A musician, an actor, and Christopher Nolan walk into a bar...
JUST KEEP THIS BEAT GOING IN YOUR HEAD
In music, numbers rule everything.
They describe the harmonics that explain why some things by default sound pleasing vs screeching. They articulate the mechanics behind hit songs written by people who can’t read a single note. And they describe a secret strategy to storytelling that’s worked for songwriters since we began humming the songs we wish we could forget.
It’s a secret strategy that could make the difference between selling your story or watching it waste away in limbo.
What we need is a catalyst, an idea, a sound — a kind of inception — to wake our audience from their endless sleep. To guide the discovery of their own personal totem. One manifested from your story.
And it was all thanks to this one musical secret.
But why should you take my word for it?
Join me below for mind-blowing insights from the composers who fill out our stories with that most magical substance: MUSIC
Colin Aguiar, the Oscar-winning Indian-Canadian composer for Life of Pi and so much more.
THEY SAY WE ONLY USE A FRACTION OF A SONG’S POTENTIAL
They just need a push.
In screenwriting, you can start the story in a way that’s completely rational and sensible — but also so expected that you’re already working against yourself to keep the audience’s interest.
One simple innovation from how to write hit songs will help you overcome this obstacle in your stories. Music writing is, after all, just another form of storytelling.
In Russia, beat stays on you.
In music, a song (usually) needs to end on a count that “resolves” whatever time signature the song is in. Basic example, you start off in 4/4, you go “1, 2, 3, 4.” Basically, the time between each count tells you how fast to play and where the beats fall.
In super (and I mean SUPER) basic music writing, the beats are emphasized like a high school essay.
Strong opening on 1!
Just don’t lose them in the middle (2 and 3)!
Now repeat that opening emphasis (but stronger!) on 4.
Return to the root note…repeat!
You see where I’m going. The Beatles and Taylor Swift tell a story to an easy-to-follow beat (and the same four chords as every other hit song). It’s basic, it’s effective, but if that was all they did, it would get kinda boring .
Guess what happens when you do the same thing in a script?
GO GO, STORYTELLERS!
Mighty Morphin’ Multiverse Rangers
The Music Method and the Nolan Method are more similar than you’d think. And though they seem complex on the surface, thanks to Taylor Swift, it’s now as easy to understand as a hit radio song.
Let’s keep this simple. In part because I haven’t been in music theory courses for…almost twenty years?
And just for fun, let’s keep this part as short as a hit radio song.
But guess what? It’ll probably be the best part.
WE’RE TAKING YOU BACK…TO THE MUSIC!
RON WASSERMAN: The hardest thing to score is action animation because there are so many moments you want to ‘hit’ and that makes the math very complicated to keep a natural feel to the music.
What’s most important — what remains important across all mediums of storytelling — is the heart of your story. That’s the hook that dug so deep into you that the other end is now free to hook the audience along with you.
The easiest — arguably the best — method is the basic one I admittedly just said sucks. But hold on, let me explain.
In a script, just as in a song, a storyteller needs to understand their audience. Even if that’s just one person. Even if that’s just yourself.
RON WASSERMAN: Instrumental or lyrically you must capture the essence of the story.
COLIN AGUIAR: Art that touches us has a beautiful endowment of sincerity.
A basic frame — beginning, middle, end — gives us a structure that audiences know. A structure that audience love. One they keep coming back to for a need only your kind of story can satisfy.
And yet…the more often they come back, the more they wish for that old feeling of novelty. A way to make the familiar feel fresh and new.
But what if there was a way to take the basic and instantly make it as addictive as a Christopher Nolan movie at its best?
THE MUSIC METHOD
Write to the beat of your own drum
With the Music Method, the storyteller leaves everything exactly the same — but you time shift when the song/story starts. Just two or three beats later than the one-count, but still within the same bar.
If a song is in 4/4, yeah, you need to end with that 4-count resolving at the end of the song. But did you know you don’t need to start counting on 1?
The math — like the total sum of energy in the universe, or so they say — ultimately must equal zero. Or one. Or whatever it was once it’s all put together. Essentially, you have four counts to distribute. You can start on whichever count you want, as long as in the end, you come back to resolve those four counts.
SOMEONE IS SLIGHTLY OUT OF TUNE
All pieces must be returned to their original cookie
It’s as simple as saying you have a cookie split into four parts. You can put any of those four parts at the beginning or end of the story/song.
Similarly, you can start your story composition on a later beat — as long as you return to resolve the “count” that makes up that measure of the story. A basic (sorry, language is limited like music is not) way to do this is to open the story with the final scene, but cut away at the halfway point and go back to the very beginning of your story.
Tell it all the way through, now returning to the scene you originally cut away from at the ending.
Here are loads of song examples sourced from the Front Page of the Internet:
Deftones — “Xenon”
Coheed and Cambria — “Mother May I”
Lenny Kravitz — “Come on and Love Me”
The Police — “Bring on the Night”
Kate Bush — “Mother Stands for Comfort”
Ben Folds Five — “Kate”
Now what does all of that have to do with Christopher Nolan?
