View Full Version : Music in Fiction

mr mistook
10-17-2004, 10:18 AM
In my WIP, there is a pop-star who's song lyrics are central to the plot.How should I present these lyrics in proper manuscript form? The rhythm and rhyme doesn't translate well as normal quoted paragraphs.

I've got a scene where the protagonist is listening to the album. The feel of the music is quickly described and then the lyrics come in quotes.

Can I get away with anything fancy like centering or italics in this case? What I'm doing now is ending every line with a dash and hitting return, as thus:

"Songy songy song lyric-

more songy song lyrics-

la la la la baby-

singy songy song-

bla bla bla tra la-

baby, baby, song."

10-17-2004, 11:03 AM
Yeah, that's usually how they do lyrics in fiction, so I would say that that is what you should do. Obviously, you can't convey melody in fiction like you can in a movie, but you can have the lyrics the way you suggested doing them. I don't know how to get text centered in proper manuscript format, though.

10-17-2004, 11:59 AM
As long as you're consistent.

Usually I italicize them like this, without the quotation marks:

You rock my world / I wonder how you do it / You rock my world / Baby I've got to cool it

mr mistook
10-17-2004, 03:02 PM
Maestro, I thought Italics wasn't allowed in manuscripts. :shrug

I read out here somewhere that underlining was the only acceptable "text decoration".

On the other hand, the slashes seem like a great way to denote pauses without having to throw in a carriage return.

10-17-2004, 03:55 PM
You're correct that you should use underline to indicate "italics" in your ms. -- I'm just speaking of general format, not ms. format.

10-17-2004, 08:17 PM
read some pynchon. crying of lot 49 in particular. lots of music in his novel.

10-18-2004, 04:31 AM
Here's something I've heard recently regarding italics vs. underlining to indicate where italics should be.

From what I understand, a lot of places want you to send in scan-ready manuscripts. Which means that if something is supposed to be in italics, you put it in italics instead of underlining it.

I don't know exactly how accurate that is, but it was sufficient enough to cause a rule-change in a contest I'm helping out with.


10-18-2004, 11:28 PM
You asked for it... :grin

Read :hail LoTR :hail

10-19-2004, 06:32 AM
lol...didn't see that coming...:ha

Tish Davidson
10-20-2004, 11:18 AM
Are you aware that you absolutely cannot quote real lyrics without permission, even tiny bits of them. Or are your pop star lyrics made up? Permissions for quoting music tend to be expensive.

10-20-2004, 11:50 AM
Only some electronic publishers want scan ready manuscripts. Just about all oprint publishers are going to chew your manuscript into little peieces, then put it back together again before it's published, so unless a publishers specifically asks for italics, underlining is the right way to go.

Writing Again
10-20-2004, 02:37 PM
I agree with Jamesaritchie, I would not submit italics; I would submit underlines unless specifically told otherwise: But I've never refered to them as "underlines" in conversation; only as what the final product will be: "italics."

mr mistook
10-21-2004, 04:21 AM
Are you aware that you absolutely cannot quote real lyrics without permission, even tiny bits of them.

Well, there are some scenes where music is playing in the background and I do something like:

Charlie stared out over the river.
From the distance, John Lennon sang, "There's nothing you can do that can't be done..."

And I'm pretty sure that something like that would be considered "fair use" under most interpretations of copyright law.

On the other hand, there are parts of my story where the lyrics in their entirety become part of the plot (a main character becomes obsessed with these lyrics).

So to cover myself in those scenes I had to convert the real artist to a fictional one, and work up paraphrased lyrics that have the same shades of meaning.

10-21-2004, 04:54 AM
The law about lyrics is very strict. Quoting a quantity of words that would be fair use if they were prose can get you in big trouble if they're lyrics. ASCAP is twitchy about that. Bad idea to mess with John Lennon's estate.

10-21-2004, 05:42 AM
I wouldn't put down "John Lennon sang, blah blah blah" First, is it important to the story? Not really. Is it necessary? Probably not. Those who are not familiar with John Lennon would just skip it; those who are, would probably know the lyrics anyway if you just mention the title. Basically, is it important to the story. The song may be (to set up the mood, etc.), but not the specific lyrics.

If you need to use to lyrics to bring a point across, you can either paraphrase or summarize without actually writing out the lyrics, such as: John Lennon sang "Imagine" in the background -- a song about love and harmony in the world... or you can paraphrase using dialogue: "I like that song, something about people living in the world."

If you need to use actually lyrics to tell the story/plot, perhaps you're not writing as well as you should be.

If you do use the actual lyrics, even just one verse, you will need to ask permission or get a cover from ASCAP.

mr mistook
10-21-2004, 05:49 AM
No problem. I can always indirectly describe the line he's singing, or simply take such things out of the manuscript.

It just strikes me that there has to be some limit to this business of "bits" of songs. I mean, the lyrics to "All You Need Is Love" are copyrighted, but the phrase, "All you need is love" can't possibly be. By that logic, I'd also need permission to use just the word "All", or the letter "A".

