Writer’s Music: John Carpenter


Let’s try something different.

Let’s try music we never tried before.

Music that has no roots in a film, though its creator does.

John Carpenter has been on my mind these past few days. I’ve been brainstorming up a bit of short fiction I wanted to share here to analyze the relationship between my immediate settings and the stories I create. While I have a sense of what I want to do, the rhythm’s still missing. The piece can’t afford to build too quickly; it’ll need a slow build to grip the readers. I need the readers to see the menace, know it’s coming, shake their fists at the protagonist as they cry, He’s right behind you!”

Aha! Just like Carpenter’s HalloweenThere’s a movie without flash or whimsy: everything’s done on a shoe-string budget while everyone gives their 200%. This is the movie that made Jamie Lee Curtis the Scream Queen, after all. And Carpenter’s score is legendary, as is his method. (“I’m the cheapest, and I know I’ll get it done on time,” He said. Sort of. Look, ask Bo, he’s read all about him.) Carpenter uses his synthesizer to score nearly all his movies. Sure, his melodies are simple, but they cement themselves into the audience’s memory, and fast. The theme for Halloween is nothing short of iconic, right up there with Superman and Batman.

But like John Williams, this can mean that the music lets a writer think of nothing else but Michael Myers walking down a shadowed street.

Enter the Lost Themes.

In the last few years Carpenter has produced two new albums of instrumental music totally unconnected to his films. They still keep his minimal style of percussion, synthesizer, and occasional piano. The result? Desired aural atmosphere without the Pavlovian reaction. Every track smacks of 80s: arcade tournaments and puffy vests, rolled-up denim and disco fries. Occasionally Kurt Russell in an eye patch appears in one’s imagination, but he’s too smart to interrupt the story at hand.

So, over the next week I’m going to see how far these albums can take a character I created years ago. He’s been kicking the table for his own story, but I was never sure what to do for a novel. Well, problem solved now.

We got work to do, Dorjan.

Let’s go.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna II


As I wrote in February, Danna’s music has helped me a great deal as a writer. While The Sweet Hereafter creates an unsettling atmosphere, Breach provides an air of mystery no plot should live without.

Say what you will about writing for a specific genre: if you want a page-turner, you’ve got to have a puzzle of some sort to be solved. Characters must work out causes of events, sources of conflict with others, and their own inner flaws. These puzzles can’t just sit on the table half-finished until the last ten minutes; someone’s always got to be working on them or the reader’s going to leave, bored, and never return.

Danna’s Breach utilizes an extensive string section, keyboard, and a few brass and woodwind instruments to build upon each other with musical rhythms. As “A Full Day” begins with the keyboard, I can watch my characters start with little, and slowly begin to piece the different elements of their mystery together, just as Danna brings in layers of short rhythmic melodies, each played by different instruments. By the time the keyboard pulls together its melodies over the crescendo of strings, my characters have uncovered a clue vital to uncovering the kidnapper and where he’s hidden the protagonist.

One other note on Danna: the timing of his music. While I may start a track over and over during the writing process, I expect my story to read in time with the music. If my scene lags—and it does, shamefully often—I know it must be tightened. Writers constantly hear they must “keep up the pace,” but apart from using a metronome, how does one pull it off? In moments where mystery dominates the plot, use Breach’s rhythms to drive your characters onward.

Selection: “A Full Day”

Click here for more on Mychael Danna’s BREACH and other albums.