Hooks, Scores, and Writing: An Interview with Jen Danna

DVD of Life of Pie While I was watching the Golden Globes last month, I tweeted that Mychael Danna's speech, after he won for Best Original Score for Life of Pi, was romantic and adorable – specifically the end, where, even though the music is playing (heh), he thanks his wife.

Here, have a look: 

(Video Link!) 

When I tweeted how awesome his speech was, his sister Jen, replied and said, “That's my brother!” To which I said somethign along the lines of, “Holy Crap That's Cool!” Shortly afterward, we started an email correspondence – which became this interview about writing, musical composition, hooks, and film scores. 

Dead, Without a Stone to Tell It by Jen J. Danna and Ann VanderlaanJen J. Danna is a research scientist who works in infectious diseases – but she's also a mystery writer whose debut novel, written with Ann Vanderlaan, is called Dead Without a Stone to Tell It. It comes out in June 2013. And, according to her site, “her Skeleton Keys blog has been listed by ITSGOV and BestCriminalJustice.com as one of the top forensic blogs on the web.” 

She is also one of four siblings who are all ridiculously talented, and you'd hate them except they're Canadian so they're all probably really nice so you can't. That introduction to her family got me thinking, and so I emailed her, asking all sorts of nosy questions. 

As part of this interview, I've created a few Spotify playlists, and I'm linking to them within the interview and will have links at the end, too. You have to have a Spotify account to access the playlists, which involves downloading a player to your computer, but a basic account should be free. AND, if you'd like to listen to Mychael Danna's Life of Pi score while reading this, I've added a Spotify embed below to listen to while you read. We are all kinds of multimedia up in here today! 

I know two of your brothers are score composers and you're a published author. I got to thinking this morning about how so many writers, especially in romance, work while listening to film and television scores. There's a bunch who have forwarded me links to scores by Rachel Portman, Dario Marianelli, and others. Other authors write to specific songs or compose playlists around a character, a scene, or a novel's theme.

Jen: I think we'd be safe saying that this is a trick employed by writers in all genres to stimulate emotional storytelling. While my series has a very strong ongoing romantic relationship between the leads, a la J.D. Robb, it's a forensic mystery series at heart, so you probably wouldn't consider me a romance writer.

With two film-scoring brothers in your family, do you write to music? Do you compare notes on how composing and writing are similar or different?


Jen: Yes, I do. When I'm writing, it's important for me to have non-lyric based music (lyrics distract me), so film scores are perfect for this. Interestingly enough, even though film scores are modern classical music, what most would consider true classical music doesn't have the same effect on me. This is probably because it's not so scene driven and dramatic. A good film score has to reach out and grab you very quickly within the confines of an edited scene, so it tends to be very 'hook' driven thematically (a 'hook' in music is that small bit of melody that's really catchy, the one you find yourself humming in the shower etc.).

But here's a point to think on – do authors do all their writing to music? I don't use music when I outline a story. It's like I need the basics to be uninfluenced. I do use it to write to help boost the emotional impact of my storytelling. I don't use it for editing, because I need to test that impact without any outside influence. So while it definitely has a place, at a certain point you need to let your own work stand on it's own and see if it still carries the intended emotional punch.

Do you and your brothers compare notes on how composing and writing are similar or different?

Jen: We've certainly discussed aspects of it because when you come down to the base of it, they are very different. Film scoring is all about taking the emotion on the screen and pumping it up. If you've ever seen a movie without the score – I've seen some of Mychael's that way – they're completely flat and have much less impact. A really good score pushes the director's vision for the scene to the next level and beyond. On the other hand, a writer has to singlehandedly pull that emotion out of their guts and somehow manage to get it down on paper. So the fact that we use film scores to help us enhance that process certainly makes for an interesting circular pattern, doesn't it?

Does their composing badassery influences your own creative process?

Jen: It certainly does. For starters, while I listen to a lot of composers (Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Harry Gregson-Williams, James Horner, Mark Isham, Ennio Morricone, Patrick Doyle, and the list goes on…), Mychael and Jeff are top of the list for me. It's not just because they're my brothers; it's because they're masters at what they do. But also, just being in the presence of creativity helps stimulate creativity, if you know what I mean. And even though we're in totally different fields, we're all extremely supportive of each other.

