Writing – Sing, Sing a Songfic

I generally feel bad when I say people ‘shouldn’t’ do something in fanfiction, since I feel like fanfiction is a beautiful world where you can follow your own fancy to the end of your proverbial rainbow. However, if you are trying to improve as a writer, if you are trying to write works that will engage the fandom, if you are trying to make sense… Please consider my suggestions.

Today I will discuss the ever popular songfic
and offer up my suggestions so that you do not drive your readers into fits of painful laughter intermixed with the urge to vomit.

Which is what happened to me not twenty minutes ago and is the reason I am penning this post.

Quick Note on terms

In scene – means the characters are hearing/singing the song.

Out of scene – the song is like the background track of a movie, the characters cannot hear it.

Now, for those of you unaware of the term ‘Songfic,’ I will give you a very brief description of various types;

  1. The traditional style of songfic is almost like a music video with the action written around song lyrics. The lyrics are ‘Out of Scene’ and are often interspersed between paragraphs of plot to highlight the meaning of the song or some hidden meaning in the story. This is quintessential songfic style, something that I would say probably grew out of a mix between music videos and fanfiction.
  2. A more literal idea of songfic, includes portions of song lyrics ‘in scene’. – This can be in reference, in a few quoted lines, or in huge copy-pasted bulk paragraphs. Often times a character within the story may be singing the song, ‘meriting’ the large paragraphs inclusion.
  3. Inspired by a song. These fics tend to either follow the plot of a song, use the song as a jump for inspiration, or sometimes use song titles as a way of conveying the gist of the chapter in the title of the chapter.

While some critics that I’ve run into view the ‘songfic’ as a lesser form of writing, I think that it can be well done if the author is cognizant of the medium and respects the bounds of the fandom they are inhabiting. The beauty of a songfic is that it manages to draw from both the auditory and visual memory of the reader. The inclusion of lyrics can, when well done, bring elements to the story that would be absent otherwise. Reading is frankly rather sterile in its essence as there is nothing but words on a page. The world the author creates is what gives reading life. Thus the inclusion of music in a story can widen the readers view of the world they are visiting. Many famous authors used music and poetry to enhance their worlds; J. R. R. Tolkien was quite fond of including songs in his books, Lewis Carroll included poetry, which has a musicality all its own. Even J. K. Rowling’s Sorting Hat had a song. So there is nothing wrong with including music in your work.

However, It can be done very very badly.

I will not go in depth into methods A and C, because A and C have the advantage of being much harder to screw up. Method B, on the other hand, can be a very difficult thing to master. Now onto my suggestions.

Method A. I would advise you to choose your song wisely, read over the lyrics to check for spelling errors and be sure to remove those pesky ‘background vocal lines’, as they are quite distracting. Be liberal with your paragraphs since going back to the song every other line can be a little jolting, and include a link to a YouTube copy of the song if you want to be extra nice to your readers.

Method C. The success of your work is more down to your personal writing skill than your use of a song since you are more referencing it than including it verbatim in your work. It’s always fun to see hidden parts of lyrics in dialogue but it’s all up to you really.

But now…. METHOD B. THE INCLUSION OF SONG LYRICS.

You must think of proper placement and integration with the text when you include large sections of song lyrics. Copy-Pasting large dollops of lyrics just reeks of laziness and inattention to detail – most particularly when the lyrics have the backing vocals in parenthesis. (Ooooh yeah, in parenthesis). That, in particular, can take your reader completely out of the story and make them realize what you did. (Oooooh Yeah, They know you are being Lay-zay). I find the inclusion of background vocals to be completely inane (Ooooh yeah it’s so very inaaaane) so you should really consider integrating them with the rest of the text or simply doing without (You don’t need those nonsensical oooooh yeaaaahs anywaaaaay).

In fact I would strongly advise against including huge blocks of lyrics, simply because the reader will often skip them to get back to the story. Lyrics tell a story of their own, but if you are including lyrics from someone else’s song, you are including another story within your story. While it may be perfectly obvious to you how the song fits within the scheme of your story, this may not be obvious to your reader. Your reader will be suddenly pulled from imagining the story you are creating and shoved into ‘Large Boring vaguely related paragraph of doom’ land. My recommendation is to splice the song into the dialogue if the song is playing ‘in scene,’ because surely your characters aren’t going to sit around slack jawed and unresponsive while someone belts out six verses of ill-timed karaoke.

If someone is singing the song, you may wish to include a little more than if it’s merely being played in the background. However the MOST successful songfics I’ve read operate by the theory that less is more. In one particular story I read years ago about the Gundam Wing boys being a band of some sort, the lyrics were much more the backdrop to the action going on and less of a distraction. The technique had the author using some of the lyrics before going back to the actions of the singer, the reactions of the crowd, descriptions of dancing or conversation. The singing was happening, The song was included, but it was not eating the story like a Giant Block Monster. This method WORKED, so I recommend you attempt to utilize it.

Along with integration with the plot, you MUST consider the appropriateness of your choice of song.

And here I come to the very reason I was inspired to write this post. I was reading Hobbit fanfiction this morning, as is my current fancy, when I came upon a fic that had Bilbo Baggins, Hobbit of Middle Earth, singing an emo rock ballad.

….

I repeat. Bilbo Baggins was singing the apparent modern day equivalent to Linkin Park. In Middle Earth. And no, it was NOT an AU fic.


If you are writing a fic where Middle Earth has rock music, that could work. If you were writing an AU fic where rock music is appropriate, that could work. But you CANNOT throw in Modern Emo Rock music into Middle Earth and claim that it is an ‘old hobbit lament’ without someone sitting up and going “Hang on a bloody moment!!!”
For one thing, the original songs in Tolkien’s work are much closer to Celtic chanteys and pub songs than modern rock music, for another, the lyrics of Tolkiens world are much less existential than modern emo rock music. Hobbits, in particular, are quite happy folks in general, so it is EXTREMELY unlikely that they would have a song with lyrics such as

“Yesterday I died; tomorrow’s bleeding

Fall into your sunlight

The future’s open wide beyond believing

To know why hope dies”

Which is the song I was supposed to believe he could be singing. An ‘Old Hobbit’ song.

It was at this point that I couldn’t keep a straight face and had to beg off reading the rest of the fic in question.

The thing I found most disconcerting was the meter of the lyrics, which jar quite badly with the fandom world in question.

I’m not saying you *couldn’t* use this song in a Tolkien fandom fic. I’m sure someone out there has the talent to shape a fanfic in which the inclusion of said song would work perfectly well. However, if you take the canon Tolkien world and, without any other changes, suddenly include a modern emo rock song…. It’s not going to work very well.

Tolkien included music within his own canon writings. He had a very clear view of how his Middle Earth looked, sounded, smelled, and tasted. You, as the fanfic writer, are allowed to change that, but you have to remember that anyone reading your work is starting out with the basis of the canon world in question. If you change things too quickly or without explanation, it will jar your readers out of your story and potentially make them unwilling to continue reading your story

Your story should ideally blend the canon elements you keep with the new reality you incorporate, that is your goal. Your goal is NOT to suddenly spike the Middle Earth punchbowl with …well…a spike.

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