Cross-Section of a Story Playlist

Today we have a just-for-fun sort of post. A lot of music-loving authors, like myself, create playlists to accompany their books–whether for the sake of the reader experience, for their own writing process, or both–and I thought that it would be fun to look at what sorts of songs might get onto these playlists, as well as give you a look into Lightning‘s playlist as we go!

A Prologue on Structure

Before we get into the type of songs that tend to appear on story playlists, I want to talk for a moment about the broad options when it comes to the structure and style of a story playlist.

Story playlists can be as long or as short as serves the purpose they’re intended for. I have story playlists ranging from 20 minutes (so far) to 15 hours. In my case, story playlists tend to grow as I use them during my writing process and stay shorter if I’ve created the playlist after the book is done (as in the case of my 40-minute Lost Girl playlist).

The musical style of a playlist can also differ dramatically based on the author, the story, and the purpose of the playlist. Most of my story playlists include a lot of alternative rock, some pop, and indie music. But 1) a variety of genres fill in around these core genres on different playlists–metal, jazz, cinematic, throwbacks, etc.–and 2) some playlists have a totally different bent altogether, with the focus on instrumental music on playlists where that’s a better fit or I’ve found instrumental makes it easier to focus.

You can also play around with the order of songs on your playlists, if you’d like. I listen to 90% of my playlists on shuffle, so I don’t bother to put them in any order other than chronological by when I added them, but if you want to order them to accompany the arc of your story, to sort them by character, etc., go for it!

With that said, let’s get into the different types of songs you might find on a story playlist!

Songs Representing the Protagonist(s)

These are songs that embody who your protagonist is, whether highlighting the traits they hold throughout the story or representing who they are at the beginning of their arc. On a predominantly instrumental playlist, this will be a song that simply sounds like it matches with your character. On lyric-based playlists, you can get a little more specific. And these can be songs that represent how you see the character or how they see themselves!

These are a few of the protagonist songs I have on my Lightning playlist, for example:

Erika – “Ember” by Katherine McNamara

Nyla – “Easy to Break” by Fireflight

Alaric – “Silence” by Marshmello

Ash – “Coat of Arms” by Jonathan Thulin

Songs Representing the Antagonist(s)

These songs are certainly not a staple (none of these categories really are; you shape your playlist however works best for you), but it’s sometimes interesting to throw in a song or two that represents your antagonist. Sometimes these songs can be helpful to get into their heads if you have scenes from their POV, they can be a fun hint for readers, or they can simply round out your playlist with something different–especially on a primarily instrumental playlist.

Prior to writing this post, I didn’t have any antagonist songs on my Lightning playlist (“Enemy” by Tommee Profitt was the closest thing), but I went looking on some of my related playlists and found that Imagine Dragons’ “Whatever It Takes” is a good fit for all of my main antagonists in various ways.

Songs Representing Character Relationships

Romantic relationships, sibling relationships, friendships, the relationship between your protagonists and antagonists… Songs that match up with any of the relationships in your book can easily fill out your story playlist. Some examples from Lightning:

Friendship – “Monsters” by Katie Sky

Protagonist/antagonist relationship – “Not So Nice” by Terah Lynn (and “Enemy” by Tommee Profitt, as previously mentioned)

Family relationship – “Ruins” by LEDGER

Songs Representing Character Arcs

With this category, I’m thinking of songs that represent a key point of change in your character, perhaps a realization of something they believed being undone. Again, “Enemy” is a good fit for this category–which is another point, that story playlists aren’t generally neatly divisible by category; you’ll have songs that represent multiple characters or multiple elements of the story, and that’s totally expected.

“Resuscitate” by Fireflight is another character arc song on Lightning‘s playlist, to a degree.

Songs Representing Backstory

Your story playlist doesn’t have to be limited to only the present story; you can throw in hints at backstory, as well, whether for your own reference and inspiration or for the sake of reader interest.

There are several such songs on my playlist for Lightning, including “Follow Your Fire” By Kodaline.

