Theme Music: Tone is Not an Accident

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, December 2002
"On a pitch-black, starless night, a solitary man was trudging along the main road from Marchiennes to Monstsou, ten kilometres of cobblestones running straight as a die across the bare plain between fields of beet. He could not even make out the black ground in front of him, and it was only the feel of the march wind blowing in great gusts like a storm at sea, but icy cold from sweeping over miles of marshes and bare earth, that gave him a sensation of limitless, flat horizons. There was not a single tree to darken the sky, and the cobbled high road ran on with the straightness of a jetty through the swirling sea of black shadows."
Stop a moment and consider, not merely this passage, but how you feel, what music you hear, what your expectations are. Are you warm, cold, happy, sad? Do you expect a comedy to follow, some lightweight entertainment, or, if you are up to reading on, do you instead expect something which might stay with you for more than the time it takes to read the work?

Read the passage again, considering its tone, mood, musicality, its timbre. Why isn't it comedic? Why does it feel weighty, dark, serious? Is it the words -- their semantic content -- or is it their sound, their shape, feel, color; or is it a combination of all things written, the delivery, the theme music reinforcing the plain message?

The paragraph is the opening of Germinal by Emil Zola, a dark book by a dark author who believed that most of life was genetic destiny, and brutal with it. Now ask yourself, does the opening not give that sense, that weight, that wet cold wind sweeping through?
"Jackie Brown, at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said he could get some guns. "I can get your pieces probably by tomorrow night. I can get you, probably, six pieces. Tomorrow night. In a week or so, maybe ten days, another dozen. I got a guy coming in with at least ten of them but I already talk to another guy about four of them and he's, you know, expecting them. He's got something to do. So, six tomorrow night. Another dozen in a week."
Now do you expect another Germinal? Why not? Sure, we have character here, revealed through dialogue, but we don't just have character. Instead we have a tone, a style, a certain direct delivery. If we've seen Reservoir Dogs maybe we hear a definite voice -- though this story was written in 1970 -- but the look and feel, the shape, the texture of what is to come is already set.

This is the opening of The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins, a superb crime-writer and a master of dialogue, but note, compare, contrast the two openings, their promise, their subliminal contract, their declaration. Note their music, their color, the first notes of a symphony. Tone is not an accident.

Can we confuse Higgins and Zola? Can we confuse their direction or intent? Do we need to read even two paragraphs to know that the experiences held in these pages are very different, that our ways of reading will be different?

When considering manuscripts from beginning and improving writers, when judging for a short-story competition, one great disappointment is the lack of "voice", of a tone, attitude, rhythm, a musicality which is both distinct and shapes my reading, my way of receiving.

Too often the delivery is flat, unspecific, as if the writer believes only the semantic content of the words on the page is enough. Ask any true poet is that true. Do I need to tell you what answer you would get?

A song is its words, the music, the instruments, the arrangement, then add the personality and presence of the singer. Listen to Frank Sinatra singing "My Way" and then watch a video of the so-alive Sid Vicious render his take on the subject. Is it the same song or a different song?

The words are the same.

I have argued in previous articles that a story's opening is the key to something deep and internal, that the sound and feel of the sentences cannot be simply grabbed at, that we shouldn't just get going and come back and clean up later. I argue that we need to find the resonance which suits the story, which suits our need, the drive which makes us want to write this, at this time. We may want to say something about pain or sexuality but why this something and this way? Finding the theme is hard, if you actually look, but, I argue, finding the theme music is not so hard and from the musical score comes the sense of direction, the color and shape of the avenue you walk. Get the sound right and the story simply becomes.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, "One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be."

