The Soundtrack of Your Story

By PJ Parrish

Well, I didn’t purposefully piggyback on Sue’s post yesterday What Do Ringtones Say About Your Character.  We’re not that cleverly organized here at TKZ. But the beat goes on. Today I’d like to talk about our musical muses.

Several years ago, on the publication eve of our stand alone She’s Not There, Thomas & Mercer sent us a lengthy and provocative questionaire about ourselves and our book. The purpose was to pinpoint marketing campaigns and help with the book’s design design.

They asked what who we thought our audience was. (Answer: thriller readers who like character-driven stories) What we believed the “tone” of our book was (Medium dark but ultimately hopeful). They asked us what “color” our story was. (Midnight blue). They asked us for images that might inspire a cover design. (We sent them photos of women drowning like the one below left. The second one is the actual cover.)

They also asked us what music, if any, had inspired us during the writing. That last question hit the target with me. The idea for our book came as I was jogging and “She’s Not There” by the Zombies came on. I started really listening to the lyrics:

Well, no one told me about her, the way she lied
Well, no one told me about her, how many people cried
But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother tryin’ to find her
She’s not there
Well, let me tell you ’bout the way she looked
The way she’d act and the colour of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool
Her eyes were clear and bright
But she’s not there

The story is about Amelia, a woman who early in life lost her way on the path to living an authentic life and finds herself trying to be someone else for her rich ambitious husband. She’s living a lie. Until an accident makes her lose her memory, and she begins a journey to reclaim her life and maybe find a truer version of herself. All this while someone is hunting her down to kill her — maybe her husband.

I was struck by the woman in the Zombies song — outwardly beautiful but not there inside. The story almost wrote itself, one of the few times this has happened to me, mainly because I knew Amelia and the sotto voce song she was singing to me.

Music is often in the back of my brain when I write. I don’t mean literally because I can’t write while music is playing; it really distracts me. Writing habits is not what I am talking about here today. That’s another topic.

The point I’m trying to make is that I believe every good book has a soundtrack, a melodic mood, if you will. Now, I’m not talking here about a character’s musical taste (ie Harry Bosch famously loves jazz). Although, as Sue pointed out yesterday, knowing what music rocks your character’s soul is part of that dossier you need to be creating. I’m trying to articulate something about the mood-currents and rhythms that propel your story itself.

Only once do I remember having a hard time hearing anything as I wrote. Ironically, it was a book about music: The Killing Song, wherein a serial killer in Paris who is a professional cellist leaves behind musical clues with each victim. The clues were easy because they were all popular music (ie Elvis Costello’s “Crimes of Paris.”) But I couldn’t come up with anything that captured the black heart of the killer. I asked a cellist friend and she suggested a piece called Tout un Monde Lointain. Rough translation: All the world, distant. Which is exactly how my villain feels — alone, cut off, every question unanswered, every cry unheard.

As I listened to the piece, I began to understand him. The piece opens with a shiver of cymbals. Then the cello begins a slow meditative solo but it keeps shapeshifting from balanced to intense, almost chaotic plucking. It feels like two souls struggling. Here’s the opening minute.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m judging manuscripts for a writers conference right now. I am struck by how few of the writers seem to have given any thought to what “color” their stories are or what music is playing in the background. The few that do “sing” have a defined mood that really makes me want to read on. I can see — and hear — the worlds the writers are conjuring for me.

Also, I was thinking about this subject after I watched the film Tár, wherein Cate Blanchette plays a mentally tormented orchestra conductor. The soundtrack, heavy with Mahler and Elgar with doses of Count Basie and Cole Porter, was done by Hildur Guðnadóttir, who calls the movie “an ambient tone poem.”

The score gives the film its undertone of dread.  Guðnadóttir said in one interview: “There is a lot of music in the film that’s working on a very delicate, subconscious level, and if you took it out, it would be a completely different animal.”

That got me to thinking about other scores that amplified the tones of movies. Listen to this piece of music that was used behind the arrival of Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn) on parole from prison, in The Lion of Winter.

Regal, ethereal voices — but undercut with death-tolling bells, and discordant horns that signal a darkness beneath the pageantry.

