In my novel, the protagonist is depressed. In the story which is in my mind...

The autumn leaves were falling as I was sitting alone and Gary Jules' "Mad World" was ringing in my iPod.

The setting is in 2013 and it was normal then to listen to MP3s and iPods.

But I've read that it's lazy writing to express the state of mind or event by just mentioning third part scene. I mean I can also elaborately mention her state of mind by showing all the other things that are happening.

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    What exactly is the problem you need help with? This is a little unclear at the moment.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 13:38
  • @F1Krazy It came across my reading that mentioning songs a character is listening gets classified as 'Lazy Writing'. One should show what goes in characters mind in other ways. But listening to ipod was a ordinary activity and is mentionable. I just didnot wanted to be classified as Lazy so I thought to ask the question. Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 16:26
  • Okay, I think I get it now. Minor correction: the song is actually named "Mad World", not "Mad Mad World".
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 17:10
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    Just to go against the grain... real songs mentioned in books will often have me googling for them, much like a mention of a book or an author would. In fact, it was a character's random reference of Milton's Paradise Lost that made me look for it, years ago. And I have just discovered a new song I like a lot from your question! Though you should try to make references to the type of melody or to the instruments to give a general idea to those who've never heard it before and aren't planning on looking it up. Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 14:13

5 Answers 5


Lots of novels go into detail about music, movies, TV shows, and other art and culture relevant during the setting of the book. Also technology.

In some cases the cultural details are important to the setting. High Fidelity is all about the music; failing to mention it would have ruined the book. In other cases, giving those details evokes a particular era. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has so many details about the main character's use of computers that it dated itself before it was even published.

Writing a book that is grounded in a particular time and place is not a bad thing. You just have to decide if it's what you want.

Listing songs won't be enough to engage the reader though. You can do a few as mere mentions as background, but remember most readers won't be familiar with it. For example, I know the song Mad Mad World quite well but couldn't tell you which version is Gary Jules'. But others won't know the song at all.

So weave the songs and the tech into the story. Not too much or you risk boring the reader or slowing down your narrative. And not all the time. Just enough so the reader gets a feel for it. Have your character manipulate the iPod. How does s/he skip a song or choose a particular one? What's the process of picking a playlist and downloading it to the device? What's a line from a song that the character loves or hates or perseverates on? How does the beat or feel of the songs s/he prefers affect her/him?

Get in your character's head and enter her/his world. Make your reader do the same. That's not lazy writing; that's what you're aiming for.

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    Hello Cyn, thank you so much for the answer it hits bulls eye of my question. Also thanks for mentioning examples, it gives me confidence to and tells me right way to do it. So then its not Lazy Writing. Many thanks. Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 16:36
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    High Fidelity was a great book to mention here. Another way specific cultural references can help us to establish a time or place unlike the consumer's. That's why we have this trope.
    – J.G.
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 15:11

It tells us nothing

The phrase Gary Jules 'Mad Mad World' has no emotional resonance with me whatsoever. It is not shorthand for "a specific emotional state".

Popular music is not a universal experience. It can signal to your "tribe": people who are the same age, gender, financial tier, and probably race – the same demographic targeted by that particular marketing campaign. An example is in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a funny scene where characters argue about Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit as if it is monumentally important because they are high, and it's a druggy song.

I had to consult the other mood cues in the sentence: "falling autumn leaves" and "sitting alone" – both of these are mundane, regular occurrences that everyone experiences regardless of their mood – assuming they have seasonal trees, chairs, and occasional privacy.

Ironically the leaves were the only mood cue that I understood (that and the context of the question), ironic because it seems the least personal. Not everyone feels melancholia at a quiet moment, if you have a small child this might sound like a dream vacation.

Working backwards, I had to figure out that sitting alone and emo-music are all reflecting an emotional state, but it took me extra work to get there – I think that's the opposite effect of what you're hoping a culture reference will convey.

To be honest, radio-friendly pop songs are also mundane regular occurrences that everyone experiences, regardless of mood (often in spite of mood). It is like an over-used cliché. Even when people get your reference it doesn't convey anything personal or unique, so it's not doing the work. It must have been experienced randomly by (hundreds of) millions of people since the autumn of 2013.

