Writing songs with clear narratives

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  • @paulh1237  Feb 11

    Hi all,

    I set myself a target this month to write just one song that told a clear narrative - literally any story I felt like from start to finish.

    I know that a lot of people on here do this but I've always struggled, maybe in part because...

    - songs are SHORT. Especially when I write them. How on earth do people write a story-driven song and make sure it has enough depth/detail to be interesting? How do I fit a satisfying beginning-middle-end story into that?
    - songs generally have clear structures - which to me don't always lend themselves to a story. i.e. a chorus generally which demands a central theme or focal point worth repeating which stories don't always have (it makes me think more of a fable).

    This means I generally write much more specific songs about a single moments/feelings/thoughts rather than try to cover more than I think I'm able to - but I'm determined to give it ago. On the basis that it seems to be the norm for everyone else..

    Any thoughts or advice?

  • @johncrossman  Feb 11

    Write the longer version and rewrite it down, eliminating anything that doesn't have to be there. This is a short story writing mantra I tend to agree with.

    Find some you love, see what they did, and emulate it. Learn from people who do it well. (But don't hold yourself to their high standard right off.) For me that might be Paul Simon or a songwriter I like, David Wilcox. There are too many to list! Or find some on here.

  • @johncrossman  Feb 11

    I do think limiting the scope is helpful too. String together 3 moments, for example since you do that already, finding the thread that ties them together.

  • @devin  Feb 11

    I read somewhere that many story songs can be written by writing the 2nd verse first, and making that a very interesting event.

    Then go back and write the first verse, to introduce the main character.

    I then heard a pretty cool explanation of how to summarize the story in the chorus:

    Sing (or read) your verse(s), and then think to yourself “and that’s why I say...”


    The bridge then becomes another detail or angle that puts the chorus into a different perspective.

    Not sure if I was helpful or not?

  • @johncrossman  Feb 11

    @devin I've never heard that second verse advice before, but I like it! Might help get over that sophomore slump I sometimes hit with #2 V. Start there, interesting.

    I've heard asking, "what else?" or "what next?" to get to the second verse.

  • @phoenixash Feb 11

    You could do an overarching story, each song telling a bit of it

  • @klaus  Feb 11

    Many folk songs have clear narrative. They have several verses but no chorus per se. They may have a "refrain" which is a short comment on verses, often ironic. Like in "Where have all the flowers gone" refrain is " When will they ever learn?"

  • @brrrse  Feb 11

    I start freewriting, phrases - not sentences or paragraphs - and I don't worry with rhyme or meter or anything like that, just phrases. First I answer the W's. ....Who - what - when - where - and why in as many phrases as it takes...and I'm discriptive in my answers...

    a girl
    a tall girl
    a blonde girl
    a loud girl
    a shy girl
    I go through all five questions like that and get a LOT of nouns and adjectives. This is the cloth.

    Then go back to my prompt or theme or the story I want to tell, and I use verbs to string together my phrases.

    THEN i work with rhyme and meter and introduce music.

    Thanks for FAWMing!

  • @frenchcricket Feb 11

    Stories can be short, flash fiction wouldn't work otherwise.

    Do you fancy a bit of literary theory? Of course you do. William Labov claimed that all oral narratives (I know a song isn't an oral narrative, but stay with me) can fit the following structure:

    1. Abstract - How does it begin?
    2. Orientation - Who/what does it involve, and when/where?
    3. Complicating Action - Then what happened?
    4. Resolution - What finally happened?
    5. Evaluation - So what?
    6. Coda - What does it all mean?

    Bear in mind that you don't have to use all of these, and you don't have to tick them off in order. #2 and #3 are essential really, where as the others are very much optional.

  • @chrishope  Feb 11

    *bump .. great ideas all

  • @paulh1237  Feb 11

    Thanks for the tips everyone! Going to give this a go tomorrow and you've given me loads to work on!

  • @tootoobee  Feb 11

    Look for sensory language, painting pictures with words and using metaphors is usually more effective than writing many words.
    And yes, in the end it's cancelling everything that is not essential.
    Good luck!

  • @colgoo  Feb 11

    So when I write a ballad, I figure out the key parts of the story and I split the story up into verses. Each verse is an "act" in the play. I try to keep the story to five acts or less. If I really feel a sixth one is necessary, I do two verses, chorus, two verses, chorus, two verses, chorus.

    The chorus MUST be catchy and relate to all the verses. It can have slight changes made so that it fits, but it is the part that give the audience time to absorb information/sing along.

    This is usually the big action that ties everything together.

    In my song, "The Great Molasses Flood" (50/90, 2017) I focused on the terrifying moment when citizens of Boston, Massachusetts saw a 25 foot tidal wave of hot sticky molasses pour down the street at 35 miles per hour. That was the chorus.

    The first and last verses are to introduce and conclude the story. Middle verses are to pull out the heart of the story and show it to the audience. So in that song, verse one sets up how the accident happened and t

  • @colgoo  Feb 11

    Oops....I got too long winded.

