Songwriting As Storytelling
© 2001 by I.Jackson
Most people don’t equate songwriting with telling stories unless it’s in the form of a folk song. Folk songs often have what is called an AAA structure, with “A” representing the verses and no chorus, therefore lending themselves easily to a story format. Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and many of the 60’s folk artists wrote in this style, which is in fact one of the oldest songwriting formats around.
A lot of pop songs on the charts these days don’t rely very heavily on storytelling or even good lyric writing! I’m sure you can think of popular songs where you have no idea what it’s really about, but you can relate to parts of it and it has a great musical hook, so it’s on your list of favourites. Does that mean you can get away with writing nonsense lyrics? Nonsense!
As far as stories go, any good one will draw you in from the first sentence, hold your attention all the way through and satisfy you with a great ending…maybe even leave you wanting more! When you write a song, even if it isn’t in the folk or storytelling format, you need to remember to have the same elements…a beginning, a middle, and an end. But what if there isn’t a “story” in your song? How do you accomplish this task?
These days when I sit down to write lyrics, I often start with the first line before even knowing what the song is going to be about! As I add each line, an idea starts to unfold, and once I have a first draft I more or less know what the song is about. But not everyone approaches their lyric writing this way, and some songwriters find that their end product is lacking some kind of cohesion. There are several things to look for that may be contributing to this:
1. THE ‘HEAR’ AND NOW: Is your lyric taking place in the present, past, future, or a mixture of all of these? A listener can get confused pretty quickly if you jump from one to the other for no obvious reason. The most POWERFUL tense is the present, but as you know, many of us long for the past or hope for the future, and all tenses can all be used with equal impact if you know what you’re doing. A lyric that moves from past to future can also give a sense of continuity to your song. Look over your lyrics and clear up any inconsistencies in this area.
2. DRAWING A PICTURE: Some writers, when getting ideas for their lyrics, first sit down and actually write a paragraph or two about what they want to say. Having the full picture in front of you can help you to build the song lyric in a clear, intelligable way, and maybe even give you a better idea as to how to structure it. Think about grade school when you were learning how to construct a story. Remember the “5 W’s” (who, what, when, where, why)? This is a very useful tool when putting together your lyric. Who is this about? What is happening? When and where is it taking place? Why is it happening?
3. PURPOSEFUL SONG PARTS: Each part of a song has a job. The chorus is a summation of the song, the central theme or idea. The job of the verses is to flesh out this idea a little further, going into more detail and carrying the song forward. If there is a bridge, its purpose is to take a fresh look at the whole subject. Normally the music in the bridge goes into a different progression or melody from the rest of the song, and the lyric does the same. It’s a kind of “break” from the repetitiveness of the rest of the song. Use your song parts correctly and the rest of the song will fall into place. Don’t be afraid to change the parts around either. Maybe what you call your first verse is REALLY better as a chorus!
4. ‘THREADS’: Each part of a song should tie into the one before and the one after, in what I like to call “threads”. When you examine your verses, look for continuity of thought…are you carrying through on your central theme? To simplify the process, write out a one phrase description of each verse, the chorus, bridge and any other part of the song to see how each part works with the rest. Some people critique songs using this idea…they’ll map out each part of the song to see whether or not it flows.
5. RHYMING FOR NO REASON: Sometimes we get so caught up in finding a rhyme for a word, that we forget what the song is about…I KNOW that any of you who have tried to write a lyric have found yourself in this position before. In fact, I’ve seen complete lyrics that seem to be a series of unconnected rhymes, a play on words perhaps, but with no thought to anything else!
6. WASTED SPACE: I know you’ve done this too…filling in a line or a phrase with something that fits the meter, but has nothing to do with the song. I call these “throw away lines”, and I DO use them sometimes just to fill the space for the time being until I can come up with something better. When I’m in the polishing stage or the re-writing stage, is when I will pull these parts out and replace them. And when I do, I’m ALWAYS looking for threads.
7. TOO MANY COOKS: Another problem that can overwhelm a lyric is too many ideas! Don’t try to write seven songs in one lyric…take it apart and write about one element, or decide more clearly what that one element IS and then make the others work around it. Ever walked into a terribly messy room? Your eyes don’t know where to look first, and it can actually create stress in your body! The same thing can happen with a “busy” lyric…the ear doesn’t know WHAT to hang onto and a headache is just around the corner!
So there you have some ideas for making a story out of your song. And though even the most popular song lyrics out there don’t necessarily follow these “rules”, that only means there’s hope yet for all of us!