Fun With Plotting, Or: A Somewhat Needless Yet Very Relevant Defense of the “Concept” Album

I settled myself last night into my home office, AKA “The War Room,” to get a bit of writing done. I brewed some coffee – okay, not quite “brewed,” since I own a Keurig – and looked around my iTunes library for something to listen to. There are a few books on the desk that arrived earlier from Amazon. One is Pete Townshend’s memoir, Who I Am. He’s on the cover, his sad blue eyes staring right at me, pleading at me to open his autobiography and give it a read. I will, I will! Soon!

Quadrophenia, I thought. That’s a great album. A great double album. I think I’ll listen to it while I’m writing and bringing myself closer to a caffeine-induced heart attack. It’s a favorite of mine. Plus, what the hell, listening to a “concept” album (or “rock opera,” if you’re so inclined), with its “ROCK AND ROLL WILL SAVE THE WORLD!” narrative might give me some kind of subliminal inspiration.

The concept of the…umm…”concept” album goes as far back as Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours,” a song cycle welded together by a single theme – in Ol’ Blue Eye’s case, pining for that crazy, heartbreaking bitch Ava Gardner – but the idea of the “rock opera” didn’t come into full swing until the arrivals of Tommy and the Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Songwriters now fancied themselves as novelists, working out their novel-writing fantasies on record. Townshend even admitted that his follow-up to Tommy, the aborted Lifehouse project, a multi-media extravaganza that was destroyed by a narrative that made ZERO sense, was partially inspired by him reading too much Ray Bradbury. At least something good came out of Lifehouse – the majority of the songs Pete wrote for Lifehouse ended up on Who’s Next.

The 70’s was a golden era for the concept album. You’ve probably heard of some of these: The Dark Side of the Moon, 2112, The Wall, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, just to name a few.

And then there’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the final album Peter Gabriel recorded with Genesis. As concept albums go, it’s a sonically-sumptuous, musically-brilliant, lyrically-ambitious album. It’s also vague, elliptical, frustrating, and nonsensical. For reals. Have you ever read Gravity’s Rainbow (I have, 4 times…no wonder I’m mentally questionable), or watched El Topo, and thought, “I have no idea what the fuck just happened. So why am I still obsessing over this?” I’ve heard The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway countless times, and I still can’t give you an honest explanation of what the whole damned thing is about. Maybe that’s a good thing: ambiguity rules. But here’s the thing I keep coming back to when I listen to Lamb or Tommy: both Townshend and Gabriel are great songwriters, but they’re mediocre storytellers.

There are times when I swear my WIP feels like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway: a weighty, ambitious concept done in by an ineffective storyline.

You’re reading this and probably wondering, “What the hell does this needless lecture on concept albums have to do with writing, you long-winded buffoon?” Simple: your narrative better be first-rate, from beginning to middle to end.

As part of my build-up towards NaNoWriMo, I’m experiencing some anxiety about my WIP’s narrative. It makes sense to me, in my head, at least, but it’s only going to work if it makes sense to the reader. That anxiety is a motivating factor for me considering the subtle art of outlining and plotting. At the very least, I can see some trends emerging, some plot lines and subplots coming to the surface.

Last night, I tried this exercise I read in Theresa Hupp’s blog post. The exercise is an attempt to “decide where the story begins and ends, and let imagination and logic fill in the gaps.” The exercise goes a little like this:

  • List the numbers 1-15 down the side of your page
  • On Line 1, give a one sentence description of how the novel begins.
  • On Line 15, give a one sentence description of how the novel ends.
  • Then go to Line 2, and describe what happens next after the beginning.
  • Then go to Line 14, and describe what happens just before the end.
  • Go back and forth from beginning to end until all 15 lines are filled in.

As any writer will have likely experienced, I’ve got the beginning and ending down pat. Well, 95% down pat at least, but the middle part is about as doughy and half-baked as a microwavable cherry cobbler. So I gave this a whirl.

Man, I was glad I did. It took me about 30 minutes to go from 1 to 15. It shouldn’t have taken me so long, but I don’t believe in one sentence; if I’m going to do a proper outline, I’m going to need more than one sentence. I can’t be bothered with word limits. But as exercises go, it was a rewarding, eye-opening exercise.

I was even able to see something in the plotting that reminded me of the Book of Daniel. Something about apocalyptic visions.

Hmm…EEEEEEEEEEENTERESSSSSSSSSSSTEEEEEEEEEEEEENG!

Maybe my WIP won’t seem so convoluted to me after all…

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5 thoughts on “Fun With Plotting, Or: A Somewhat Needless Yet Very Relevant Defense of the “Concept” Album

  1. Pingback: All Summer in a Day | notes from my inner editor

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