Singin’ in the… Tale

First off, I begin my tour for The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre on Monday, and the book releases on Tuesday. If you haven’t already, click on In Person, and see if you can come to any of the events. If you can, please be sure to let me know you found me because of the blog. I will be so glad to meet you!

Second off, on the last post, April Mack said she was having trouble posting her gravatar image on the blog. David can’t find the problem on our end, so I’d like to know if anyone else is having trouble. Please speak up and maybe we can get to the source of the problem.

And now for the post. On November 12, 2016, Margaret Anne wrote, A lot of books have songs in them, like Ella Enchanted, Fairest, then other books like Harry Potter and Hunger Games. How do you write songs to put in your stories? In a book I am writing, there is a tune that a character plays on the piano or hums a lot, but I want there to be words to the song. Any tips?

Two writers weighed in.

Christie V Powell: Study songs of the type you’re going for. Hymn? Folk song? Listen to several and listen to the music. Write down phrases that catch your attention. You can also read poetry for ideas, and check out books or do other research on writing poems. I’m reminded of Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy” or Ann McCaffrey’s “Dragonsong” trilogy, where each chapter opens with a song.

Song4myKing: I have a character who (like me!) often thinks in song. Because she’s in our world, I use real songs. One is an old folk song, and therefore no problem with copyright stuff. Another is newer, but I keep it because it expresses the changing attitude of the MC over the course of the story. I had another modern one that she sang only once, but I realized that, although the lyrics said exactly what she was feeling, I really didn’t need that particular song (and its copyright). So I made up words that conveyed the same idea. I have found that almost the only way I can write decent poetry is if I have an inspiring tune to start with. So I did. The tune isn’t mine, and in the end doesn’t even fit the words that well, but what mattered was that I had an original set of words that sounded (sorta) like song lyrics.

If you are thinking of a real tune, consider what mood it gives. If you don’t have a real tune, I suggest you find one or make up one! What mood do you want the words to have? Do you want the song to be sung at a particular time? Could the song in some way include a symbol for the story or romanticize a part of the setting?

On using real songs – My sister and I read the book Chime (Fantasy in our world, probably high school and up). My sister noticed that one of the characters whistled one of the songs in the book. She looked it up, saying that if it could be whistled it was probably a nice melody. It was. We both love it now. This last week, she re-read the book, and noticed another song. She looked it up too, and has been singing it all day. Both are old folk songs. It was like an added bonus to us that we could find tunes for them, and that they’ve actually been sung for generations.

Oh, my! I wish I thought in songs! (Wish I could sing them, too.)

I love the idea of considering mood, because music and most songs are fundamentally emotional. Please remember that I’m not musical, but I think mood in music is conveyed mostly through tempo and instrumentation. If there are words, the singer expresses the emotion in her voice, if emotion is what she’s going for. The late, marvelous jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t skilled, in my opinion, at expressing sadness. You can hear her smile through the saddest lyrics. I think she was too happy to be singing for anything else to come through, but I also think she was going more for technique than feeling.

In words, meaning predominates. But sound can support meaning. Onomatopoeia is one device that can help. Think of words whose meaning seems embodied in their sound. In school, the example we were given was tintinnabulation. Beep sounds like what it means. To my ear, the same goes for blip. Also, extended vowels, like oo and ee, sound mournful when combined with a sad meaning. Boom sounds ominous. Short vowels, short syllables, and percussive consonants set up a staccato pace, possibly for a martial song or a happy one.

A wonderful sad poem is W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” which you can find online. It’s worth studying to see how its effects are achieved. The meter, with a few variations, is iambic (unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, da DUM, da DUM), a common meter in songs. Try singing it.

Sound also adds a poem-y, song-y feel. Maximize alliteration (repeated initial sounds, like red rose) and assonance (repeated vowel sounds, like green leaves) and rhyme, in the middle of lines as well as at the end. You can use a thesaurus to find the sounds you’re looking for if the word you think of first doesn’t contribute sonically. The sound repetition doesn’t have to follow immediately; even if several words come between, the effect will still be felt by the reader or hearer.

If you have a tune to work with, consider the beat to figure out where your stressed syllables should go. When you start to write, a thesaurus will help here, too. The first word you think of may not have the stresses in the right place, but a thesaurus may give you alternatives that fit the bill. This can be slow going. In my books that include songs or poems, writing them took longer than writing the prose did.

An easy and popular form for songs is hymn or ballad or common meter, found in, well, hymns and ballads, but also in blues and rock songs, goes like this:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
da DUM da DUM we care
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
da DUM da DUM have hair

In other words: four line stanzas; iambic; eight syllables in the first and third lines, which don’t have to rhyme though they can; six syllables in the second and fourth lines, which should rhyme. “Amazing Grace” is in hymn meter, for example. Emily Dickinson’s poems are in this meter, except that she fooled around with it, broke it at will, and made it her own.

A shortcut to using rhythm in a poem or a song is to pick one that you like, analyze the stressed and unstressed syllables, and recreate the pattern with your own words. I did this in the first chapter of Writer to Writer. The verse below follows the witches’ incantation in Macbeth:

Mutter, mutter, dream and ponder;
Writer writes and fingers flutter.
Starting words of a startling tale,
On the paper, laugh or wail,
Days of joy and weeks of woe,
Mountains high and vales below,
Hero’s hope, villain’s might,
Evil’s plot, virtue bright.
With this spell of flash and thunder,
In a vision, write the wonder.

Contemporary songs are sometimes more complex, but often song lyrics are emotionally simple. Ideas that would seem cliched in prose are fine in songs. We find more moons than Jupiter has, more rosebuds than in a botanical garden, and enough broken hearts to occupy a hospital full of cardiologists. But it’s okay. The expression in melody, instrument, voice make it work. When we write lyrics we can be original or we can go with the tried and true, without embarrassment.