With the biggest WHOMP WHOMP you’ve ever heard, the secrets will be revealed…next time.
THE CHRISTOPHER NOLAN METHOD
COLIN AGUIAR: [The pandemic] brought my empathy into more focus than ever before.
RON WASSERMAN: From an emotional point of view, sad scenes are much easier to score than happy comedic scenes.
Christopher Nolan does the same thing over, and over, and over (and over) again in his movies. How hard he leans into the technique depends on whether he’s developed a high-concept plot that determines whether he depends on the Nolan technique entirely.
The problem, as the Sith among our readers may have guessed, is that there must always be balance.
COLIN AGUIAR: A great story must do more than provoke. It must move us to see the unseen. To do that, we must show the unseen aspects of ourselves.
The funny thing is that it doesn’t even take much to pull back the curtain on a hidden aspect.
The funny thing is that as a storyteller, you don’t even need to be the one to shine a light on those secrets.
If you light a spark in your reader’s imagination, they’ll dig up those secrets for you.
All you have to do is let that first familiar moment pass by. Resist the impulse to guide them…until they realize you missed your cue.
You had their curiosity. Now you have their attention.
PLAY IT LIKE YOU REALLY MEAN IT
Is it any wonder that the most emotional Christopher Nolan movies are often his most memorable? He’s a master at logic and puzzles, but when those are his primary tools — some would say his only tools — the movies suddenly fall flat. They are marvels of mechanical perfection…and yet soulless.
He plays with the math more deftly than most. Isn’t it strange how being too good at one thing can make you so bad at something else?
The power of Inception’s ending depends precisely on the imperfections Nolan seems to doggedly attempt to plot out of existence. Those imperfections, those inconsistencies, those holes in his vision are ultimately what transform the ending into a catalyst for our imaginations.
Like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character argued when debating whether to move forward with their dream heist, planting an idea in someone’s mind is almost impossible. Because you aren’t hoping to plant an idea. You’re hoping for true genesis. If they know it’s YOUR idea, they’ll always keep a part of it at a distance.
But if we make them yearn as much for the puzzle as the solution? If we inspire our readers to connect with why this puzzle matters even if they never solve it?
We yearn as much for solutions as the puzzles that create those conundrums. Like the floating tension of a minor 7th chord, we wait and quietly recognize that anticipation is as essential to fulfillment as resolution.
But how to hook our audience? How to show them that the mystery driving your story is not just worth their time…it might be the key to finally understanding themselves?
TIME-SHIFTING YOUR PLOT
Writing for Collider, Matt Goldberg opined:
[Nolan uses] “movies about identity as they relate to grandiose concepts of time and truth, so that when we see the reverse chronology of a movie like Memento, it’s not a gimmick but a way to get inside the mind of his protagonist.”
In a time-shifted plot, your story starts in the future (though the reader may not know that until the end), doesn’t resolve, jumps into the past, then at the end catches back up to when the story started.
The concluding scene adds the count/plot beats that would have resolved the story arc if you’d included all of them at the opening.
The beats you don’t include are the questions or payoffs you want the reader to pursue by reading your story. What are those beats? Why does shifting them subvert your audience’s expectations? How do you make sure that subversion feels like a delightful surprise instead of a rage-inducing roadblock?
BOOKS LIKE TO TIME TRAVEL TOO
To a certain degree, the original novella “The Story of You” by Ted Chiang manifests a wholly unique experience of time. But it’s really in the movie adaptation ARRIVAL that you’ll experience what I’m trying to describe.
It isn’t just the changes in the script, though that’s part of it. The visuals, the music, the rhythms of the sound effects, all manifest an immersive experience from one of the finest filmmakers of our era.
No coincidence, then, that it is the scores of Hans Zimmer that increasingly fill out Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan’s films.
WAIT…YOU MEAN THE WOMP WOMP GUY?
From Batman Begins, to Inception, to Interstellar, almost all of Nolan’s movies feature a distinctive beanstalk crusher to shake the popcorn out of your bucket.
And yet turn to any of Han Zimmer’s soundtracks for other filmmakers, and the sound instantly changes. Even the same percussive effect found in a Nolan score doesn’t manifest nearly the same experience.
Compare, for example, his score for The Dark Knight to his score for Man of Steel. Both are superhero films, both even have at least the Nolan gaze attached to them.
The score for the Dark Knight fills me with a quiet surety that wrongs must be and CAN be set right. The trailer builds on the effect from the music exceptionally well.
But the score for Man of Steel fills even the emptiest soul with a sense of hope and optimism (that unfortunately defies the movie it tried to inhabit). In a video for his personal YouTube channel, Dave Chen (eternally-witty and legendary for punishing Jeff Canata whenever he fails to deliver a new limerick) offered one of the most indelible analyses of just why Zimmer’s theme for Man of Steel manages to stand side by side with no less than the John Williams theme from Superman ‘78.
THAT PROPULSIVE FEELING
DAVE CHEN: [On the theme for Man of Steel] There’s some syncopation in the rhythm here. It’s in 4/4 time, but it’s heavily syncopated.