Another score I think supports its story is in Master And Commander, much of it original, but also brilliant choices from classics. I love this piece for the way the background pulse mimics the rhythm of a sailing ship bouncing over waves as the human bustle goes on above board.

There are endless examples of scores that deepened a movie’s emotional impact. Hitchcock had his Bernard Herrmann. Sergio Leone had his Ennio Morricone. Coppola had his Nino Rota. John Williams played two tuba notes for Steven Spielberg and no one wanted to ever go into the water again.

So, what can we book people glean from this? Well, I’m often harping here on the need for tone. Every successful story has its own particular rhythm, mood, and ambience. You may not be always conscious of this, but the way you, as a writer, choose to put your words and sentences together creates a type of music. This soundtrack, be it butterfly-flit-light or chiaroscuro shadowy dark, must support your plot and characters. It must be true and unique to them. To your story. To you.

I can see you out there scratching your heads. Well, let’s try this experiment. Your book has just been bought by some bigly big director at Lionsgate. They have brought you on for extra money as a consultant (Stop that laughing!) They ask you what music is playing as the movie opens, and what music is playing as the credits roll. Do you sit there dumb as a stump? Or do you know, deep in your writer bones, what needs to be heard.

I daydream about this often. I have songs all ready to go when Hollywood calls. At the beginning of Dark of the Moon, as Louis Kincaid is tramping through the Mississippi swamps and sees a skeleton with a noose, “Strange Fruit” is playing but only in instrumental because I want it subtle.

At the end of the movie, Louis gets in his old Mustang and drives away from Blackpool Mississippi, heading home. Case is solved but Louis’s heart is not. Credits roll. There’s a long birds-eye pull-away shot of a small white car heading north through a huge close expanse of green trees. And this is what we hear:

Hey, it’s what’s playing in my head. Now, what’s in yours?


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

35 thoughts on “The Soundtrack of Your Story

  1. The Doobie Brothers is what’s playing in my head, that’s what. I often listen to classical music as I write because it stimulates my brain, but I never thought of story and music this way. It appeals to me.

    • I also sometimes hear music for characters in books I am reading. Just the way my brain is wired, I guess.

  2. I’d be sitting there dumb as a stump. Although I’d probably read whatever book they’d optioned and see what resonated.
    The female protagonist in Remaking Morgan was a former classical pianist, so I listened to solo classical piano (thanks, Alexa) while I was writing, mostly to get names of pieces I could include in the book. But I could probably, eventually, offer some selections for that book.
    What’s in a Name? did have a musical moment for me, that click moment when I discovered my character’s inner drive. Leader of the Band by Dan Fogelberg was playing, and the line, “Papa, I never said ‘I love you’ near enough” brought him together for me. No references to that piece showed up in the book, although there was one scene where Queen was playing on his sound system at his apartment.

    • That’s exactly l what I mean, that even just one lyric line can ignite your imagination. For me, I wasn’t “hearing” the husband in “She’s Not There” who was hunting down his missing wife. He was this cipher — all I knew about him was that he came from nothing and, harnessing his soul to an immoral big-time lawyer, he becomes rich and successful. He measured his life by material things — which is how he thought of Amelia. I was listening to the Emerson, Lake and Palmer song “Lucky Man” one day and well, there he was. The song is about a man who has everything then goes to war (for his king) and loses it all. Suddenly, I knew exactly how the story was going to end. I love this process when it happens…like magic. Or a muse. Or something. 🙂

      • Yeah, I call them ‘click moments.’ You can’t force them, or consciously hunt for them, I don’t think. But they sure to ignite that writing fire.

  3. I love the musical examples, Kris. You’ve got me thinking what music would describe each of my stories. I wish I were more “in tune” (sorry) with popular music. I tend toward classical and old rock ‘n roll.

    I also think prose should have a melody and structure like the three movements of a symphony that pulls the reader along toward that last clash of the cymbals. Now if only I could figure out how to do that.

  4. Music certainly sets a mood. One day I will finish my book of pizza adventures. The road music will be a part. “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones will be there for sure.