Which of your brothers' music is your favorite for writing to?

Jen: Ooh, this is a tough one, but I'm going to have to go with Mychael's The Nativity Story soundtrack. It's from a Christmas movie, but I listen to it all year round anyway. Part of my love of this soundtrack is likely sentimental. We all grew up in our church, involved with the various choirs, starting at the junior level and then moving up as we got older (you read my blog post from last week – mom and I still sing together in the adult choir).

So we were raised with choral Christmas music and Mychael wove snatches or the whole of pieces seamlessly into the score - O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Silent Night, The Coventry Carol, and my favourite, The Infant King. For me, it's probably my favourite of all his compositions ever. The last 2 minutes of the piece hit me in the gut every time simply due to the stunning harmonies and the emotion of the music.

Of the nominated score, which piece is your favorite?

Jen: I love the score and think it really complements the film itself. My favourite pieces likely betray my choral roots because they're all choral based. And that's Mychael too – he was SO excited when he got the English boy soprano because he's fantastic and there really isn't anything like the purity of that tone. I'm not sure I've heard it enough yet to be able to pick a flat out favourite, but TsimTsum and First Night, First Day (this one nicely highlights the boy soprano) are currently in the lead.

Can I email your brothers and ask which of your writing is their favorite? 

Jen: I'd say yes, but… well… they can't answer that question. Maybe it was silly of me to be self conscious, but for the longest time, no one but my husband, my daughters and my mom knew that I was going after a professional publishing deal (or that I even wrote). I was the scientist in the family of successful artists, and let me tell you, the bar is set pretty darned high. So I wasn't talking about it until after I got my first book deal.

And then we were into edits and there's that bar again and I didn't want them to see anything before the final polished product. As a result, they haven't read a single word I've written. When my ARCs arrived a few weeks ago, they both said 'send me a book' but I explained to them that ARCs have to be saved for reviewers and bloggers and giveaways. For the first time today I posted the first three chapters of DEAD on my website, so I guess I'd better tell them they can finally get a look there. And then lend them my ARC when I see them next! I know they want to read it; I'm the one dragging my heels. *eyeroll at self*

I'm fascinated with the idea you mentioned of “hooks” in scores and movie soundtracks. Do you think there are “hooks” in your own work, or in the books you read? And you should definitely send your brothers your book! DUDE. MAIL THEM. 

Jen: Sorry for the delayed response. Mychael threw a huge Golden Globe win/Oscar nomination party in Toronto last night and it feels like we've been shopping for the appropriate outfits for days. Three adult or just-about-adult women in the house means a fancy cocktail party is a big deal. But you know you're a mystery writer when you look at the Golden Globe up close (which is surprisingly hefty due to the solid marble base) and think about what a great murder weapon it would make.

[Hooks in writing?] Absolutely. Think about books you've read the scenes that stick with you, the ones you come back to over and over later when you're thinking about that particular story. That's the hook. Sometimes it will be an emotional moment, or a dramatic bombshell, or simply something unexpected, like finding out the narrator you thought was reliable, actually isn't, and is the murderer (thank you, Agatha Christie and Roger Ackroyd).

Personally, I think that the books that stay with us long term have the most hooks, even if they're subtle. I haven't read Jude Deveraux's A Knight in Shining Armor in over a decade and I could still tell you the hooky plot points from that book because they've stayed with me.

Thank you to Jen J. Danna for all her time and for putting up with my nosy questions. I hope you found this as interesting as I did – and that you'll be cheering Mychael Danna on when the Oscars are broadcast on Sunday night. He's up against some of the composers Jen mentioned, which is some pretty seriously competition. 

Here is the cover copy for Jen's upcoming mystery, Dead, Without a Stone to Tell It:

When a human bone is found on a lonely stretch of coastline, a determined homicide detective and a reluctant scientist risk their lives as they join forces to bring a serial killer to justice.

Trooper Leigh Abbott has something to prove, both to herself and to the chauvinistic men in her department. She's been assigned a difficult challenge: solve a murder where the only evidence is a single bone. To identify the victim and find the killer, she must join forces with forensic anthropologist Matt Lowell. Matt's initial refusal to join the team is only the first in a series of setbacks.