I think it's dead weight. It's not conveying depression. I don't really think it works as a time-place cue either since it's not connected to any particular era or news cycle that would help me pinpoint the reference (ie: hippies arguing about drug-music from the '60s).

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    Hi, I completely understood your answer. My apologies that I mentioned a very very short snippet, just a line from my writing. Actually, I have already made it clear to the reader that she is under depression and in just next paragraph I had added emo-lines from the song. The tone of the song itself is emotional. Thankyou for your answer thought it helps me a lot understanding how to write other components of my story. Many thanks. Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 16:34
  • @cool_bodhi Be aware that quoting lines/lyrics of a song in your fiction is very different from a copyright/legal perspective than referencing a song name. Often quoting lyrics would be legally prohibited (without additional permissions) even if mentioning the title is legally allowed. (The details of that would be a separate question here or on legal.SE, though.)
    – R.M.
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 15:45

I had the same reaction to your musical allusion that Wetcircuit did: I have never heard the song "Mad World", or if I have, I don't remember it. It does not bring any emotional state to my mind because I have no idea what it is about or what it sounds like.

I've had this conversation with many authors: They'll say, "I included this cultural reference to put the reader into a certain mood" or "to bring certain ideas to mind". But the glaring assumption is that the reader recognizes the reference. You're assuming that everyone who might read your book listens to the same songs that you do. But unless your book is focused at a very narrow market, this is almost certainly not true. I don't listen to the same music that my children do. Some people like hard rock, some like rap, some like country, some like classical, etc. I have literally no idea what the most popular hard rock songs today are or the names of the singers or groups who perform them. And when I have this conversation, the person will often reply, "Well, maybe you don't like rap, but you still know who such-and-such famous rap singer is of course, don't you?" No, I don't. 9 times out of 10 I've never heard of the person they name, and the other 1 time I may vaguely recall having heard the name but couldn't tell you anything about him.

It's very easy to leap from "all my friends do this" to "everybody in the world does this". No, they don't.

I'd say the same for references to movies, other books, and cultural events. Like if you tell me the hero "went to a Fwacbar Convention", if I'm not part of your group, I may have no idea what a Fwacbar Convention is.

And I just wrote "fwacbar" there because I often use that when I need a made-up word. But now that I've written it, it hits me: "Fwacbar" is actually a technical term relating to a computer technology that was obsolete decades ago. Did you recognize it and know what it means? I'm guessing not. But wow, all my 60 year old programmer friends recognize it. Doesn't everybody?

If you want to make a particular song central to your story, you'd better give the full lyrics of the song, describe the type of music, etc. And if you're going to do that, you'd better get permission from the copyright owner.

I think a far better idea would be to describe the person's feelings in terms that almost any human being should be able to understand. If you want to talk about him listening to a song, describe the song. You can say, "he listened to a melancholy country song, where the singer described his sadness at the tragic death of his wife" or whatever.

  • Thank you very much for the answer...It gives me lot of food for thought. Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 18:19

There's nothing wrong with mentioning specific songs or tech in this way.

And while it's not lazy writing to use songs as a tool for conveying a character's mood it is to rely on them solely. Expecting the reader to take them listening to a particular song as meaning they are sad just isn't going to work (unless you've already somehow established that as being their go-to "I'm sad" listen!). Humans can have both semantic and episodic musical memory and the contents of both will vary from person to person.

Semantically the Gary Jules cover of Mad World for me is things like who played the piano (Michael Andrews), what film it was recorded for (Donnie Darko), when it was released (2003) and so on. It's facts not emotion. For the emotional aspects you have to go to the episodic memory - and for me those are happy memories (I enjoyed the movie, I saw it at a happy period in my life etc.)

So if you're looking for a reader (in this case me) to realize your character is sad and to empathize with them you're out of luck.

And if I'm honest there really isn't much else in the snippet to point me that way either:

The Autumn leaves were falling

Tells me the time of year - it doesn't really convey much about mood though. You can use weather to help establish mood but rarely in isolation. Autumn leaves are not in themselves inherently sad - they are a popular tourist attraction in parts of the United States!

as I was sitting alone

Tells me the POV character is alone. Unless there's preceding information that this likely to be something that they either do when depressed or is something that would cause them to be depressed it indicates nothing more or less than that they are alone in this scene.

