Music, Fanfic, and the Combination Thereof

Mostly by Celli; snarkiness in italics by Jen

Music is obviously important when you're watching a TV show. Don't believe me? Ask the WB, which shells out not only music but time (the most precious commodity a network has) to shill whatever alterna-whatever bands have appeared on Charmed, Dawson's Creek, and Smallville every week. (Don't get me wrong. They're not bad bands. Except possibly Dingoes Ate My Baby, which was supposed to suck...But I digress.)

Music can be important when you're writing fic, too. For some people it's easy. Want to write a Buffy fic? Just throw on the actual Buffy soundtrack (or, in a pinch, anything by Sarah McLaughlin) and you're off. What do you use for JAG though? John Phillips Sousa?

There are some stories I literally cannot write without musical accompaniment. Every writer has his/her musical preferences; I know some people who can't write while listening to anything with lyrics, because they start listening to the words and get sidetracked. Yes, I have the attention span of a gerbil. What's your point? Of course, I also know people who can write smut sitting in the middle of Union Station. I think it's a focus thing. Or something else I don't have.

Here's a thought: Next time you're stuck on a story, change your music. For example, I often write to Lowen & Navarro when I'm aiming for angst. (What? You've never heard of Lowen & Navarro? Go to, and don't come back 'til you've been converted. heesh.) I was working on a Smallville fic last week and couldn't quite get inside Lex's head, so I switched to a mix CD a friend sent me. One verse of "Galileo" by the Indigo Girls, and suddenly everything made sense. Everything in the story, or 'everything' in the cosmic sense? The result was a story that I'm happy with...and several other people, too, which is even better.

Moving from fic inspired by music to fic that includes music...this is one of those areas where you have to really think about what you're doing. I'm not going to tell you you can't use a song in your story. That's my job. But there are some things to think about before you jump in. There's different levels of this, so let's take a look:

1) Using a song title or lyric as a story title. Makes sense. Sometimes the best way to evoke the mood of your story is to use a song that means something to you. A couple of warnings: first, make sure the title itself makes sense with your story if you haven't heard the song, and second, tell people where it's from in your story notes. I, at least, appreciate knowing where to look for something that sounds interesting. (I've also been known to use song titles as chapter parts, which can be fun and keeps the song-happy part of my brain interested.)

2) Using a quote from a song at the beginning/end of a story. Any quote at the beginning is good if--IF--it really relates to your story. Don't put a quote up just because you like it, use it because it adds meaning to the story. See the difference? If it doesn't, just write another story around that quote; don't try to force it. An example: the verse of "Galileo" that helped with my Smallville story was great, but didn't exactly fit. I used a quote from Mother Theresa instead and plan to slap the lyric into another story (because you can never bring up Lex's past too often).

3) Having a song playing in the story. Just mentioning that "X Song" is playing can be good for atmosphere. The time to exercise caution is when you actually have the characters listen to/think about the lyrics; usually that's shown when you start quoting large portions of the song. Danger, Will Robinson. I'm not saying you can't do it, or it won't work. I am saying you have to be careful. Too much quoting, and it's all song and no story! Plus, if your reader hasn't heard the song, s/he probably won't care about the impact said song has on your characters, and they won't really pay attention to the story.

Also, let's face facts. Song lyrics tend to look stupid on paper. They need music backing them up. Tara O'Shea gave some great advice about this once: if the lyrics move you so much, make a vid that shows why the show and song go together. Then you can get people to listen to the song and watch the show at the same time. :) I'm not going to get smug and superior on this, because I use songs in my stories all the time. But I try to remember the adage "less is more" when it comes to lyrics.

4) Having your characters sing. This isn't a song issue, this is a character issue. Would JAG's Harm and Mac sing? Well, they've done it on the show, so...maybe. Would Buffy characters, without the influence of a demon? Dicier. Would the West Wing cast break into a song other than "The Jackal"? Um...I'm thinking no. This is one of those areas where I won't tell you no, I'll just tell you it better be really well-written. My suggestions: you're a writer, you can think of better things for them to say. Have them give an impassioned speech or write a love letter. You can do it!

Some examples of good songs-used-in fic from each category. All are by my friend Perri Smith, because she's the best I know at combining the two, and, because she writes in so many different fandoms, you'll probably find something you're familiar with here:

1) Roswell: "What I Make Myself Believe."

2) (with bits of 1) for good measure) Angel: The "Forgiven" Arc.

Or, West Wing/Sports Night crossover: "Mend." (Read the Author's Notes first and pay attention to the angst warnings.)

Halfway between 2) and 3): "The Best of Me," a West Wing story. I'm not the best judge, because I know the song, but it is appropriate, and it doesn't take over the story.

3) She just finished a story called "Invincible" for the movie "The Cutting Edge." In addition to making the national anthem work within the story, she uses other songs to good use. Of course, the story's about figure skaters, so they obviously skate But still, it rocks.

4) Okay, the closest I come on this is the story I recommended as a Mary Sue a couple months ago, a Babylon 5 fic called "Scenes From a Spaceside Bar." One of the main characters is a lounge singer.


Jen's viewpoint regarding music in fanfic: Don't. Okay, maybe that's too general, because there's always a good story that will be the exception that proves the rule. And I like Celli's suggestion that a song title or a snippet from the lyrics makes a good title for a fic (or for parts of the fic). But in general, quoting big--or even small--chunks of the song can be tedious for readers. Either it's been done to death by a few thousand other fic writers (some of whom are bound to be better at it than you), or it's such an obscure song that no one has a clue about it except you, or it doesn't fit the story. Use music for inspiration by all means, but leave it at the door.


Okay, for those who actually read my stuff, the Smallville story I mentioned above is called "Being a Luthor" and is available at

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