Matt and Leigh's skills and tenuous partnership are tested when the evidence leads them to a burial ground of unidentified victims, where, to their horror, they stumble upon a freshly ravaged corpse. As the body count rises, the team must piece together a deadly puzzle spanning years of clandestine killings.

Before long, the serial killer raises the stakes and Matt and Leigh find themselves marked as targets. Now they must stop the killer before they become the next victims. 

The paper copy is up for preorder, and I don't see a digital copy yet, but I hope there will be one. 

The upside of this interview is, thanks to Jen, I have a TON more scores to listen to while I work. Like Jen, I can't listen to music with words while I write, so I listen to a lot of classical and movie scores. After I created Spotify playlists for many of the composers she mentioned, I also created a collaborative soundtrack for us, too.

You have to have a Spotify account to join in, but the collaborative playlist is here: Scores to Write To. It's an open collaboration, and I've added musical pieces from my two most-favorite movie scores, How to Train Your Dragon, and Dario Marianelli's Pride & Prejudice. You should be able to add to the collaborative playlist by dragging tracks into the playlist listing on the left side of your Spotify screen. 

What's your favorite piece of movie music? Please share, either on the playlist, or in the comments, or both. I'd love to know what movie score pieces are your favorites – and why. 

And good luck, Mychael!

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Jen J. Danna says:

    Sarah, thanks for a great conversation; I really enjoyed it! And thanks for all your support of Mychael. Fingers (and everything else) crossed for Sunday!

  2. 2

    Hee!  Her taste in composers is the same as mine!  I have a whole “Zimmer” playlist on my ipod. I’ve even bought scores of his for movies I haven’t seen and don’t want to see. 


  3. 3
    SB Sarah says:

    Me too! I have scores in my playlists that are for movies I wouldn’t ever see. But the music is amazing.

  4. 4
    Kris Bock says:

    I don’t listen to music while I write. There are couple of practical reasons for this – one, I use voice recognition software, and background noise can mess it up, and two, the voice recognition software is so computer intensive that I can’t also play iTunes, and the iPod player I used to have in my office was more useful elsewhere. But this interview has me tempted to try writing to music. Definitely without words, of course! I don’t have a lot of movie soundtracks, but a couple of my “no lyric” albums – or at least no lyrics I can understand – are The Music of Armenia, Volume 2: Sharakan, which is medieval, and Nalan, a Turkish pop singer.

  5. 5

    great interview. I always listen to music while I write—its the only way to drown out the rest of the chaos in this house.

  6. 6

    I’m a Parrothead kind of gal, but also enjoy the rich, creamy orchestral music of the movies. All the way back to Korngold. Robin Hood! Like the rest of you, I’m distracted by lyrics in a language that I understand—otherwise, there would be lots of country music going on here. Talk about emotion—and storytelling. But they’re telling their own story, and it would interfere with mine. Perennial favorite scores include such movies as Chocolate, Braveheart, all 87 of the Lord of the Rings movies, Last Emperor, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and so on. Used to love Mozart, but now find it annoying, and have moved on to Bach and Beethoven. Everybody does, I guess.

    This family story, Jen’s family story, intrigues me. What dynamics! What a wonderful life forge her parents created.

    And I’m looking forward to reading her book, too. Rock on, Little Sister!

  7. 7

    Thanks so much for making this connection for us and bringing us this lovely interview. Such a joy to meet Jen!

    I’m a Parrothead kind of gal, but also enjoy the rich, creamy orchestral music of the movies. All the way back to Korngold. Robin Hood! Like the rest of you, I’m distracted by lyrics in a language that I understand—otherwise, there would be lots of country music going on here. Talk about emotion—and storytelling. But they’re telling their own story, and it would interfere with mine. Perennial favorite scores include such movies as Chocolate, Braveheart, all 87 of the Lord of the Rings movies, Last Emperor, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and so on. Used to love Mozart, but now find it annoying, and have moved on to Bach and Beethoven. Everybody does, I guess.

    This family story, Jen’s family story, intrigues me. What dynamics! What a wonderful life forge her parents created.

    And I’m looking forward to reading her book, too. Rock on, Little Sister!

