, “lugubrious”), and taking note of repeatable patterns and phrases are key elements. I say that as a writer and musician.