Our tone, our sound, our stance, our attitude, should not evolve in the process of an argument, rather it should be part of the argument itself, both a reinforcement and a counterpoint, part of the whole persuasion, just as music, lighting and good food may accompany another kind of seduction. It is all one and all must be controlled, all must shape the way we absorb the story, all must steer us into a certain kind of receptivity.
We are in a camp five miles behind the line. Yesterday our relief arrived; now our bellies are full of bully beef and beans, we've had enough to eat and we're well satisfied. We were even able to fill up a mess-tin for later, every one of us, and there are double rations of sausage and bread as well -- that will keep us going.
All Quiet on the Western Front is arguably the greatest anti-war novel ever written, yet it doesn't open to the sound of guns, but in the ordinary, toned in the ordinary, sounding ordinary, peaceful, deadpan, human, and with a simple, gentle, quiet music.

One critic wrote, "The book conquers without persuading, it shakes you without exaggerating, a perfect work of art, and at the same time truth which cannot be doubted."

And doesn't the opening herald that very stance? Doesn't the opening, with its mild-mannered, almost inconsequential focus on the food, the relief, the unassuming ordinariness, the humanity, set us up for the pain that the very destruction of these people will generate? There is no pomp here, just a school-teacher, schoolboys, and their long, slow trudge towards death. And where there is no pomp there is no military music. Instead we hear the quiet of men eating, living, surviving. Remarque has set the tone and the tone is not an accident.

Tone is Not an Accident.

But we should find it by accident. Search for a thing and often it refuses to be found. Look and it changes shape or color. When we try to access our inner selves, the more directly we look, the harder we try, the less true are our insights. They don't call it the unconscious for nothing!

About a century ago Freud knew this, and ideas such as the Freudian Slip have entered modern language. When Freud and the battalions of psycho-analysts who followed him used word-associations, they did so because it was believed that the more rapid and spontaneous are our replies, the more likely they are to reveal our true feelings.

So do we want to reveal our true feelings when we write? If we are not writing biographically, what do "our" feelings matter at all? Should we do as Gertrude Stein suggested, first remove the reader, and then the writer?

It's my strongly-held view that when we read good fiction it is to understand the human experience, to share or try to share, the feelings and intuitions of another. That other is a character, is an author, since, I'd argue the character is the author, at least a facet of the author, an alternative, a glimpse of, a parallel, a doppleganger, an inner being (maybe one of many), but no less human and no less revealing for being part of a part or a reflection of a dream or suppression.

Dorothea Brande wrote that what we see, what interests us, is a function of some deep thing within us -- why do you see the mangy dog and I don't care? Why do you latch on to a snippet of conversation I find too banal to bother with? -- and that when we wish to write about something, it is for a reason that's often not immediately accessible to us.

Brande would argue that the author is never removed from the work. I think she would argue the author's inner world is important. I come from the same school and will suggest that allowing my "me" to rise through the story is the route to deeper, richer, power-driven writing, writing which resonates, sometimes uncannily, because it is connected to the primitive.

So what has this to do with "accident"?

The human being is a mass of lies, a shimmer of mirrors, acting, cheating, presenting what is more-or-less acceptable to others, allowing the illusionist to present a character, to function, not as he is but in a way which seems to work.

We all have a superficial face which we know is an act. Beneath the bluster, we know we aren't that brave or that sexually assured, and we might in an intimate moment admit to some vulnerability. But this second level, beneath a single veil, is a long, very long way from the raw and actual being deep down. And when we look, our own defences will steer us away from the areas we've decided we don't go anymore. If we are clever, the psyche is cleverer. When we enquire, we will be cheated, because if we bring the blunt left-brain to the game, the rules of obscuration are automatically invoked.

To bring out anything worthwhile, we must let it seep out, leak, osmote; we must allow it to drift upwards, to solidify in the fog. If we stop at any time and take it head-on, what we get is the expected, never the unexpected. To write well we must find a way past the sentinels, we must design in accident, because with purpose we produce the obvious, only with purposelessness we produce the new.

It is my belief that by being "loose", by wallowing in the ideas and feelings we deliberately do not articulate, by being -- almost -- a medium in touch with our own inner world, we can coax some extra, some deep honesty into the light.

