Good writing is like good music. Both stay with you long after the experience is over, moving from your brain to your guts to your life. They each are a kind of communication from one human to another, a shared experience between the writer or composer and the reader or listener. Where reading lacks a performer bringing life to black notes on paper is a kind of advice for writers that are careful enough to understand it.
I’ve written before about the relationship between good writing and music. At the time, it was a sense of time and rhythm that caught my attention. I’ve since tried to absorb that music and pull it apart, desperately trying to find out how it works. A sense of music, I’ve found, is a sense of tension. What separates words that sit on the screen or the page and words that sing is primarily a matter of the same basic elements that make a tune that comes to define our lives in ways that lay outside of ourselves.
First, there is melodic tension. This is when the melody goes somewhere that you don’t expect, such as a heart-rending ninth (an octave plus a note) that dares to resolve back on the octave. In the moment before it does, there is tension. That moment is the same in writing when the flow of a plot moves to a twist or surprise. You don’t have to have it come out of the blue, but you can set up where the reader wants things to go by building empathy with the character and rely on how reading is writing. When the character moves somewhere they shouldn’t, a good sense of tension keeps the reader interested.
Harmonic tension is more of the moment. It is built when a chord accompanying the melody moves off where you might expect it to be, creating dissonance. An example in writing is when the setting or situation can be fully described in a way that foreshadows a change about to occur in the plot. There isn’t a good equivalent to harmony in writing other than the relationship of the main plot to the time and place that it takes place. The most important thing is to set up a sense of harmony in the first place, a relationship with the setting that feels natural and real. Then, you can use the setting to your advantage to build tension. The result is invariably as cinemagraphic as it is musical.
The hardest thing to understand is rhythmic tension. This is caused less by going somewhere you don’t expect as setting up a pattern that repeats that is taken to an intoxicating new level by intensifying it. Rhythm is critical to writing, creating a driving force that leads the reader on. If a constant pattern becomes shorter and more urgent, the point is made more strongly than without it.
All of these work together best when the sense of movement is strongest, so counterpoint often works well in writing. This is when a theme is repeated in different ways with different situations that explain it. Repeating figures are very minimalist in nature as long as they aren’t perfect repeats but recursions back to the main theme.
These suggestions are obvious when the subject matter is fictional, but they also work well with true subjects. All writing has a point of some kind, so allowing that point to sneak up on the reader in a way that surprises them, like melodic tension, makes it more memorable. Offering surprising analogies or supporting situations that make the reader think outside of their normal experience is like harmonic tension. Rhythm is critical in any writing and building the tension appropriately allows the final point to stand on its own.
There should be music in any writing.
There is certainly more to say on this topic, but these are my thoughts so far. I’d love to hear what you have to say since this is a work in progress. Think of the comments as karaoke, if you’d like.