Once Upon A Time...

My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...

The problem with songfic.

by LJC

Once upon a time, I answered a Forever Knight fan fiction challenge that asked authors to write a story based on a song. I choose "Plenty" by Sarah McLachlan, and wrote a Janette vignette that took place during and after an episode, and explained why the character had left Toronto and her lover, using the song lyrics as a part of the structure of the story. I broke the story into sections which were each headed by the song's lyrics, and posted it, and then promptly forgot about its existence.

When a discussion of songfic came up on the Trek board I moderate, it got me thinking about why I now cringe when I re-read a vignette I originally was quite proud of. These days, if I open a story and the first thing I see are song lyrics—that's it. It's over. I have learned (the operative word here being "learned") contempt for that particular sub-genre of fan fiction over the last few years, and I don't care if you're Shakespeare—you have to work twice as hard to sell me on a story based on (or more importantly, having the characters listen to and sing) a song. This is a learned response for one simple reason: 99% of all songfic I have ever had the misfortune of reading has been poorly written, and painfully awkward.

Yes, there are exceptions.

I can see all of you out there, nodding your heads.

Chances are, your story is not one of them, so let's just pop that little balloon right now.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that more genre television has begun using songs (as opposed to the series score) in dynamic ways in the last five years. Series such as Due South, Strange Luck, Nikita, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in particular have used music incredibly effectively to create mood, tension, express emotion, and convey information in a way that is visceral, immediate, and uses the medium to its best advantage. This works on a variety of levels— the scenes specifically paired with the music and the lyrics create an experience that is unique to a visual/auditory experience that is television (and by extension, film).

Unfortunately, what many fan writers do not understand is that this same feeling and effect cannot be produced in prose in the same manner. Seeing song lyrics on a page is not the same as hearing the song, and what the writers most often fail to understand is that while they know the song and are "hearing" it inside their head while reading the story, there is no guarantee that the reader will. In fact it is more likely that the reader will not. This is particularly common with popular music. While in fan fiction a certain level of shared knowledge—such as to the series premise, the characters appearance and personalities, and the canon and backstories—is assumed, shared taste in music cannot be assumed. Moreover, an author cannot count on the fact that the reader a) knows the song, b) does not utterly despise the song and hate your story merely by association, or c) not knowing the song, will get the desired response from reading the lyrics. The reader may be able to glean a fraction of the author's intent, but it will always be just that: a fraction.

There is a world of difference between heading each section or chapter of a story with song lyrics, and imbedding the song itself in the narrative. The former is decidedly preferable to the later, if for no other reason than the fact having fiction characters listening to the radio, dancing, or God forbid, singing to one another can be forced, awkward, and downright ludicrous unless it is done with great skill.

For example, the chances of anyone aboard the USS Voyager being a Queen or Celine Dion fan are comparable to the chances of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. For those of you who don't have any idea the sad history of Chicago-area sports teams other than Basketball, let's just say that the they'll be handing out ice skates in hell before we ever see B'Elanna and Tom gazing lovingly into one another's eyes while crooning "My Heart Will Go On." It's not a question of personal taste so much as it is staying power.

Staying power is all about music surviving the height of its popularity and continuing to have cultural, emotional, and historical relevance for the following generations. For example, Gilbert and Sullivan musicals have remained pop culture references for over 100 years. Many traditional ballads have been around for over 1000 years, and have become an ingrained part of our culture and language. However, late 20th century French Canadian pop stars will most likely be trivia by the time my kids are in high school, and the chances of even the best glam rock band in the history of the universe being more than an obscure historical footnote in the 24th century are nil. As a fan writer, a Queen fan, and a student of human nature, I accept this and do not try and undermine a story by miring it in inappropriate pop culture references.

Appropriate cultural references, on the other hand, are a completely different story. The novel American Psycho for example, really can't exist without 80s pop music, for two reasons. Part of writing a period piece is creating the landscape in as much detail as possible. But more importantly, the music in the novel serves the plot, and is instrumental in defining character of the protagonist.

To put this back into fannish perspective: Miles O'Brien sang "The Minstrel Boy" in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation which dealt with O'Brien's feelings about the Federation/Cardassian armistice, having fought on the front lines of the that conflict. That was a song that helped underscore a major plot point. That was a completely appropriate (if maudlin) use of a song in fiction that served the story as a whole, rather than the vanity of the author.

If you can turn "La Vida Loca" into a plot point, without losing your dignity, or sacrificing your characters' dignity, then more power to you. However, if you truly believe a song speaks to you and will speak to others in conjunction with your favourite series, then rather than using it in a short story or novel, what you may want to do instead is try to create a fannish music vid. That may well be a more effective way of conveying to your audience the relationship of the song and the characters that you have in your mind, than trying to do so in the silence of prose. And while there is no guarantee that your vid will be better than your story was, at least the audience will be actually hearing the music, rather than reading the lyrics.

My heartfelt advice to authors regarding songfic is to sit down, write the story, and then remove the song lyrics (or at the very least, move them to either the beginning, or end of the story, much as you would a poem or quote).

If the story can stand on its own two feet without the lyrics there to tell the reader what the story is supposed to be about, then you have a better chance of writing something that other people will want to read, regardless of their own music tastes.

LJC has been writing, illustrating, editing, publishing, and archiving fan fiction since 1989 in a variety of fandoms, first for print fanzines and then online. She is a professional webdesigner and freelance journalist.

Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts