for writers and readers….

USING MUSIC AS A PLOT DEVICE – extract from a creative writing exercise in Back to Creative Writing School

James Joyce’s The Dead has been called by some critics the best short story ever written. Indeed when I was studying for a Masters in Creative Writing a tutor apologised for giving it as a set text as he feared that we might lose heart and turn away from writing…

The main character is Gabriel, a middle aged, middle class man attending his family’s annual Christmas party in Dublin in 1906. As in previous years speeches are made, dances are danced, meals ate and the same embarrassing relative gets drunk.

Stories are about something happening and what happens in this story is a very small something. Gabriel’s wife is deeply moved by a song sung at the party. Later when they are alone she explains that she was reminded of a boy who was in love with her when she was growing up in Galway and who, already ill, waited outside in the cold for her. He died as a result. After she falls asleep, Gabriel reflects on his own life and what his wife has said. Seeing the snow at the window, he imagines it falling as a blanket over Ireland and the graveyard where the young boy is buried.
John Huston filmed the story in 1987 (it was his last film and what a way to sign off a brilliant career). He cast his daughter Anjelica Huston as Gabriel’s wife and she turns in a careful, understated performance. Here, thanks to the wonders of Youtube you can watch the final scene.

The Japanese author Haruki Murakami also uses music to conjure a time, a place, a mood. In his international bestseller novel Norwegian Wood, the central character hears the Beatles song by chance and is thrust back 20 years to his student days in Tokyo.


A piece of music turns your main character into a time traveller, going back to a specific moment in the past. As a result they are forced to reflect on life now and the choices made.

It can be music that has a special resonance for you, but make this fiction not autobiography by mixing your own experience with a central character that is not you at all. The easiest way to jump into the skin of that character is by changing gender. You can write a woman if you are a man, you can take on a male persona if you’re a woman. You’re a writer: you can do anything, go anywhere. The only limit is your imagination and the more you exercise it the more it will stretch.

Or write about a time or place that is totally outside your experience. Research it. Plough through Youtube and the music collections of friends. Transport an elderly woman back to the arms of a stranger in Manchester during World War II because she happens to hear a dash of Glen Miller on the radio; a chief executive sitting behind a big desk becomes an acne-raddled 13 year old again when he hears The Clash’s London Calling escape from a window cleaner’s ipod. 

 And read The Dead. Trust me, you can take good writing without being demolished. You can use the story as a model if you can hear the women’s skirts hitting the skirting boards as they waltz around the room. Or you can hate it, be bored by the middle class preoccupations of people who don’t interest you. Remember you’re a writer: you can do anything and that’s allowed too.

The only two things you can’t do is

1)    not read

2)    not write.

Back to Creative Writing School is out now in paperback and ebook form. UK Amazon US Amazon

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2013 by in Muse and tagged , , , .


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