    Totally off today’s topic, last week’s First Page Critique led me to look up stats on Citation jets. Facebook now thinks I have a spare $5M for a new plane.

    • Ah, “Miss You” is a great road trip song. “Hey, what’s the matter, man?”

      I hate Facebook’s friggin nosiness. They’re listening to our every thought.

  5. Very interesting post, Kris. I had not thought about music and writing like this before. I love music, but I prefer to write in complete silence. During the nonwriting hours, songs often come to mind, but I have never associated them with what I was writing or doing at the moment. I need to begin listening with a purpose, and I should probably try again to listen to music while I write (instrumental, classical).

    Thanks for the post.

    • I used to have sports talk radio going on in the background when I wrote. Being a Dolphins fan it got too depressing to bear.

  6. Oh, this post speaks to me in so many ways. My debut doesn’t drop until next year, so I don’t have buy links, or dust jacket copy, or even a cover to display on my website–but I did post a soundtrack for the album through Spotify. Music is a HUGE part of my life, and I absolutely picture songs accompanying various scenes while I write them. As to your question, the opener would be “C.R.E.A.M.” ( The main character makes a throwaway Wu-Tang joke in the first scene, but the song perfectly captures his world and the mood, at least in the beginning. It’s an action/thriller, but there’s a rich vein of levity that runs through the entire novel, punctuated by a motorcycle chase at the end of the 2nd act where “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship is literally playing in the background. The end credits would absolutely be my protagonist’s theme song, which has been in my head almost as long as he has: “Come With Me Now” by Kongos. ( Thanks so much for the fun post! Glad to know I’m not alone in my musical daydream book fantasies!

  7. I used to have those end credit songs all ready to go, and the climax song, but lately I haven’t been thinking about music with my story. I’ll definitely have to give it a go again.

    On a related note, I’ve recently realized that when I write, I’m listening for the rhythm of the sentences. Not that I have a specific rhythm in mind, but I know when it’s off, and that’s when I obsess and have to force myself to move. Not for word choice, but for music.

    • Yeah, I get that, about listening to your words as you write. I am always always conscious of it. Maybe too much so, as it can truly slow down getting that first draft in place.

  8. Great post, Kris! This is a useful way to think of the tone(s) of your novel. It’s easier for me, since I do write to a soundtrack–vocals often during drafting, instrumental during revision. In fact, as I edit my WIP, I’m listening to Marvel ’83’s synth wave albums. I also listen to alpha wave music, Brian Eno’s albums etc, to help my brain get in the groove while revising, which is more intense for me than drafting.

  9. What a great topic!
    I write primarily for the stage (25 works, so far), but while writing Call of a Distant Song, there was a quiet moment at sunset where the MC, Edward, feels an emptiness in his life as day fades into night. In musical theatre, this calls for the “I want song,” but, of course, Edward has no idea what he wants. I wrote the lyrics:
    As I awoke today at dawn,
    Just as the sun was risin’,
    I heard the call of a distant song
    Upon my heart’s horizon….

    I called upon my director/actress/musician/composer/instructor friend, Judy Sanger, to create the melody. In early 2020, I finally bit the bullet and cast a vocalist for the O.V. lines:
    She: What is your play about?
    J: It’s about a man who senses there is something indefinable missing in his life, some need never met that he can’t express.
    She: So it’s about everybody.

    The play was performed as a reading at the local library, just once, and now resides in my bottom right-hand drawer with the others.

    • What a great story, JG. Thanks for sharing it. I really like the title Call of a Distant Song.

  10. Easy peasy, Kris. Music powers my writing!
    As you wrote: “Music is often in the back of my brain when I write.”
    It’s the same for me. If I’m actively writing (not reading the WIP aloud for editing purposes), my You Tube Music app is going (softly) in the background.

    I love the examples you gave here. Love love love that cello! *delighted shiver*
    Both Lion in Winter and Master and Commander are favourite movies. Good scores.
    And I need to both see Planchett’s movie as well as listen to the soundtrack, apparently. YT Music app for the win on that!
    I’ll add the soundtrack to Kingdom Heaven to this list. (And, btw, watch the Director’s Cut if you haven’t already. So much better!)

