Yes. Queen as in Freddie, not Queen as in Elizabeth II, although I daresay she also has some interesting ideas if anyone ever asks her.
I’ve been listening to Queen a lot lately. Partly because a new character who is trying to get my attention likes their music, partly because I just love them more the more I hear them. Their wacky stuff is a lot of fun but they have some great rhythms, rocking tunes and, if you listen, some excellent and profound lyrics.
What I think makes Queen songs really stand out is how vividly they tell a story, and this is where the point of this post comes in. There are some great songs that I love by other artists, but they maintain more or less one pace for the full three (or however many) minutes. The best Queen songs (I’m thinking One Vision, Don’t Stop Me Now and Bohemian Rhapsody) vary their pace, sometimes several times over the course of the song, and the drama is increased massively even if the song is, with all due respect, rather silly.
Take I Want To Ride My Bicycle. It’s really a very silly song, although no doubt I’ll be shouted at by Queen fanatics for missing some deep meaning. But the rhythm and pacing not only fits the theme of the song but varies to add tension and excitement (quite aside from the naked girls in the video).
Don’t Stop Me Now is possibly one of my favourite songs in the universe ever. Pace-wise, it has all the structure of a good story. A gentle introduction, a fast-moving, main body building to a fab pay-off in the guitar solo, then winding up with a short, slower section. Incidentally, the other thing this song delivers in the whole music/story analogy is a really distinctive voice. You can practically touch the character who is singing, you know exactly what he’s singing about, what he wants, what he’s feeling, and the whole song is only three minutes ten seconds long. I’ll be pretty chuffed if I can get that kind of link between my main character and my reader so quickly!
The real killer Queen (haha. sorry.) song is, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody. Where to begin?!
I’m going to use some of their lyrics here, but in a massive disclaimer I’m not intending to breach any copyright and I’ll try to edit it so that whole sections are implied rather than given in their entireties.
So, the first section:
Is this the real life, is this just fantasy… all the way to …Any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me, to me.
Like Don’t Stop Me Now, there’s a nice slow introduction here where we meet the main character.
Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger; now he’s dead… ->
…Too late, my time has come. Sends shivers down my spine, body’s aching all the time.
Goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go, got to leave you all behind and face the truth.
Mama, I don’t want to die. I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.
Here is the main part of the story. It’s like a mini version of the overall thing actually – starting slower, building up a little bit of speed then pulling back a tiny bit as the character gives his dilemma, his current crisis.
Then a complete change of tempo and atmosphere as the tension ratchets up:
I see a little silhouetto of a man…
Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening…
And the pace continues steadily as we get to a confrontation and a standoff, but as this builds in belligerence, it also builds in speed:
We will not let you go [let me go]; we will not let you go [let me go].. (etc!)
Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for ME!
And this is the fantastic climax of the story/song, and if you have the tiniest OUNCE of culture about you, you are at this point head-banging like mad in the style of Wayne’s World (If you don’t know Wayne’s World you are ridiculously young and uneducated).
So you think you can stop me and spit in my eye
So you think you can love me and leave me to die
Ooh baby, can’t do this to me baby, just got to get out, just got to get right out of here
You do the head-banging thing, as a serious point btw, because you’re engaged with the story, the music and Queen have you right where they want you. It’s genius. Now, in my version that plays in my head when I listen to this song, at this point during the instrumental the main character has a violent struggle with his pursuers but they overcome him and drag him off “to face the truth”. The music slows as the denouement passes and winds up slowly and sadly, with the sudden drop in pace mirroring the sudden drop in hope and bravado:
Nothing really matters, anyone can see, nothing really matters
Nothing really matters to me.
And a nice bit of symmetry to end, when the backing singers echo the line at the start of the song but this time without its hope:
Any way the wind blows…
And that was my break-neck break-down of Bohemian Rhapsody as a guide to pacing a story; not so much how to do it, as I’m still working that out for myself, but the importance of varying pace to increase drama and engagement. Hopefully I have made some sense!
By the way, brownie points to anyone who can tell me why, at the end of One Vision, Freddie suddenly asks for fried chicken. I can sympathise with him, but I haven’t the faintest idea what it’s doing there and I’d love to know!