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Sounding Off | How Building a Soundtrack Can Help Your Story

While I was in college, I had the good fortune to host a weekly radio program with the school’s student-run radio station. A lot of time was spent ahead of each broadcast assembling the perfect playlist comprised of old favorites, newer discoveries, monthly themed shows, and whatever I was in the mood for that particular day.

Even though I’ve graduated, there’s still a part of me that is a DJ at heart. I love arranging playlists for family gatherings and road trips, and my writing life is no different.

One of my favorite ways to step into a writing project is to create soundtracks for them, playlists based around them including music from the Regency Era where my stories are set, songs that reflect significant plot points and scenes, and songs that remind me of my characters.

This week, I’m breaking down my process for putting together these soundtracks and the things I take into consideration when choosing the songs that go into them.

What Makes A Song Soundtrack Worthy?

When I’m assembling a soundtrack, the selections I make can be based on a couple of things.

Mostly, it will come down to the following three:

  1. Character

  2. Story

  3. Sound

I might also add in some songs that were popular in the time period I’m writing in or a song performed by an artist whose voice sounds like the way I hear my characters as I’m working on their dialogue.

For the remainder of this post, I’ll be referring to the playlist I made for my oldest work in progress, Guises to Keep.

What’s It All About?

One of the easiest ways to put together a playlist is on a thematic level. What is the theme of your story? What is its main conflict? Adding songs reflective of this to your project’s soundtrack can be a great way to set the mood for your writing session.

For Guises to Keep, some of the tracks in my playlist include

Time and Place

As a Historical Fiction author, one of my favorite things to do while writing is listening to music from the Regency Era so I can get a better sense of what my characters might have liked ~ or even played in some cases.

Looking into period music for your story’s setting can be helpful in understanding the culture of the day and region, and in turn help in the research and worldbuilding process.

Here are some selections from the Regency Period.

Going with the Flow

When preparing for a broadcast, I always took the time to assemble a set list that not only had a great sound but a great flow. This in turn was inspired by something my high school music teacher had said about how she chose songs for the choirs’ performances. She liked to start off with something upbeat, sometimes a mashup, slow things down with a ballad and end with a crowdpleaser.

Putting songs reminiscent of scenes from your story in the order those scenes take place can help you judge the pacing and flow of your story.

Too many slow songs dragging things along? Add in an action sequence.

Too many songs that make you want to jump around? This might indicate your narrator needs a second to slow down.

These observations can help you strike the right balance.

For example, here are a few selections taken from the first act of Guises to Keep:

Chapters Five & Six | Love Interests Meet, First Real Conversation

Chapter Eight | Love Interests First “Date” (From His Perspective)

Chapter Eleven | Love Interests’ First Kiss

Memories in Melodies

I sometimes listen to music that was played at my junior or senior prom or tracks I played at club dances I DJed in college whenever I’m working on a chapter involving a ball or party. This helps me envision what might be going on throughout the scene, especially the little details occurring in the background.

Think about the songs you associate with people in your life or things that have happened that share some connection to your story, and then consider what songs might evoke those memories.

If your character is setting off on an epic quest of adventure, try playing some of your favorite road trip songs.

Are they going through a breakup? If you’re at a point where you can, listen to a song that reminds you of an ex.

Does your scene take place on the morning of your protagonist’s wedding? Throw on some of the songs you had or would like played at your own wedding.

For Guises to Keep, some of the tracks I’ll use for setting the mood through memories include

Character Themes

I know I’m not the only one out there who has a song that they connect with on a personal level. The great thing about music is how much it can remind us of ourselves.

Your characters might not be all that different.

One of the first moves I’ll make when putting together is to include songs that are representative of my protagonists, and then move on to include secondary characters.

What do you think their music taste would be? What fears do they have? What do they want most in the story? What do they believe? What is the most significant event that happens to them before or during the story?

These questions can all be starting points for picking character themes.

Here is a set of tracks representing the three main protagonists of Guises to Keep

General Dynamics

Another thing to consider adding to your soundtrack is the songs that represent the relationships between your characters.

For a lot of us, we have songs that we associate with certain people, be it a song we blasted down the highway with a relative, something we danced to with an ex, or a song by a band you went to see with a good friend.

Whether it be romance, friendship, or animosity between enemies, thinking about the songs that have a place in your characters’ connections can help you dive into and develop them.

For Guises to Keep, these have included

Creating a soundtrack for your fiction is a lot of fun, but it can also be a great tool as you work through the process of worldbuilding, developing your cast and writing the first draft. Even after, when you’re editing the project, having a playlist at the ready can help you get into the right mindset to keep writing and bringing your project into its best possible self.

What music has a place in your story’s soundtrack? Let me know in the comments below!



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