The Musicality of Writing Fiction

Songs are typically written in a specific key. For example, Pachelbel Canon, familiar to many as the Christmas Canon, is written in the key of D. That means there are notes that are correct and work for that song, and notes that would be discordant and “out of tune” or wrong.

(A quick side note, I’m aware that some music, singing or collections of sounds are meant to be discordant.)

On a much simpler level, the song Louie Louie, as recorded by The Kingsmen, is in the key of A Major.

Someone could change the key Louie Louie is played in, but that means it is played with different notes to a different effect and sound.

Modern jazz tunes can be played in a particular key and also improvised in many different ways. A jazz musician could play Louie Louie or Pachelbel Canon in D to an entirely different purpose and sound than what people usually associate with these pieces.

The point is, the key a musical piece is originally written in doesn’t limit the choices of the way in which it can be played, but there’s a difference between someone new to music hitting wrong notes and an accomplished musician improvising with the intent of creating a variation.

I’m not a classically trained musician, but I can tell the difference between a wrong note being played and a thoughtful, musical variation or interpretation.

Now lets bring that back to writing. Harry Potter is a novel about fitting in. All the choices in this novel revolve around, let’s say, playing a simple rock and roll song in the key of A Major.

Because author J. K. Rowling understands the song/story she is playing, she hits the right notes. Harry Potter wants to fit in. The Dursleys want to fit in. The conflict in the world of magic is over pure blood (pure notes) and mixed blood (improvised notes, so to speak). Rowling sticks to her themes, weaving her story and characters seamlessly into her central idea. She knows the world in which her story takes place, much like a composer knows the key of his or her composition, and everything falls within those boundaries. If anything lands outside of it, it doesn’t ring true, just as a musical piece that hits a wrong note will not work in a musical composition.

Now, a new, struggling writer could set out to write a Harry Potter-type fantasy. But this writer starts out with an idea for a character or a plot event, or some other starting point. To someone reading this manuscript, because the writer hasn’t settled on a key to set the story, notes are discordant. Maybe the writer doesn’t know the world in which the story has taken place. Maybe the writer hasn’t settled on a central theme or conflict. Perhaps the characters are not well developed. These are all critical elements to creating a story that harmonizes, that brings a sense of accord and beauty to the reader.

The writer makes choices about how to describe characters, but someone the description is flat or fails to advance the story.

The words/notes aren’t set/being played in the correct key of the story.

Reading manuscripts by new or struggling authors, I’ve found I have to get to the end of the novel to find out what the story is about, or, in this context, in what key it should be played.

That requires the author to go back to the beginning of the story and find a way to convey, what Harry Potter-like fantasy the “key” the book belongs in.

The writer chooses what type of story/song they are playing.

The foundation for my a story is a promise concept is to understand a story and to make choices based on that understanding.

Looking at stories from this frame of reference, The Dead by James Joyce, and The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy, are the Pachelbel Canon and the Louie Louie of stories, but each hits note correct for each song.

Criticism of a story ‘not working’ are an observation that the story notes don’t create the effect of a pleasing song for a particular audience, with the understanding that different music appeals to different audiences.

In the movie Francis Florence Jenkins, the main character sang opera horribly off key, but an album she recorded was so odd, people bought it to hear badly sung opera as a comic gesture or to discover what the fuss was about. This is not the audience most writers want for their novels, so it is imperative to know what “key” you are creating in, and then to use notes that are in harmony with that key.

I’ve come across people who had a good ear for music/language and were willing to learn how to compose a story/song that played in particular key and pleased an audience. They had an ear for the tones created by words and they could create an enjoyable story melody. Such a composition may not have obeyed all the rules of grammar, but the story and its notes worked. An example is The Davinci Code. Not great writing, but mostly in tune in a way that allowed its audience to enjoy the story, in spite of the people who pointed out its faults.

And, just like in popular music, there are those one-hit wonders who write a song/novel that sells millions of copies but mystifies people who enjoy well-played music.

If you were one of those people who were born with an ear for language and telling a story, I greatly envy you. Much of my success as a writer has been as a playwright because of my imagination and an ear for dialogue. How to create a plot, that I had to learn.

Guest post by Author Bill Johnson (@bjscript on Twitter) 

About the Author

Bill Johnson is web master of Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing, a site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies, books and plays (, and author of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon. His plays have been produced around the United States.