1, 2, 3…
1, 2, 3…
1, 2 —
1, 2 —
1, 2, 3…
The beat, or the measure is never really complete. It’s always driving toward the next thing. It creates this propulsive feeling when you’re listening to it.
He goes on to note that this restless feeling that never quite resolves is an experience of anticipation that ultimately defines Man of Steel from Superman ‘78. Even from Nolan’s own takes on Batman.
Those movies express a certainty Snyder never wanted for Man of Steel. Clark/Kal-El/Superman starts off lonely, full of yearning just to belong. It was, in fact, that very take that convinced Nolan to endorse Snyder giving the character a shot. Even in the end, Superman merely gets a taste of what might wait for him, but he never quite gets there.
DAVE CHEN: You hear Zimmer dancing around the 5th, and the octave, right? And he’s always going TOWARDS these intervals…but he never quite attains them.
Here’s the 5th…
And the minor 6th…
And the major 6th!
And you think he’s gonna get to the octave…! But he doesn’t. He comes back down again.
Zimmer has, in a sense, time shifted the music to fit the time-shifted plot.
You could say he’s perfectly blended the Music Method with the Nolan Method. But that wouldn’t quite honor what it took to make it possible to even say those words.
A composer must be true to themselves — and yet also find a way into the mind and heart of the storyteller whose worlds their music will make real.
Such are the challenges Alberto Bellavia faces when composing for such a wide variety of films.
ALBERTO BELLAVIA: I need to understand the mood of the main character and try to translate that into music.
I try to get into the composer’s head, I try to understand his mood, his point of view.
I have to connect with his point of view and mine to find the right way to the best music.
Getting into the filmmakers head requires the storyteller — be that a screenwriter or the songwriter — to inhabit the heart of the movie. It’s in part why composers so often master so many instruments.
Whether they’re using the power of their words, the power of their images, or the power of their music — our Editor in Chief Sadie Dean manages to hit all three — the right story needs the right instrument.
THE RIGHT STORY NEEDS THE RIGHT INSTRUMENT
ALBERTO BELLAVIA: There is no such thing as one instrument that sounds better than another. It is important for a composer to have the perfect sound in his head and to find the right musical instrument to play it.
COLIN AGUIAR: Writing music as an immigrant has just allowed me a wide pallet of ideas… Being able to invoke the music of that culture just extends the musical vocabulary and that vocabulary enables the movie to speak to a wider global audience.
But with so much attention given to how to subvert the audience’s expectations, how to compose for the director’s vision, how to write for someone other than ourselves…how can a writer keep firm hold of why this story belongs to them and no one else?
ALBERTO BELLAVIA: Another important skill to develop is to create a personal voice. I have never tried to copy anyone, even though a composer is inevitably inspired by something he has already heard and studied, and he cannot escape that.
However, I believe that it is possible to create your own style. To achieve that, it is very important to listen to a lot of music, always different, without sticking to the most beloved pieces. If you [stick to the most beloved pieces], you run the risk of losing your identity and becoming someone else’s bad copy.
Another important thing is to find a sound that is yours and yours alone, something that becomes your personal signature, clearly this is not an easy task, it takes a lot of time and patience. Each of us is a unique and special individual and everything we write in music has to represent ourselves and no one else.
A movie, after all, is never just a movie. Like the music that so often fills out films, the movie isn’t just the medium for the message.
A movie comes from a script. A script comes from a story.
And when it comes to a story, you’ve never known a finer instrument than the truth that most belongs to you.
With the same profound notes of wisdom that closed out Life of Pi, Colin Aguiar offered some final insights on what it means to discover ourselves as we learn our instruments.
COLIN AGUIAR: You might be learning an instrument, but the instrument is sometimes a metaphor for yourself. As you learn that instrument, you’re really learning to have patience with yourself, or to master your temperament as much as the nature of the instrument. The instrument becomes an extension of everything you do, and everything you do is a journey of self-learning.
In other words, use the gimmicks. Play with the math. Just remember that even a master like Christopher Nolan does his best work when he keeps his heart close, the math slightly off, and the sound of his story as percussive as a thousand drums.
Write well, storytellers. Play well, musicians. And sing —
ONE FINAL TWIST
RON WASSERMAN: I still plan to [write a theme] for animated shows like Spiderman etc….
Folks, the man who wrote several of the most iconic theme songs in television history is offering to write his own arrangement for Spider-Man.
All he needs is your encouragement.
Because if we can show the world Ron still has the bonafides…maybe Disney will bring him in to score the return of the X-Men in the MCU?
SEE ALSO: STORYTELLING HACKS RECOMMENDS: ESSA HANSEN (SFX DESIGNER FOR SKYWALKER RANCH) ILLUSTRATES THE SOUND DESIGN METHOD
Exclusive Interviews: Colin Aguiar, Alberto Bellavia, Ron Wasserman
Interview Coordinator: Michael Lee Simpson
Clips from: Dave Chen’s video essay “Comparing the Soundtracks of Superman: The Movie and Man of Steel”
Quotes from: Matt Goldberg’s Collider review for Tenet