    Never mind.....less is more....

  • @colgoo  Feb 11

    Oh....the other part of my earlier comment.....If your story is really long, you may have a musical on your hands....same principles as writing a song....just a bigger production....

  • @cheslain  Feb 11

    There's no reason why your choruses would need to be the same throughout the song. Vary it slightly so it advances the story. Have the action in the verses and let the variation in the choruses emphasize how things have changed because of those actions.

  • @tsunamidaily Feb 11

    Also, the chorus could be shortened to a refrain on a story song. It could be a line or two that repeats. It doesn’t have to be after every verse if there are several. The older song forms were without choruses, and they were invariably story songs— songs of battles won or lost, or murder ballads.
    Often, I will come across a phrase when writing a song and it can mean more than one thing, depending on context. I will go back to previous verses and rewrite them to end on this phrase, perhaps the refrain, with a different meaning each time. That phrase is then your hook. If you end up with a lot of words, it just means the flow of the words is likely faster so that the song doesn’t get too long. But there is no rule that you even need a refrain in a story song. Some of the best are simply verse upon verse.

  • @darcistrutt  Feb 11

    @paulh1237 consider taking part in the Storymatic challenge and let him pull the cards for you. Two cards drawn to form your character and two cards with prompts for the story/action. It gave me a running start on a story-song.

  • @coffeeinthesink  Feb 12

    I used to write more direct story-ish songs and I would do a lot of prewriting first. To get exactly what I wanted to write down first. Details, etc. That way I was getting more to the point from the get-go.

  • @tuneslayer2018  Feb 12

    What I consider the best song I've ever written, "The Space Marine's Lament," tells an entire story in about eight verses. It started with a prompt for a songwriting contest that went, "Knowing is half the battle." (Those of you who are Americans of a certain age may remember that from the G. I. Joe cartoons of the 1980s.) So faced with that prompt, I eventually asked myself, "If knowing is half the battle, what's the other half?" Once I answered that question I had the last verse, and once I had the last verse the rest of the song just wrote itself.

    It isn't always going to happen that way but sometimes you can build a trail -- or a story -- by deciding where you want to end up, and then figuring out where to start, and then following the dots to connect the two. Even if you have to make up the dots yourself.

  • @eargoggle  Feb 12

    This is all really great advice, everyone! I am trying to write a narrative that goes through all the songs I write this month, which I've never done. I'm mostly winging it, writing ideas down when I can and then letting it all spill out when I've got a song going, so it's great to read such great advice here.

  • @visiblydistorted Feb 12

    along the lines of what @frenchcricket said,

    I think you really only need seven lines to make a great story... following the story mountain theory,

    introduction, exposition, rising action, conflict, climax, falling action, and conclusion.

    1. introduction often happens in media's res, in the middle of the action.

    2. exposition just makes it clearer who's who and what's what'

    3. rising action makes it interesting for the listener and hooks them

    4. conflict is something that puts a twist in the story

    5. climax is where it gets really intense and the conflict is either resolved or not

    6. falling action is pretty straight forward, what happens because of the climax and conflict resolution,

    7. conclusion is the tying up of any loose ends, or a cliffhanger

  • @stuartbenbow  Feb 12

    I focus on the why, where, when and who/whom, as well as tense. If you get a chance, Pat Pattinson has a free online Coursera class on lyrics that addresses this.

    He discusses the three box theory. The first is small, and above the slightly larger second box, which is above the largest third box. They’re all connected by lines. Basically try to have the chorus hook, or central repeating idea land at those connecting lines, and each time it repeats it gains weight because of the growing importance of the lyrics.

    Ex. Don’t take the girl, a simple but effective country song.

    Box 1:
    Father & son going fishing...

    Don’t take the girl

    Box 2:
    Boy and girl being robbed at gunpoint...

    Don’t take the girl

    Box 3:
    Wife dying following delivery of their baby

    Prays to God, don’t take the girl.

    It uses the passage of time to move the story forward, and places an ever growing importance to the phrase don’t take the girl.

    Hope that helps.

  • @scottlake  Feb 12

    I don’t know that I’ve ever heard any song give all the details. Or any story for that matter. They give just enough to lead your brain to fill in the details and that’s what makes them seem detailed.

  • @markg  Feb 12

    I too endorse the Pat Pattison course on Coursera, free online.

  • @tsunamidaily Feb 12

    Writing in "The Art of the Short Story", Hemingway explains: "A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit."

  • @cicpisces Feb 12

    I've heard people say the song is like a thesis. Verse one is the set up and argument for your theme. Verse two is the argument against the theme. Third verse is your conclusion. That can help.

  • @corinnelucy  Feb 12

    OMG @colgoo I've been trying to write a song about the Boston Molasses Flood for YEARS. I missed your 50/90 song about it. Just went back and listened - I loved it, your delivery's really emotional and you told the story with real efficiency!

    I like all the comments about pre-writing, I find that useful a lot. And I found the Pat Pattison lectures useful too. I don't tend to draw the boxes but it's something I keep in mind: I usually conceptualise it as act 1, act 2, act 3, and anything extra can go in the bridge or middle-8.

