Monday, February 1, 2010

Hell Among the Playlists: Finding Inspiration in Your Music Library

Okay, this will probably be the last post I make on the subject of inspiration and idea generation. At least it'll be the last until someone asks me to do another. Anyway, today I'm going to talk about plumbing the depths of one of the deepest wells of inspiration ever, music.
Ever since some caveman banged a couple rocks together to accompany a chant so he could tell his friends about a particularly exciting tiger hunt, music has been used to tell stories. Throughout the millennia of creative endeavor, musicians have used their oeuvres to express the joy, piety, sadness, violence, loss, pain and grace of their lives and the lives of those around them. Everything from plainsong to opera to the song stylings of Elvis Presley carries the distilled history and emotional, physical and spiritual history of mankind in their composition. As a writer, whether you're writing something bleak and violent and lovely, a story about Jewish cops, or books about spaceships and giant robots, some of the best kinds of inspiration can be found in song.

Since I don't know what you, gentle readers, have in your playlists to inspire you, I'm going to use my own experience and you can extrapolate from there. I listen to a lot of what music labeling people like to call "American Roots Music". My iTunes library is chock-a-block with jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk, rockabilly and a lot of songs simply labeled as "traditional". You can find people like Robert Johnson and Django Reinhardt rubbing elbows with Tom Waits and Hank Williams and Gillian Welch in there. I love a song that tells a story, and most of the stories I like are about heartbreak and alcoholism or, as Johnny Cash put it, Love, God and Murder. These people have a knack of telling a story every bit as emotionally gripping as movies like Saving Private Ryan or The Road in the space of three or four minutes. Hell, Marty Robbins has a famous album that's essentially fifteen three minute westerns, and you can't beat that for listening pleasure. These artists, and hundreds like them, are a treasure trove of the kind of odd characters, strange happenings and general human-scale mayhem that makes for great stories and great role-playing opportunities. 

Now, I know it's easy for me to sit here and say, "Just listen to music, there's plenty there!", but seriously, just listen to your music, there's plenty there. In my library I've discovered a haunted motorcycle, a cursed violin made from the bones of a murdered girl and countless star-crossed lovers, hard cases and down right lunatics. The trick is to listen to what the musician is telling you, the story they're spinning, then take that further than the limit of the song. Just like looking for ideas in your surroundings, ask "how" and "why". Why does the song stop where it does, and what happens after? Also, listen between the lines, as it were, and hear the things that the songwriter isn't telling you. Again, the opportunities are damn near limitless. Take your favorite song by your favorite artists and listen to it again. Listen to it with a writer's ear, and see what it tells you. You'll probably be surprised.

P.S.: In the spirit of the post, I'm giving you all a homework assignment. Below, you'll find one of my favorite songs by Tom Waits, a paranoid little screed called, "What's he Building in There?" I want you to watch the video and listen to the words, then tell me what, in fact, he's building in there. There's no wrong answer here. Remember, what you think he's building in there is more than likely more interesting than what he's actually building in there.


Anonymous said...

Related notions: there is a Tom Waits orcale under development for Vincent Baker's _In A Wicked Age_, and there's a thread at the Story Games forum about games inspired by songs.

Zachary The First said...

I've always wanted to do an X-Files style game set in the Depression Era, and I'd love to soundtrack it with that same "Americans Roots" Style. G-Men investigating weird stuff--a little more pulpy than Call of Cthulhu. I dunno--"Mobsters & Mythos, maybe?"