Songs Representing the Setting

These songs can actively describe the city, or they can be representative in painting an audible picture (e.g. through instrumental music) or giving an idea of what the setting is built around or what it would sound like. I have a couple setting songs on Lightning‘s playlist that approach this from different angles:

Description – “Lights in the City” by The National Parks

Sound – “GetReady” by Hiss

Songs Representing Key Scenes

Some of the songs on your playlist might be associated with particular scenes of the story–whether the lyrics reflect events or the soundtrack backs the scene well. Soundtrack/cinematic music can be especially good for this if your playlist is primarily for your readers or if you write best to non-lyrical music; if you want a bit of word-based inspiration or write better to lyrics, a lyrical song might be more useful.

“Run Boy Run” by Woodkid got added to my Lightning playlist in part because the underlying music of it fits to soundtrack some of the scenes I’ve envisioned.

Songs Representing Key Themes

This category tends to be better served by songs with lyrics, so you may find it doesn’t show up much on an instrumental playlist, but you can work in songs that represent the core themes of your book.

I have several songs on Lightning‘s playlist that are sort of adjacent to my themes but don’t quite hit the mark–either in the precise theme or in their approach to the theme–but Juniper Vale’s “Unchangeable Love” is a pretty good representation for this category.

Songs That the Characters Would Listen To

Whether it gets mentioned in the book or not, sometimes it’s fun to look at the kinds of things that your characters would listen to. (In fact, I have one playlist that is specifically titled “Livi Would Listen” because it’s composed of songs that a character from one of my retired short story collections–Livi Brooklyn–would listen to.) This can also spice up your playlist, if your character listens to something distinct from the rest of the playlist’s style. On the other hand, it can spice things up too much in some cases–for example, if you’ve gotten into a writing groove with one style of music and suddenly there’s something drastically different playing.

“Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways is a song Erika would listen to–and, in fact, she alludes to it in the book.

Songs Matching the Overall Story Tone

Besides the songs that relate to particular elements of your story, your playlist will often match the overall tone of your story. For example, my Calligraphy Guild playlist suits that story with lots of softer, more oriental-sounding music, while Lightning‘s playlist is drastically different, with more hard-hitting and high-energy music. And, of course, these impressions can be achieved with either instrumental or lyric-based music.

There you have it. Those are some of the types of songs I have on my story playlists; hopefully they’re inspiring to you. Now I want to hear from you! Do you create musical playlists for your stories? What types of music do you gravitate toward when building them? What are some songs that have particularly inspired your creativity? Let’s talk in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “Cross-Section of a Story Playlist

  1. I really want to be that author who has huge playlists for my stories , but I really don’t have a WIP playlist. Since music is so integral to my life, I feel like I should, but it is hard to come up with music that perfectly captures the essence of my story/characters. There are a few songs that have inspired me to create new characters or that really fit certain scenes in my story, but otherwise…

    1. Those few songs are a start! And if you’re interested in discovering new songs that might be good for story inspiration, there are pre-existing playlists that can be fun to draw from! I have one simply called “Writing Inspiration” (which I’ll link at the end of this comment). But with all that said, don’t focus on playlists just because you think you “should.” If music isn’t something that you tie to specific stories, there’s nothing wrong with that! If you want to experiment, absolutely go for it! But make sure you’re having fun with it and not doing it out of a feeling of obligation–even to yourself. The story is the important part, not the playlist.

      (A couple notes on this playlist: I can’t promise it’s 100% language-free. I am certain there are no f-bombs or songs totally riddled with cuss words, but I can’t promise there isn’t an odd PG-13 swear word in any of the songs. Some of the album covers are also a lot weirder than the actual songs. As a final note, these are my story-inspiration songs which means they don’t all reflect my worldview or the type of music I listen to on a regular basis. All that out of the way, here’s the link if you’d still like to sift through it.)

  2. I love making WIP playlists. My current favorite one is the one I’ve curated for my entire Wonderland series. It’s great to listen to for inspiration.

  3. Wow, fun post! I’ve never considered doing this, but it sounds similar to making AMVs for Tv show characters! I’ll have to try this, thanks for the inspiration!

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