Your comment on another answer:

Actually, I have already made it clear to the reader that she is under depression and in just next paragraph I had added emo-lines from the song.

Confirms that we are firmly in "lazy writing" territory here. At a wild guess I'm going to say those quoted lines include either:

Their tears are filling up their glasses


The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had

or both. You aren't using your words to show me how the character feels - you're using someone else's. If the intent is to show that the character is a person who takes "emo" lines to heart as if they are y'know..really deep, then that's a different thing and I don't think that's what you are aiming for.

You've got scenic elements in the snippet that could be used to provide a lens on the character's mood and state of mind - you just need to take those opportunities:

I was sitting by myself, watching the autumn leaves fall. The piano notes of Gary Jules' Mad World playing on my iPod giving each slowly tumbling leaf a melancholy sound track which suited my mood. I was alone.

There's the same key elements of your original but they are tied together - and to the character's state of mind to set the scene. You can tell that the character is feeling melancholy by how they perceive their surroundings.

Also note that the attributes of the song that are necessary for the effect are described. That way it may be beneficial for the reader to have heard the song but it's not required. In the original wording if the reader is unfamiliar with the song, or potentially even worse if they are merely familiar with the original version of the song,(which is an upbeat synth-pop track!) you risk conveying no emotional cues or even opposite emotional cues to what you intend.

  • +1 "If the intent is to show that the character is a person who takes "emo" lines to heart as if they are y'know..really deep, then that's a different thing…" I thought of this aspect too, like: is this a person who filters their experiences through mass media? It doesn't necessarily make them shallow, but it is emotionally distancing from an actual person having a genuine emotion, and maybe that is a symptom of the depression...
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 13:37
  • Thank you so much...It really helped me and gave a lot of food for thought... Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 13:39
  • Can I ask...from your perspective do my lines sound laconic?...the way you wrote it is verbose...I sincerely admired your style of writing and want to get there....what are the elements I should focus on? Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 13:47
  • @cool_bodhi To me your original lines read as.. I suppose disjointed would be the word I'd use. I do tend towards the more verbose side - sometimes (too often!) to excess. There's nothing wrong with being laconic or concise - but the important thing has to be first and foremost Does this convey to the reader what I'm aiming to? As long as you're doing that relative verbosity is more a matter of style and personal preference. Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 14:43
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    @cool_bodhi In coming back to this page I realized I missed some useful info off the end. I've edited it in accordingly. Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 14:44

But I've read that it's lazy writing to express the state of mind or event by just mentioning third part scene. I mean I can also elaborately mention her state of mind by showing all the other things that are happening.

That's absolutely true, as a lot of other answerers have pointed out. Referencing a famous song like Mad World is not enough to portray depression, after all. Imagine someone reading your story on a crowded bus, or in a public park filled with the voices of playing chidrens, or waiting at the dentist office ... Even knowing the song by heart, it would be difficult to recall the music (and those precise feelings) in one's heart in such a situation.

What you can do is using the song as a launching pad.

I can also elaborately mention her state of mind by showing all the other things that are happening.

Absolutely, do this. It's not being "elaborate", it's doing a good job. Instead of relying on a famous song to describe those feelings, paint a picture of your character being in a dark mood as autumn leaves fall down. You can even describe the music itself:

The autumn leaves were falling as I was sitting alone and Gary Jules' "Mad World" was ringing in my iPod. His low, resigned voice filled my ears; words speaked with a melancholic pace as the notes followed. I turned up the volume, to the point that it almost ached, insulating myself from everything else. I was alone.

I you want a reference, Murakami often describes a lot of music in his novels (mostly because he worked for years in a jazz pub, so he must be pretty knowledgeable). Whenever he talks about a piece, he speaks about the notes, the tones, the emotions it provokes, and his characters reaction. The final result is that you don't actually need to know the music he's talking about to see what effect it has on the story, or what kind of atmosphere it builds.

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