From what I've researched, "Fair Use" is a very hazy area in copyright law. For example, it's perfectly legal to publish a parody without any permission. Weird Al doesn't have to pay a penny to any of the artists he's parodied, even though he often duplicates the music to a tee.

10-21-2004, 05:54 AM
FAir use is highly misunderstood. While just how much can be used is open for debate and varies from case to case, WHERE fair use applies is pretty much cut and dried, and it isn;t in your own fiction. The law clearly states where fair use applies.

“quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.”

There is no provision in the law for using someone else's copyrighted material in your own fiction without permission.

In short, you can't use someone else's lyrics, in part or in totality, without obtaining written permission, and this can be extremely expensive. Fair use simply doesn't apply. And even in cases where the law allows fair use, songs and poems are often so short that using even a single line can violate fair use.

10-21-2004, 06:00 AM
Oh, about Weird Al. He can parody the words, but the music is another matter. If he duplicates the music, he must pay a royalty each time the music is played. Parodying a song doesn't mean you get the music for free. Lyrics and music are two different things.

He doesn't pay for the lyrics because he isn't duplicating them, but he does pay for the music because he hasn't changed it. Generally, the lyrics and the music are independently protected by copyright law. If they werem't, you just steal music just by writing new words to someone's music.

10-21-2004, 06:02 AM
You can't copyright any phrase under four words, and you can't copyright a title, or a generic phrase in common usage. But you also can't use any copyrighted portion of anyone else's work in your own fiction without permission.

mr mistook
10-21-2004, 06:09 AM

You posted while I was writing the previous post. So this is in response to what you just said above.

As far as the scenes where I'm using whole lyrics, they are critical to the story, which is literally about how an obsessed fan developes and entire conspiracy theory out of what he takes as "secret messages" in an album's lyrics and liner notes.

I assume you're familiar with the old "Paul is Dead" theory that caught fire in the Beatle's hay-day. This story isn't about that particular theory, or even the Beatles, however.

Anyway I don't think in this case it's enough to simply say, "He listened to an innocent song about a day at the beach but took it to mean that she secretly wanted to meet with him."

It's important to show the exact verses so that the reader can see how innocuous they really are, but simultaneously understand exactly how the character has come to his conclusions.

mr mistook
10-21-2004, 06:19 AM

Thank you for clearing up the "fair use" question. Again, you were posting while I was writing so this is in response to what you just said.

From what you quoted and so forth, I feel I'm in very safe territory. Not about quoting Lennon mind you... I'll take that stuff out. But as for commonly used phrases and phrases under three words, you've answered my question. :D

As for Parody, I didn't know that about the music portion, so I stand corrected.:gone

These "Parallell" lyrics I've worked up don't violate copyright from what you've shown. 99% of my versions use different words. 1% duplicate commonly used phrases - most, coincidentally, three words or less in length. As for music, If I were ever to write some for these lyrics, I'd do it from scratch.

10-22-2004, 01:10 PM
..and writers such as Bret Easton Ellis, who incorporate pop references including explicit lyrics from songs? In American Psycho, entire sections of the book are dedicated to description of and reference to pop music. Did he go through a long process and pay a lot of money just to get these in? Considering how controversial the book already was, I find it hard to believe a publishing company fronted a bunch of cash to acquire such rights, and I find it even harder to believe Mr. Ellis would have paid them out of his own pocket. So what's the likely scenario in a situation like this?

Tish Davidson
10-22-2004, 01:23 PM
Look in the front or the back of the book. It usually says something like Lyrics to blah blah blah song name copyright date, copyright holder's name used by permission. People who don't get copyright permission tend to get sued if they get caught. The music industry is very touchy about this, especially since lyrics are short, and quoting even a line or two consitutes a major percentage of the work.

10-22-2004, 05:00 PM
Unless you're Stephen King, publishing companies seldom front money for anything. The writer usually buys the rights out of his own pocket.

There's a difference between references to songs and actually using the lyrics. You can talk about a song, use the title, paraphhrase the lyrics, but you can't actually use the lyrics without permission.

I haven't read the book, and won't, so it's hard to say. But if actual lyrics were used, permission was obtained. I
don;t know Ellis, but it may be he knows some people who own copyright well enough to obtain permission for little or nothing. It does happen.

And sometimes you can use part of a lyric from a song and get away with it, but songwriters and poets and music companies have been known to sue over only a few words.

10-23-2004, 03:18 AM
Use any reasonable typography that indicates that the passage is lyrics. Italics are pretty standard. You might also indent them one block. That's what I do in my novel, where I quote a passage from Steely Dan.

James D Macdonald
10-23-2004, 03:54 AM
Unless you're Stephen King, publishing companies seldom front money for anything. The writer usually buys the rights out of his own pocket.

And Big Steve King can afford to pay for the rights out of his own pocket....

luckky one
10-23-2004, 11:40 AM
"He listened to an innocent song about a day at the beach, but took it to mean that she secretly wanted to meet with him."

Ooh, what's wrong with this line. I like this line. Hell, I think I like the book already!:heart

mr mistook
10-24-2004, 07:56 AM
Thank you, Lucky One. Here's hoping the damn thing ends up being worthy of such a favorable comment :clover