    I have a few different approaches to choruses, depending on what the story lends itself to and what I think of when I'm writing it. It's sometimes possible/best to have a repeated chorus that changes meaning or gets more weight added to it, through the song. Joni Mitchell's Little Green is a good example of this - the chorus starts out sounding optimistic and naïve, and by the end, it's a heart-breaking plea.
    Or it might be good to have a chorus that changes

  • @corinnelucy  Feb 12

    ...Or it might be good to have a chorus that changes a little each time, maybe one or two lines change and the others stay the same. I can't think of any examples of this, maybe someone else can...

    Or you can just use every single line to further the story, like Up The Junction by Squeeze.

    Listening to your favourite story songs and pulling them apart is a great way to learn different ways to fit all the events into a song I think. And if you start out and you accidentally write some 12-minute epic, that's a learning process and a tick in the FAWM box anyway 😀

  • @davidbreslin101  Feb 12

    From my folk-club days, I can testify that having a full-length chorus in a story song with more than four full-length verses is a good way to send most of the audience out for a smoke.* Even when they don't smoke. The most successful story songs I've heard did it by either squeezing the essence of the tale into a handful of lines, or by only having verses. Some of the latter weren't short, but pulled it off anyway by good storytelling.

    Some narrative folk songs repeat the last line of every verse to give the audience something to join in on. More subtlely, a line of lyrics from early on may reappear in a verse towards the end.

    *A related folk-club sin: when you're about to sing a ten-minute murder ballad that tells a story in great detail, introduce it by telling the entire story in great detail for ten minutes.

  • @frenchcricket Feb 12

    @davidbreslin101 probably why the AAA song structure is so popular in folk

  • @songsville  Feb 12

    @davidbreslin101 @frenchcricket I always like hearing Martin Carthy sing 'The Famous Flower of Serving Men' -- and I read somewhere the way to look at it is not 'Gosh, this is a long song' but more 'Wow, how did he pack a 2 hour movie into just 9 minutes?' 😀

  • @rickatfulcrum Feb 12

    In response to the OP's question the first thing I thought of was Steely Dan. Some of their songs quite often tell a story by not exposing *all* the information they know, or by having an unreliable narrator. Feel free not to spill all the beans!

  • @unknownbecky  Feb 13

    I think the key is making your lyrics as brief as possible, and making sure each one does plenty of heavy lifting. On brevity: There's only a certain amount of real estate in a song, so don't waste time giving information you already gave in a different way. Harder to learn is heavy lifting: Instead of spending a whole verse describing someone or something, see if you can get it down to one meaty image that really says it all. I always think of John Prine's line, "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes", which tells you a lot in 11 words - that the guy is a heroin addict, that he's a dad, and that his family is barely scraping by.

  • @andygetch  Feb 14

    I'm no expert on this, but continuing on the John Prine arc. In the live recording of 'Bottomless lake' where John said "After years and years of writing story songs, I learned one thing, that if you're writing a story song, ya better have a darn good ending to it. If ya don't, then ya better have a good moral, to the story..." I think of songs like short stories having just enough detail and heavy lifting like @unknownbecky said to spark the reader/listeners imagination. Lists always help.

  • @tsunamidaily Feb 14

    @unknownbecky my personal favorite lyric that condenses so much in a few words is this one from 10,000 maniacs' "dustbowl days":

    I played a card
    In this week's game
    Took the first and the last letters
    In three of their names

    she plays the lottery, dreaming of escaping her situation, and for luck uses her kids' initials, of which she has more than three, by at least two different fathers.

    it gets me in the feels every time i hear it, or even think of it.

  • @lemonstar Feb 15

    My song about the Stella Adler - a famed acting teacher follows the pattern @frenchcricket described above.
    As @klaus suggested - some narrative songs don't have a chorus - mine doesn't - it's 2 verses and a middle 8. In fact it's a song that could do with some restructuring to make space for the instrumentation I have sketched out (on piano) for some brass but I don't have the time to do it atm.
    In line with @tsunamidaily comment - left out he important fact that this is largely constructed from real dialogue spoken by Marlon Brando in various interviews at very different times in his life (hence the quotes for words spoken by Brando and Adler) - this also accounts for @oddbods totally-on-the-money comment that the songs sounded "unlyrical" - it was a conscious decision not to write an impressionistic sketch of the impact Adler had on Brando and the respect he had for her - I tried to bottle some of charisma I found in Brando's account by using his wor

  • @quork  Feb 22

    I used this thread and the comments on here as inspiration to write a story-based song. It's based on a historical episode - the Franklin expedition that got stuck in the ice in the Canadian Arctic for three winters. I chose an unidentified but low level seaman as my narrator and tried to imagine what he did, saw, felt and thought as the months and years dragged on and it became clear they would not survive.


  • @scottlake  Feb 22

    Avoid unnecessary time connection words: and, then, so, and combinations thereof

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