Penned by the Mighty James R. Riffel
These days, I pretty much limit my music listening to two acts—The Beatles and Pat Metheny. Couldn’t be more opposite, huh? Classic vs. current, rock and pop vs. jazz, short vocally-based tunes vs. long and complicated instrumentals, most popular group ever vs. someone you’ve probably never heard of.
They have similarities, however, that can be applied to our writing and help make us better. Both broke and, in Metheny’s case, continue to break, new ground with every album. From “Meet The Beatles” pop to the thematic “Sgt. Pepper’s” to the revolutionary-toned White Album and on, everything The Beatles did was new and different. They broke more molds than concrete flooring.
Metheny is the same way, from “American Garage” when he applied the teen garage band sound to the jazz format, to the sweeping “The Way Up” and his one-man show “Orchestrion,” every album is a totally new experience.
Does your work in progress break the mold? If you have completed multiple stories, does each one offer the reader a new experience or, as is the case with many writers, does it seem like the same book written over and over?
These questions come with a major mitigating factor. The Beatles had a harmonious sound that made them unique, whether it was “Help” or “Let it Be.” Metheny’s guitar picking is so distinctive that, once you’re acquainted with him, you can always pick out one of his tunes if you hear it somewhere.
So, while you break the mold and offer readers new experiences, you also have to be true to yourself. Readers want to read one of your books because they liked your style from having read you before. Quite a balancing act, huh, but the greats pull it off.
Here are some examples of how The Beatles can improve our writing. Once they broke away from the teen-pop sound of their early albums and explored their creative talents, they were great at using tone to back up their lyrics. The driving, hard-edged guitar backing (for them, at least) placed us in the right frame of mind for “Revolution.” The instruments on “When I’m Sixty-Four” are appropriately jaunty for a novelty song, but the mood carries a somber undertone in a couple of spots to reflect the reality of our aging.
Is the mood appropriate for your WIP? When a major supporting character dies, is the reader overcome with emotion? Are we thrilled with triumph? It takes more than a few well-written lines by themselves to carry us away with your characters, just like, for The Beatles, there was more that made us fall in love with their songs than clever lyrics.
Two things stand out about Metheny, other than being a great guitarist.One, when he decides to explore an area musically, he is going to go everywhere he possibly can. If he were an archeologist, he would leave no stone unturned. The song that best captures that magic is “And Then I Knew.” Everywhere he can go within the confines of that one catchy tune, he goes. Especially in the second half of the song, there are four or five significant changes in musical structure.
I don’t suggest dramatic structure changes in your writing, but when you start a story, you open up opportunities for exploration. The reader senses that too, and wants you to take him down the various paths. As a writer, you need to sense where your opportunities are and how to take advantage of them so you don’t let the reader down.
The other thing about Metheny is he forces you to listen, because you never know what’s coming. While recording the album that included the previous song, a storm moved over the studio and a lightning bolt struck particularly close. The lightning was recorded and used to conclude a wild guitar solo in “To The End of the World.” In the concert tour for the album, the crash of the lightning never failed to get a rise out the audience, and shock those who didn’t know it was coming.
A more subtle example is in the love theme for some artsy Italian movie called “Cinema Paradiso,” for which Metheny composed and performed the soundtrack music. Around the 1:50 point in this song, he goes off in an entirely different direction. It works musically, but it also forces you to sit up and pay attention.
Can you make your reader sit up and say, “Whoa, I didn’t expect that!” Sure you can. Now, can you do it well, like Metheny does? It can’t be contrived. In my current WIP, my main character’s first career choice stalls, so he also goes off in another direction. Members of my critique group were flustered, not impressed — and not the reaction I wanted. I didn’t pull it off well and have since been working on improving the set up so when the change comes, it will be interesting to readers and surprising in a good way.
The Beatles and Pat Metheny are my examples, but there can be many others, from the virtuosity of classical to the raw anger of street rap. The elements that make up their excellence can be captured and applied to writing.