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Using Song Lyrics to Set the Scene in a Story

Updated on March 23, 2013

Sometimes I use song lyrics to help write a scene in a short story or screenplay. My copyright lawyer says that a writer cannot use more than seven words of a published song in a story. However, some old songs with copyright expiration may be used. I am not a lawyer, so I don’t know exactly what the rules are. Let’s say I want to use a ZZ Top song, Looking for Some Tush, in a screenplay. I can write a scene and say, “The music playing in the background sounds like ZZ Top.” The following is an example of a song, setting a scene.

Un-named Short Story
I enter the elevator and press the button. The door closes. As the lift rises, music begins to play softly in the background. The sound is Texas Rockabilly, ZZ Top. In the seven years I’ve been in this place I never had a meeting above the 4th level. I am going uptown and exit the elevator at the 99th floor.

The top level is very bright and clean. The sunlight bothers my eyes. It is drab and dusty at the lower levels. With trepidation, I walk toward the large doors at the end of the hallway and question, “Why have I been summoned by management?”
As I am about to knock on the greenish, blue door, it opens and I pass through.

At a large table in the center of the meeting hall, four of them are sitting in comfortable chairs. Sunlight dashes through the shades. I stop and stand uncomfortably in the middle of the room. My supervisor is on my right side of the table. Interior to him is the vice-president. On the left side is the president of the firm and next to him in the center sits the Chairman of the Board. This is the first time I face the Chairman. I was not sure the guy even existed. Now I know he really is in charge of everything.

The president opens up a book and speaks, “You’ve been with us now for seven years. You are punctual, follow orders and have made significant progress. The supervisor and vice-president in charge of your sector have recommended you for this position. You will replace someone who is unable to continue his commitment.

The shades close. A screen drops. The video displays a man early forties, my height and build. He appears to be very fit and in the prime of life. He walks quickly across a street. Suddenly he is hit by a yellow taxi cab. After a sequence of scenes, the young man is spread out on an operating table in a hospital amphitheatre.
The president says, “You will become this man. However, you will retain your own mind.”
The Chairman speaks, “You can option out.”
But I have no choice in the matter. “I will take the assignment sir,” I answer.

In the fraction of a second that I accept the assignment, I awaken in a critical care recovery room. The doctors are removing tubes from my nose and throat. I am a living body. Everything hurts and my throat is very dry. I can sense the physicians are thrilled with the patient’s miraculous recovery from head trauma. My body is banged up but there are no broken bones. When the physicians leave the room, I look at the plastic bracelet on my left wrist. I am at Beth Israel Hospital, New York City. My name is Frank Rosseus.

This fourth story is a continuation of the three short stories in my novella Back From the Bardo.

ZZ Top

Back From The Bardo


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