When we see the scene, hear the snippet of dialogue, see a report on TV, or spontaneously think a what-if, we should not rush to write about it, not rush to get to print. Instead we should record enough of the snippet so it doesn't slip away (I write in the back of paperbacks or on a white board in my office) and then LEAVE IT.

If we were to politely ask, "Inner self, tell me, why am I interested in mahogany walking sticks?", we would get a solid and believable answer. That answer might produce a working draft. But, if, instead, we simply allow the "fact" of mahogany to filter its way down, across, and possibly back out (picking up the most amazing psychic connections on the way) then, when we are allowed a glimpse, what comes out is a true surprise, something we couldn't predict.

Like Brande, I believe, that when we see something which interests us as writers, when we are tweaked or intrigued, something is connecting to us, something deep, something very probably hidden or suppressed, and not necessarily the obvious or simplistic. A crude example might be; we see a news report, see a callous military killing. If asked we might argue that our liberal sensibilities are affronted, that we would like to express in our writing our horror of extreme politics, of state-sanctioned violence.

But maybe, maybe, what matters is we are aroused by the idea of the violence. In truth we might want to go there, do that, wield the ultimate power. Or maybe we have often dreamed of being the victim in such scenes and carry with us an almost-silenced terror.

It is only if we look away, that the connections will be made. We must allow the truer reasons to at least form and then, perhaps, we will be able to access something a little more real, a little more important, a little less pat.

And finally, this brings us back to the music.

I have my white-board, my notes, my Jack Kerouac with scribbles inside the cover. Sometimes I think I know why I was attracted by this, by that, and sometimes I almost write. But I try not to write about something until it swells up in me, until it drives a tentacle towards the surface.

Now I can "feel" a story, but still I try not to look, try not to think. More and more "something is making me itch" and if I really must write, I try to be as drunk as I can, as open, as sleepy, as vague.

By drunk, I do not necessarily mean intoxicated by alcohol. Instead I mean as far away from controlled, from left-brain driven as I can be. The idea is to be "in the zone" and ready without being alert, sat up, pen in hand. With the pen or PC, I am likely to be controlled by the sentinels. "Drifting", mellow (for me a long hot bath, eyes closed, a glass or two of red wine, works) I begin to half-hear the sound of the story, almost always the opening.

I half-see and half-hear my own words, not my words, a character more real than I am, a setting, speech. When I half-hear and half-see, sometimes what I hear and see feels not-too-bad. Eyes still closed I circle the fire, listen again to the voice, feel the feel. Opening lines, never "worked" consciously, begin to come, and then there is a moment, (it is so like tuning a radio I'm tempted to say the characters, the story, their voice and my voice all exist in the ether, waiting) when the opening fuses, solidifies, takes form and echoes so powerfully, resonates so strongly, I simply know that it is connected to something primitive in me.

The opening always has a sound, a rhythm, a feel, a color. It feels right. It feels right, I believe, because, still unarticulated, the characters, setting, tone and musicality which carry and protect the theme have come from the theme; not the theme I'd express when asked directly, but the deep reason why I need to write the story, what I really want to say.

All I have to do now is follow where the voice sends me, where the character wishes to go.

The theme music of the opening, the color and texture of the delivery, came unforced from deep within. It links to the self, and is real.

Because it is something truer, from a deeper, truer source, it knows, unarticulated, where it is going. Without ever directly asking where (or how) my story is going, the fundamentals, the musical weights, the character, tone, setting, and manner have been created from something primitive, a primitive which senses the whole and doesn't need to draw diagrams.

I have come to the theme music because the theme has arisen from within me when it was ready. What I deeply need to say, reveals itself in the fabric of an opening, the opening somehow connects to the ending. How I will get there is largely a function of the opening, and like Marquez, once the opening has shaped itself, I am merely the medium who translates.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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