How to Use Music to Write Better Screenplays

by Ken Miyamoto on January 2, 2018

Listening to music as you write can be a key to jump-starting your writing process — injecting emotion, tone, and atmosphere into each and every scene and moment into your screenplay. Music can give you the inspiration and drive that you need to go on that inspired writing sprint where — before you know it — you've suddenly written twenty amazing pages.

The greatest necessity that a screenwriter has is inspiration. Without inspiration the writing process doesn't exist — you're caught staring at that blank screen with the blinking cursor waiting for you to write something. But you can't wait for inspiration to come to you. You have to go find it.

Inspiration can come from many places. Before you write a single word, you should be jumping into the pool of whatever genre your script falls under. You should be watching movies with similar themes, backdrops, subject matter, and character types — even if those elements are found within different genres. You should be reading books and magazine articles that contain those elements as well.

But there's one inspiring element that screenwriters often forget — music.

Music is a vital component to cinema. It can guide audiences into the intended emotion for each and every moment within a film. It can accentuate the emotions being felt by characters and the moments created within a story. It can give a sense of tone, pacing, and atmosphere.

Let's look at Steven Spielberg's E.T. as an example. Here is the iconic bike scene where E.T. manages to save Elliot, his brother, and their friends from the pursuing government agents — showcasing the extra-terrestrial's magic and power.

Now here is that same scene without the music.

Now let's look at the final moments of the pivotal and emotional end scene where Elliott says goodbye to his dear friend.

Now let's see how that plays without the soundtrack.

Spielberg's movies have been lambasted by some who say that the music within his films manipulates the audience into feeling a certain emotion.

What they don't seem to understand is — that's the whole point.

Imagine George Lucas's Star Wars with no music.

Or Spielberg's own Jurassic Park.

Music is clearly the final magical element that makes a cinematic movie come to life for audiences.

But it can also play a huge role in how you write your own screenplays as well. To explore this notion, consider adding music to your writing process.

Now, we're not talking about just listening to your favorite music albums as you write. This is about finding the early temp tracks for your cinematic story that is playing in your own mind's eye — the grand theater within. Each and every temp track selection you find should be specifically selected for certain scenes, sequences, and moments within your script.

You need to choose wisely in that respect because the music will be the fuel for how you write a scene. Poor and scattered selections will give you false inspiration and lead you down the wrong path.

For example, watch this clip below. Imagine writing that scene from Lord of the Rings to the various alternative temp music tracks.

Believe it or not, the music you listen to can often dictate how your scene is written. You're the creator. You need to see the film first — before anyone else. If you can't see the scene you are about to write, in full cinematic fashion, it's not going to carry over well to the screenplay and the eventual script reader and audience. It sounds a bit scientific, but it's true.

Matching the right music to the right scene is key to this process.

Where Do You Find the Right Music?

Before you sit down to write your screenplay — and even weeks before as you are developing your story, characters, and sequences — you should be looking for your temp tracks that you will be writing to.

Hopefully, you immersed yourself in multiple movie viewings of movies that share similar elements to the story you are developing. If so, the answers to the question of "Where do I find the right music?" will be quickly answered.

But the music doesn't always have to come from the same genre. It can come from any movie as long as it captures the emotion that you're trying to convey.

It's All About the Emotion

Cinema is emotion. The writer, eventual filmmakers, actors, and the musical composer must find the proper emotion in each and every scene — whether it be anger, betrayal, sadness, a sense of bravery and heroism, hilarity, etc.

So you, the screenwriter, must go out and search for the proper emotional matches.

If you have a scene or sequence that is dark and foreboding, with a little danger to it, go to the theme from John Carpenter's The Thing.

If you have a pulse-pounding chase sequence with stakes, peril, and heroism that builds and builds, go to the soundtrack from Last of the Mohicans.

If you're writing an intense action sequence with many gears of action and suspense going at the same time, try this track from The Dark Knight.

If you're looking for a little calm atmosphere as a character explores the open landscape of a new or old world, why not use this track from Dances with Wolves?

If you're writing a science fiction sequence that is in need of some epic techno-spirit to it, look to the soundtrack from Tron: Legacy.

If you're writing a Hitchcockian psychological thriller or horror movie with scenes that require something to give you the feeling that anything can be lurking around the next dark corner, look no further than this track from The Machinist.

