A sound, barely perceptible. Musical notes, quite high, shimmering in strings. So begins the Prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, which I recently saw at the Metropolitan Opera.
Among Wagner’s many contributions to music was the development of the leitmotif, a recurring musical theme that represents an element in the story. For example, Lohengrin has leitmotifs for the Holy Grail and the Forbidden Question, among others.
You’ll hear leitmotifs in movie scores—assorted melodies crisscrossing throughout the show, giving psychological undercurrents to what you’re watching.
Writers, too, can make effective use of leitmotifs (or motifs) with words and images.
For example, in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, colors are used as a leitmotif, showing how characters fight against the deadly reality of slavery, even after freedom. Sethe, a mother, buys colorful ribbons and bows for her daughter. Beloved, that daughter, sleeps with a quilt that has two orange patches. And so on.
In Barry Jenkins’s movie Moonlight, there’s a leitmotif of water, representing change or perhaps rebirth. The movie opens and closes with the sound of water, and water appears at other points, most memorably when Juan teaches the boy Chiron how to swim—Chiron unaware that Juan is the drug dealer supplying his mother.
Moving on to another legendary composer: Burt Bacharach recently passed away. His music makes me smile inside, always has. It goes down easy, but is rather sophisticated, blending influences of jazz, classical, pop, and bossa nova into something unique.
A distinctive feature of a Bacharach song is the tricky rhythm. Lots of syncopation and shifting meters. In other words, it runs, then skips, then slides, then switches direction.
Playing with rhythm is an excellent way to wake up your words in writing.
In this passage from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, the narrator describes his soul-sucking office:
Everything where I work is floor-to-ceiling glass. Everything is vertical blinds. Everything is industrial low-pile gray carpet spotted with little tombstone monuments where the PC’s plug into the network. Everything is a maze of cubicles boxed in with fences of upholstered plywood.
A vacuum cleaner hums somewhere.
Notice the repetition of the four sentences starting with Everything, then a sharp break with that distant vacuum cleaner.
One of my favorite celebrity sightings happened about ten years ago. I’m riding the subway in NYC. And Burt Bacharach is sitting across from me. He was in his mid-80s, looking cool as ever. As I recall, he was chatting to a young woman who seemed to be a stranger.
Hey, let’s celebrate Burt and NYC with Burt’s “Arthur’s Theme,” from the movie Arthur.
A few months ago, a longtime Gotham teacher, Jon Gingerich, informed us that he wouldn’t be teaching for the foreseeable future as he adapts to something new: he was going blind.
Here’s a wonderful essay he wrote about the experience. In this passage, he uses a cane for the first time:
The sun’s hard glare met the pavement as I walked down 40th Street. The cane felt good in my hand. Blindness is a lonely world, but in that moment the future was an uninhabited planet coming into view. I felt relief that no one batted an eye. Why would they, anyway? The cane stuck in a crack on the sidewalk. This adaptation, this new skin, would take some getting used to. I reminded myself that change is rarely handled gracefully. Then the walk sign on Madison flashed and I continued west.
The World War II General George S. Patton Jr. said: Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.
Jon was devastated by going blind, but one day he got that cane and began walking with it.
(A distinction is often made between courage and bravery, the latter being an innate state, the former something you muster within yourself.)
And recently an old friend of mine, Carole Healey, passed away after a long bout with cancer. When she announced on social media there was nothing left her doctors could do, people sent messages and gifts. She faced her new reality with great grace, as seen in this post about a gift:
It arrived just as I was recovering from one of the worst bouts of sickness I have ever experienced. Like the rainbow after the flood, these beautiful blossoms give me hope and made me feel so loved.
This kind of courage—fear holding on a minute longer—makes for good storytelling. See how you can use it in the things you’re writing.
It doesn’t always have to be courage against illness or death. Even the minor things in life require courage. Meeting a stranger for a date. Making that long-delayed trip to the dentist. Eating toast in the morning, steeling yourself for a day you don’t want to face.
Show your characters (or yourself) wavering as they face the fear, perhaps even failing to summon the necessary courage. The more challenging it is, the more we will be moved by it.
You know about courage. Did school ever present hell to you? Did you shop in a grocery store in the early days of the pandemic? You probably need to rustle up some courage for something going on this week.
I’m rooting for you. Maybe you’ll do the same for me.
So, what should you write about? Let me suggest three techniques to get a story idea so quickly you won’t even realize it happened.
Borrowed Idea In the two seasons of the TV series The White Lotus, a handful of ultra-rich folks spend time at a luxurious island resort (first in Hawaii, then in Sicily). Intriguing things happen, menace always rolling in with the waves.
Apparently the show’s creator, Mike White, was influenced by the 1970/80s TV series Fantasy Island, of which he was a big fan as a kid. It was a schlocky show, but it has a very similar premise to TheWhite Lotus. And…I suspect the person that created Fantasy Island was a bit influenced by Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which has an island setting and a magical fellow, Prospero, running the place in a manner similar to Fantasy Island’s white-suited Mr. Roarke (pictured above).
So, do your own riff on a story you like: comic book, fairy tale, opera, schlocky TV show, etc.
Short Idea Instead of searching for that BIG idea, consider an idea that will lead you into a really short piece—fiction, essay… whatever. This is all the rage now in the literary world (flash fiction and nonfiction), pieces that run just a page or two.
Indeed, Gotham has a literary magazine devoted to these pieces—The Razor. Each month, we publish one fiction and one nonfiction story, with text, audio narration, and original artwork. For example….
M.M. Kelley’s “Cicada” – a short story showing the narrator’s fascination with cicadas.
Lucy McClellan’ s “Baggage” – a personal essay about the writer’s dislike of rolling suitcases.
Lindz McLeod’s “Cake by the Ocean”– a short story composed of the narrator’s memories of desserts eaten in various locales.
So, just come up with a very self-contained short idea, which will probably end up taking on layers you never expected.
Terrible Idea Don’t worry about getting a great idea. Come up with a terrible idea for a story. Takes all the pressure off.
Let’s say your partner chides you for never washing the dishes. Or you see a child throwing a tantrum. Or you spend a long day just playing a video game.
None of those sound like especially great story ideas. However, it all depends on what you do with it.
Jamil Jan Kochai’s short story “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain” is about a teenager playing a video game all day long. But in a magical realism sort of way—he sees things from his family’s past in the game.
You know what’s a truly terrible idea? A hip hop musical about the US’s first Secretary of the Treasury who brilliantly set up a national banking system. His name, I believe, was Alexander Hamilton.