  8. 8

    I can’t listen to music as I write because I want to sing along and the lyrics get tangled up in my words. However, I do listen to music as I research, and since I usually obsess over one particular album for a period time, that album and whatever topic I am researching are forever linked with one another (for example—Belle Epoque France=Nelly Furtado’s Loose; WWI=Feist’s Metals & Rihanna’s Unapologetic; Gilded Age New York=Madonna’s Confessions on a Dancefloor; Christina Aguilera’s debut album=Buffy, from when I was obsessed with the show and read and wrote fanfiction).

  9. 9
    Sarah Morgan says:

    This was so interesting. For me, music is frequently the part of the movie I remember. I watched a documentary on Hans Zimmer where he described how he used music to evoke specific emotion in the audience, so he played with notes and chord progressions that would make people feel sad, uplifted, excited etc

    Like so many, I prefer not to have lyrics when I write and the music I listen to changes all the time but I love Chevaliers de Sangreal from The Da Vinci Code, Braveheart, all of Lord of the Rings etc.

    The music from Life of Pi is wonderful and good luck to Mychael and also to Jen! Talented family. Great interview.

  10. 10
    Emily says:

    Yeah I also grew up in musical family mostly overrated. I rolled my eyes at the purity of boys voices-girls sing just as well. I once knew someone with a children’s choir who had boys and girls stand behind a screen made choir people guess which was which. It was about as accurate as flipping a coin. Since originally girls received less education and were not trained as well as boys, people assume boys sing better. Just more gender prejudice.
    Anyway the book looks interesting. Congrats to the brother on winning the Golden Globe.

  11. 11
    Roserita says:

    It depends on the mood I’m in.  My all-time favorite movie theme might be “The Magnificent Seven,” but when I put that on I want to jump on a horse and go thundering across the prairie or something.  Ditto with the Indiana Jones theme.  I also like the John Williams’ flying themes: Superman, E.T., and Prisoner of Azkaban.  If my swash needs buckling, there’s always Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean, or The Four Musketeers.  Something more refined: Pride and Prejudice (the movie), Sense and Sensibility, John Williams’ score for Jane Eyre, Emma, or Henry Mancini’s Audrey Hepburn music: Charade, Two for the Road, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  It doesn’t have to be movie themes, though—when I scrub my kitchen floor I always put on Rossini’s version of Cinderella, La Cenerentola, and you can’t beat The William Tell Overture for cleaning out closets.

  12. 12
    Aziza says:

    Score music usually stays in the background for me (exceptions: Brokeback Mountain, Twin Peaks) but I can’t say I don’t ever notice it. I certainly noticed the lack of it in the fifth-season Buffy episode “The Body”.

    I enjoyed the SBTB review (for one of those vampire books) discussion that touched on use of music not only in movies, but in non-audio formats such as books. Interesting points.

  13. 13
    Chicklet says:

    I listen to movie scores a lot at work, when I can’t be distracted from my tasks by lyrics. My favorite scores for this are Mychael Danna’s score for Monsoon Wedding, the percussive scores for Iron Man and Battlestar Galactica, and anything by Patrick Doyle, especially Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, but he also did Thor because he scores most everything Kenneth Branagh has directed.

  14. 14
    Marianne Harden says:

    I listen to Celtic music while I write. My favorite being ‘The Songs from a Secret Garden’

    And I count myself as one of the fortunate few to have read ‘Dead, Without a Stone to Tell It.’ Jen & Ann are a masterful plotter. Their book rocks!!

  15. 15
    Karin says:

    Me too! I love Erich Korngold, great score for Captain Blood, as well as Robin Hood! Many, many years ago, my mother saw him on the street in New York and spoke to him. She was a music lover and a great celebrity spotter.
    I also love the Ennio Morricone scores, all those spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

  16. 16
    dwndrgn says:

    I don’t write so can’t truly answer the question but I will say that if I’m cleaning the house – metal makes for an awesome background and urges me on, used to do dance music but it gets me dancing and distracts – works well for working out though.  If I have to drive in lots of bumper to bumper traffic – Bach works wonders to keep me serene.

  17. 17
    Emily says:

    Favorite movie soundtracks:  The Piano and Last of the Mohicans.

  18. 18
    Sybylla18 says:

    I love (like, really love) Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma’s score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  It’s definitely my favorite movie soundtrack ever. 

    Second is probably anything Bear McCreary has ever done.

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