If you're writing a character-driven drama and are in need of some casual filler as you write dramatic scenes, try this instrumental soundtrack from Stand By Me.

If you're writing an upbeat comedy with heart and need a particular fun and whimsical ambiance, here's a track from Liar, Liar.

If you're writing a scene or sequence that needs some inspiring oomph to it, consider the soundtrack from The Right Stuff.

These are but just a few examples that can be found either online or on CD at your local library or used CD store. But be careful not to choose anything too iconic.

Skip the Iconic Themes

Some musical scores from films are too identifiable.

Star Wars isn't going to do you any good in that respect. Nor would iconic tracks from the original Superman, Indiana Jones, or Jaws. Pretty much anything John Williams has done beyond his lesser known scores.

The idea is to create an atmosphere for yourself. While some other instrumental scores we've mentioned are certainly recognizable, they aren't as iconic as themes from Star Wars, Superman, and Jaws. Such iconic music can disengage you creatively in this process.

Avoid Using Lyrical Songs

Instrumental music provides the necessary atmosphere you need while writing. When you inject lyrical songs, it can often either sidetrack your thought process while trying to conjure your own words while listening to song lyrics.

One exception would be using particular songs that you feel encapsulate the time period of a movie, the personalities of a character, or the specific tone of a scene.

And you always want to ensure that you're not writing such songs into your screenplay because it can disengage the script reader that may not know or may not be a fan of the reference. On top of that, songs are difficult and expensive to get the rights to. Most studios have their own partner music labels that they pull from as well. Placing specific song choices into the scene description or referencing them through dialogue as the characters sing along to them in the radio causes unnecessary headaches for the studios — especially if the songs are somehow embedded into the narrative.

Pacing, Tone, and Atmosphere

This process primarily entails creating a sense of those three elements. The emotions found within the music can translate into how your scenes are written. They offer you a cinematic audio reference that taps into your own psyche as you craft and edit your scenes, sequences, and moments — no different than a film editor that edits to the recorded musical score.

Read ScreenCraft's Why Screenwriters Should Think Like Film Editors

While these temp tracks are just that — temporary — and only for your own reference, you'll find that writing to the emotional beats of the music will help make your screenplay feel more cinematic. Cinematic screenplays have a true progression and rhyme to them. They hit certain beats and crescendos. You build to moments like a composer builds to certain powerful notes and transitions — all of which comprise the eventual pacing, tone, and atmosphere that you create.

Your ears, your visualization, and your interpretation of those paired elements often create a master symphony — whether it's for just a single moment within your script or if it is evident throughout your whole screenplay.

How, When, and Where to Use the Temp Tracks

The needs of the script will often dictate how, when, and where you use the temp tracks you find. You may find a single track that sums up the tone and atmosphere of your whole script. Click repeat, put those earbuds in and listen to it endlessly if it does the job. You can do the same for a single scene or sequence. If one song is all you need for that one moment, use it and then turn to others as you write on.

You can often utilize the soundtrack of a whole film that uses the same composer because that composer will introduce a central theme found throughout the whole musical score, showcasing different versions of it for different situations that involve different emotions.

Most of the time, you can simply cherrypick from dozens of soundtracks, choosing tracks that serve a specific need for specific times within your script.

Once you've taken the time to compile what you feel is a master selection that covers most of the main scenes, sequences, and moments, simply create a playlist on your computer or device and play it endlessly as you do your initial visualization during your development process. Take long walks, runs, car rides, or daydream sessions as you listen to the temp soundtrack you've created. Play the visual moments you already have in your head over and over as they are paired with the music. You'll find that the scene will often write itself in that respect.

Then when you are prepared to put pen to paper — that's old school code for fingers to keys — have whatever track you need playing in your earbuds as you write.

It's all about embracing the elements of cinema to write your screenplay. They serve each other to serve your story and your screenplay.

The magic of screenwriting is transferring what's in your head to paper or screen. When you conjure scenes, sequences, and moments in full cinematic context — complete with both visual and audio flare — that information will show in the work. Your writing will have a certain type of pacing, tone, and atmosphere.

And the music you choose as part of your inspiration will often lead you to the right beats, crescendos, and emotions that will make your script not just better — but cinematically amazing.

Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies

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