Thursday, September 8, 2011

Every Note Matters- In Writing Too

I LOVE the musical Les Miserables. It is a fantastic play based on a wonderful book. My kids all know the music because I play it often. The music enhances the story of despair and redemption and is a real treat to watch live. I am absolutely a fan.

With that said, I was recently enjoying a Broadway cast recording and I was really disappointed by one of the characters, Fantine.

Fantine lived a difficult life. She worked in a factory and paid an innkeeper to watch after her daughter, Cosette, because she couldn't afford to keep her. She sings I Dreamed A Dream about how her hopes had been crushed. It is a beautiful song, but on this particular recording the feeling of despair was overridden when I almost chuckled in a couple of parts. Why did I lack such sensitivity? There were certain notes that just didn't resonate. On the line "But he was gone when au-TUMN CAME," Fantine sounded less like a jilted lover and grieving mother and more like a thick accented Russian Soldier. Her focus was so centered on the the wrong syllables that the moment was lost. The rest of the song was wonderful, but those two ending notes ruined the song for me and now I can't listen to it without anticipating those two disturbing notes.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh, but I don't think so. Later, Fantine has a dramatic death scene where she sings Come To Me, begging Valjean to take care of her daughter. Again, a beautiful song, with just a couple discordant notes. At the very end of the scene she sings, "Tell Cosette I love her and I'll see her when I WAKE!" And then she died. Huh? Even though she was the one dying, she hammered the last note in such a way that I wish I would be put out of my misery.

So what's the point to criticizing this one version of these two beautiful songs? Simple-It doesn't take much to pull the consumer, whether he be a listener, a viewer, or a reader, out of the moment and destroy the valuable setting, mood or character you have been developing.

Just like every note matters to the listener, every word matters to the reader.

One simple example: In my first book, Defensive Tactics, the scene was set at night in downtown Kansas City. The beautiful and refined heroin was under distress and she "hollered" something to her approaching rescuers. "Hollered" just didn't fit. She wasn't going to a hoe-down at Uncle Bart's barn so based on her character, location and situation, "Hollered" was the wrong word and pulled the reader out of the story. I had a couple of people comment on this prior to the final printing so I made the change and "yelled" and "screamed" worked better. That one discordant word could have pulled the reader out of the story just long enough to scratch their head. Was it a huge deal? Probably not, but I don't want to leave my reader with a bad impression, like "WAKE" did for me.

By the way, did you notice, and were you annoyed that I said the "heroin" instead of the "heroine"? Simple things can be a distraction.

Here is a link to I Dreamed A Dream, the way it should be.

And click here to hear a good version of Come To Me.

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