How to “Soundtrack” Your Novel

Alexandra Bracken Writing ChallengeAlexandra Bracken is the author of The Darkest Minds, a dystopian novel set in the not-so-distant future where a mysterious disease has killed most of the children. Those who survived have been left with unexplainable powers. Terrified, the government forces all the kids into brutal “rehabilitation camps.” The future is pretty bleak.

Music has always been a huge inspiration for Alexandra—and it played a big part in The Darkest Minds. There were certain songs she played over and over that helped set the tone for the novel. At Figment, we love music (duh!), so we were thrilled when Alexandra stopped by talk about the music she listened to while writing The Darkest Minds—and share her playlists. 

Stay tuned! We’ve got a fun writing challenge for you at the end of the contest!

While I was at home in Arizona for Christmas, I was digging around my old room. Doing, you know, the usual—laughing at my middle school poetry, trying to justify keeping all of those clothes I never wear in the closet, flipping through all my old, marked-up books from English classes of my yesteryears, etc.  My mom, bless her, hung up a lot of my high school photos on the walls of my old bedroom, and while they’re fun to look at, nothing brought me back to the high school years faster than finding this bad boy in my nightstand dresser:

iPod classic

Check. It. Out. This is a fourth gen iPod (I had to look that up). The first to have a touch-clicky-wheel-thing! And a backlit screen! It looks incredibly sad and lame when you hold it up to today’s iPod and iPod Touch models. But, guys, back in 2004 . . . man, it was amazing. Suddenly you could have your whole CD collection in one portable, brick-sized unit that almost fit in the back pocket of your jeans. It revolutionized the way I lived, and, more importantly, it changed the way I write.

In middle school and high school, almost all of my writing time was dedicated to fanfiction. I wrote every single weekend and after school when I could swing it. I spent even more time thinking about stories. I’m sure you guys have realized this, but a pretty big part of writing—any kind of writing—involves allotting yourself ample time to daydream about the plot and characters. This took the form of me going on long walks through my neighborhood, listening to music on my new iPod. I wasn’t carting my DiscMan around with me, limited to however many songs I could fit on a single CD. I guess, even then, I was sort of “soundtracking” my projects. I listened for a song that carried the right mood, structured scenes around the swell of an orchestra, and really, truly focused on the lyrics to admire wordplay and rhythm.

In college, when I first started trying to write professionally, I came back into this habit for a different reason: I was writing in computer labs and the library and needed something to filter out the noise and people around me. I trained myself so well in my writing habits at nineteen that I still can’t shake them at twenty-five! I have to listen to music when I write now, or the words just don’t flow. More importantly, it has to be the right kind of music.

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

I have two separate playlists for The Darkest Minds. One, what I call the “Black Betty Driving Mix,” is made up of songs that are—or were at some point—mentioned in the book itself. They’re all classic rock, because that’s what Liam, as the group’s fearless leader, forces them to listen to. All of these songs were chosen by me for specific reasons, usually because they touch on some important theme like war, rebellion, or first love.

My other playlist features modern songs I listened to while writing. I want to go into a little more detail about this playlist, because it ties into what I was saying above. All of the songs were chosen because they reflect the kind of atmosphere I imagined for the book: gloomy, overcast, moody, tense. In some weird twist of fate (really, it was like a high-five from the music gods), the exact right albums came out right when I needed them. While a number of artists are included in the mix (Grizzly Bear, Cults, Jónsi, Sia, and Lykke Li to name a few!), Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs and Bon Iver’s self-titled album are, without a doubt, the two I listened to the most. So much so, I still listen to them repeatedly while working on book two and book three because they immediately transport me to Ruby & Co.’s world.

One of the biggest themes of The Suburbs is the idea of some kind of nameless loss—of returning to a place (home) that you used to know, only to find it changed. They use a lot of war and almost post-apocalyptic imagery that really suited the tone of The Darkest Minds. There’s a lot of disillusionment about youth, wasted time, and what it means to “grow up” buried in the lyrics. For that reason, Arcade Fire has the most songs represented: “City With No Children,” “We Used to Wait,” and the song I like to think of as the book’s theme, “Suburban War.”

With Bon Iver, I think . . . well, I should admit here that half of the time I have no idea what the heck Justin Vernon is singing, and even when I do understand him, the lyrics don’t really make any sense. What’s amazing about his music, though, is how it can transport you. The emotional undercurrents of his songs are so deeply felt that I find myself switching between songs when I need to adjust my own mood to write a specific scene. A lot of the quiet bonding and romance scenes were written while absorbing the beautiful sounds. The two I picked for the playlist are “Calgary” and “Perth“—the latter of which I’ve listened to 417 times, according to iTunes (most of those listens came while writing the climax of The Darkest Minds).

Writing Challenge:

Inspired by Alexandra Bracken’s awesome playlists, create your own soundtrack to a story you’re writing (include song title and artist name—no more than 10 songs). Include a brief summary (no more than 100 words) of the plot of the story.

Since musical tastes are so subjective, Figment will randomly select four soundtracks to be featured on the Figment Homepage along with The Darkest Minds.

Tag your writing DarkestPlaylist. You have until Monday, February 4 at 11:59 p.m. ET to enter.

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12 thoughts on “How to “Soundtrack” Your Novel

  1. Hey, sounds like fun! Can we edit our playlists once we enter them? If you take the entrys at random, I’m guessing yes?

  2. When I try to save the tag as DarkestPlaylist, it saves it as darkestplaylist, so I can’t enter it. This always happens, so I can’t enter any contests. Please help!

  3. Is it okay if the songs are like background music for scenes instead of inspiration music? That’s what I did…imagined my book as a movie and put certain songs as a soundtrack.

  4. feel the story of your novel, imagine what is good on guiding it..
    watching some of music from japan could help, it give a lot of inspiratiion.. 🙂

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