    My story’s music? Gary Numan’s ‘Savage’ album all the way. His sound is not for everyone, no lie, but I write dystopian dark fantasy with a dash of alternate history, so that album is perfection.
    I felt a deep connection to your words here about connecting with the Zombie lyrics. I’ve done that with so many of Numan’s songs.

    I’ve thought often of sending him a missive about his influence. He feels very deeply about ecological issues (hence ‘Savage’), same as I (hence my series), so I’m fairly sure he’d understand. But I want a 1st ed of Book One to go with it, so for now I merely fangirl from afar. Ha ha!

    • I’m liking this thread cuz of all the new songs you folks are giving me to discover. Never heard of Numan but after listening to a couple of his songs I see why, given your genre, you’re attracted to him. Very dark and dystopic. Love this lyric, given our topic today:

      Rest your head, may your dreams be blessed
      Don’t you fear, your angel’s always near
      By your side. Humming tones soft and low…

  11. While we’re discussing film and music, I’ll mention a brief anecdote that I may have posted before: I have few details, but the story goes like this:
    A film project was completely done, except for post-production. The director and the cinematographer/editor were reviewing the first cut when their conversation concluded that the film’s “moments” matched an altogether different theme than intended. It was far too late to shoot additional material. What to do?

    They “fixed it in post.” How? The sound track was still being edited. They changed the b.g. music for crucial scenes to reflect the new theme.

  12. “Strange Fruit” is a. bit too on the nose if the lynching element is to be figured out.

    My mental tone for my writing is through images, not music, but the romantic couple has their song that fits their relationship. That’s for my own amusement, not as a prompt. I did however have a few romances with pop standard titles like TIME AFTER TIME and GHOST OF A CHANCE.

    For someone looking for a piece to fit a dark and angry character, listen to Holst’s “Mars” section of THE PLANETS.

    • Oh definitely. Would not really use it but the instrumental is better, imho. But the lynching element comes up in the first chapter.

      LOVE The Planets. I listened to it a lot in college along with Frank Zappa, George Winston and Isaac Hayes. I was kinda unfocused in those days…

  13. I need to hear melodic undertones in the books I read, too. It’s the tone that attracts me to certain authors. Since I write with headphones on, music cranked, each book has its own soundtrack. For the WIP and the two books before it, the tone is dark, devastating, and hopeful. If I had to choose one song, it’d be Rise Up by Andra Day.

    When the silence isn’t quiet
    And it feels like it’s getting hard to breathe
    And I know you feel like dying
    But I promise we’ll take the world to its feet
    And move mountains
    Bring it to its feet
    And move mountains
    And I’ll rise up
    I’ll rise like the day
    I’ll rise up
    I’ll rise unafraid
    I’ll rise up
    And I’ll do it a thousand times again

    • Hi Alice. No, the first comment didn’t make it but this one did. It happens sometimes for no reason other than gremlins.

  14. I’m working on a short story in three parts for a very small magazine and this has given me some insight. I think the main character is terribly old fashioned and loves The Drifters and Ben E. King while on patrol in his county issue Dodge Durango. I’m wanting to make him a lot less like Longmire.

    Scoring, on the other hand is essential to heighten tension in any drama. Dragnet, Highway Patrol, The Naked City? I love this stuff.

  15. Reposting: original didn’t make it:
    First, thanks for the Master and Commander link – I had forgotten that little piece, and it’s lovely.

    You made me think; I would pick for the opening credits an original piece by Cascade (Mark White and Steffi Barthel on two Chapman sticks) called “In the Stars”:

    And for the closing credits, “Happy Tears”:

    because both would fit the story, which is a tight personal story set against the giant backdrop of worldwide film-making and the writers who sometimes support them.

    The instruments are unknown to most people (it is estimated there are only about 8000 in the world), they were invented in 1974 (IIRC), and this is one of the few duos who play them – definitely something special I’ve enjoyed while writing.

    Now I just have to finish the trilogy, pick the actors, and arrange the screenplay – details!

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