Three Chords, One Premise, A Dozen Changes

Thea Devine today, remembering how my mom loved country music. She had a really nice singing voice, and oh, be still my heart, she could yodel.  I mean, really yodel, with that back of the throat crick that you can’t just learn ( I tried).  And folk music. Mom loved folk music;  Burl Ives.  Susan Reed.  Names you probably don’t know any more.  Names I grew up with so of course, I was going love folk music as well. All that came to fruition in college when I met a guy and he gave me a guitar.  And book on How To Play.

The guy didn’t last.  The guitar did.  I painstakingly practiced those three major chords, C-F-G, until I was proficient enough to play “To Everything Turn Turn Turn,” and then there was no stopping me.  I mean, do you know how many songs you can play if you know three chords?   If you can figure out progressions?  Or learn tablature instead of music?

John and I lived in the Village when we were first married.  We spent a lot of time in folk clubs.  Saw Buffy Ste. Marie, Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Fred Neil, John Hartford, David Blue — names perhaps you don’t know any more.  Names I grew up with.  I never stopped playing.  I don’t play well, but I love to play, learn songs, and write lyrics and chord them, as much as I love to write books.

It occurred to me that story premises are kind of like chords.  That you can play a dozen plots off of one premise just like you can play any number of songs off three chords:

(C)   the heroine is running (from, to)

(F)     her (ex, her past, her future, the  consequences of her actions, her childhood nemesis, her inheritance, her sisters, her stalker)

(G)    and complications (bad guys, the hero, her presumed dead husband, a                 long lost friend, the death of a sibling, a quest) ensue.

Add an A-minor — obstacles:  no money, trapped in a blizzard, electricity goes out, she lost her job, a parent dies, a serial killer is after her, all of the above — and voila.  The makings of a plot, which can twist in any one of several directions as you figure out who “she” is, what she’s running from, and which of the complications are going to prevent her from getting to her goal.

But I expect those of you who play know all this.  However, it’s comforting to fall back on when plot seems like a foreign word and everything you come up with feels like you’re duplicating every storyline ever written.

But, three chords: dozens of songs.  One premise, dozens of variations.  Really, it’s true, it works.

Do you play?  Do you write lyrics?  Did you ever think of plot in terms of chords? Does it help?

Thea Devine is the author of twenty-five historical and contemporary erotic romances and a dozen novellas.  She’s currently at work on her next erotic contemporary romance.


5 thoughts on “Three Chords, One Premise, A Dozen Changes”

  1. I love this analogy, Thea. Music and writing definitely have much in common. I love to sing but I am “rhythmically challenged,” so learning music or playing an instrument has been very difficult for me. I took guitar lessons for about six months several years ago and struggled. I would have liked to continue trying to work through the problem, but the calluses on my fingers were a deal breaker for learning the guitar since they are not conducive to doing massage work. Having sensitivity in my fingers is a must for me. Don’t want to mess with the healing touch factor.

    I could probably have switched to piano, but I so wanted to learn to play an instrument that was portable that I had a Yuke specially made for me by a friend. It’s such a pretty little thing and only has four strings…the perfect accompaniment if you like folk music. I’m determined that someday, I will learn to play. Thanks for the lovely post:-)

    1. Thank you, PJ. I applaud your determination and the fact you found the yuke compatible. I have to say, my guitar has been my best friend, my consolation and my joy for many years. I especially love writing lyrics and singing for my husband. tho’ I don’t’ have much of a voice left. I loved to sing to my kids (they didn’t care); my youngest son does play, however, and his 9 month old son is riveted by watching.him, another musician in the making obviously.


  2. I love that your mom could yodel! I wish I could too. When I was a teenager I tried my hand at writing lyrics. Though I am quite musical (played oboe, flute, and tenor saxophone — not all at the same time!) in my school band and orchestra, and sang in the choir, I was never any good at composing music to go with the lyrics. I left that to my friend Sarah. I have always wanted to learn to play the guitar–moving that up on my bucket list right now. Thanks for a great post, Thea.

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