We can use songs or poems in many ways. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the poems are narrative–telling rather than showing–about the beginnings of the kingdom. In Fairest, there’s more of a range, with a lot of songs that express feelings. So we have options. We can use songs to tell, to show emotion, to reveal character, to create voice, to describe a setting. A few minutes ago over the radio I heard about a band that bases some of its songs on–recipes!

Here are four prompts:

∙ Try your hand at a poem or song in hymn meter. Write at least five stanzas. Sing it. Set it to music if you can. (This is beyond me.)

∙ From a WIP, have each of three characters write a love song–just words, or words and music. How would their songs differ in mood, feeling, thoughts, vocabulary?

∙ Tell a fairy tale as a ballad. You can use hymn meter for this, or not. Include a refrain that encapsulates the theme of the fairy tale.

∙ I just spent a pleasant two minutes on YouTube, watching and listening to the song “I Can Do Anything Better Than You” from the ancient musical Annie Get Your Gun. Write a song with the voices of two characters interacting. You can make up the characters on the spot or import them from a WIP.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Great post, Mrs. Levine…and it was published at the right time, as I’m trying to compose a lullaby to use in one of my stories! : )

  2. Jenalyn Barton says:

    I ran in to this with my WIP. My MC is a young mother of a toddler in a fantasy world, so when she sang to him I had to make up the songs. The subjects of the songs came fairly easily — one is a nonsense folk song about a frog who wants to sit on the moon like it’s a lily pad, and the other is a lullaby about a mother bird and her baby. My problem is getting the meter, or getting it to sound like a song. Since I was writing it for NaNoWriMo I just wrote it down as it came to me, but eventually I’m going to have to go back and rework it so they actually sound like a song. I honestly wasn’t sure how to approach it (poems in meter have never been my strong point), so this does help a little.

  3. I did a lullaby too, based on the most telling lines of lullabies my mom sang me. I didn’t end up using them though. I think Keita would have dismissed them as ‘sentimental fluff’–in public, at least.

  4. I always thought of songs in stories as little poems, but I love how you broke it down into manageable steps to create an actual song, which is more than a poem. Also, I love Ella Fitzgerald. 🙂 I often sing her “Blue Skies” in the shower.

  5. In my book I’m writing a song that the MC sings but its difficult to write because the MC is cursed to never tell the truth speaking or singing so the whole song has to either be made up of questions or lies.

  6. I love that poem you wrote in Writer to Writer, Mrs. Levine! For some reason when I read it I put it to the melody of Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin (One of my all time favorite songs)
    Thanks for the post! This was really interesting and I will surely keep this in mind for when I need to write a song! I like your idea for writing a fairy tale in song form, I will have to try that! My friend and I have been trying to write a song for a while…no such luck!
    Also, I went to YouTube and looked up ‘I Can Do Anything Better Then You’…Ahh! I was laughing so hard!

  7. StorytellerLizzie says:

    I love this post, I was working on a lullaby for a story that I’m still world building for; I’ll have to remember this for when I come back to it.

    For now I do have a question. I think I’ve asked it before, but I don’t remember which post that was. I’m writing a character that has a spell cast on her to forget her early childhood, but throughout the novel she starts to regain her memory. What’s a good way to write her regaining her memories as they happen spontaneously and in short snippets? Any help is appreciated

    • A couple things: I’d suggest having some sort of trigger from the present to the memory, even if it’s a bit of a stretch. Usually memories center around just a few intense details: a couple lines of dialogue, a precise image, or a smell–I think this is underused in fiction because smells are closely tied to memory. Every once and awhile I pass a certain kind of woodchip or a certain type of hay and I think of visiting my grandparents’ land in Oregon.

      This is still rough draft, but here’s a flashback from my WIP:

      After the summit last year, she and Zuri had switched places. She’d never seen Zuri in the Inner Vale, though she must have been there. Instead she’d been in the Muse kingdom, Castalia. The castle towered over the city, peering down through condescending windows. She’d stood in the center of a dull, empty room, staring at the abstract flower paintings on the walls. She’d been about to let herself collapse when Brian’s youngest brother Reid popped in. “The paintings in mine and Griffin’s rooms were cool–literally. And when Tide’s wife Morgana first stayed with us, she com-plained that the decor was too dry.” He’d collapsed in giggles at his terrible puns, but then he’d showed her the changes that he and his brothers had made to their rooms. A brick fireplace, oil lamps on the walls, rows of history books (she hadn’t cared for Teague’s much), and best of all, an aquarium that made the sun dance across the polished floor even though the fish were long gone. Inspired, she’d gotten to work on her own room, ripping up carpet, hauling in proper soil, planting flowers in every corner, assembling a simple sleeping platform in one corner…
      The gray pony raised his head, interrupting Keita’s thoughts.

  8. Dear Gail,
    I’m gearing up to start querying my manuscript to several agents (including your own, Ginger Knowlton from Curtis Brown!) and I just wondered if you had any quick tips for timid first-timers sending their words into the big world. Your approach to writing as a workable craft on this blog has been such an encouragement to me (though I’m sorry I never get around to comment!) and I’d love to hear any advice you can share…
    Also, I’d like to say thank you for your books–my favorites are ELLA and TWO PRINCESSES, so I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on LOST KINGDOM OF BAMARRE!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Thank you!

      CONGRATULATIONS on having work ready to send out!

      If rejection comes, try not to reject your story yourself, too, and think less of it. Agents and editors are as fallible as anyone else, wisdom I was helped to learn when an editor rejected one of my stories as “too clever”!

      Good luck, and please shout out your success here!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.