Turning a Good Story Into a Good Song

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Johnny Cash - A Boy Named SueNot every song tells the kind of story where you’d say “first this happened, then that happened…” Nevertheless, we often speak of verses as “telling the story”, while choruses make emotion-based observations about what’s going on.

Songs that literally tell a story have one thing going for them: assuming they’re well-written, they compel the listener to keep listening. They want to hear how it all works out in the end.

There are several problems that need to be overcome when turning a story into a song:

  1. Written stories typically have thousands, or tens of thousands, of words, while songs have dozens, or perhaps a few hundred words maximum.
  2. Written stories often have many characters, each contributing to the plot. Songs can get confusing if there are too many characters.
  3. Written stories can take a chapter or more to build some momentum, while songs need to captivate the audience pretty much right away.
  4. Written stories often have several subplots that give the reader important insights with regard to the main plot. In songs, subplots can be distracting, particularly in typical 3-5-minute songs.
  5. Written stories may be all about character development, with the plot being of less importance. A 4-minute song is a difficult vehicle for developing a character.

To that final point, I would say, “…but the best songwriters know how to do it.” And that speaks to what a good song does: it conveys a compelling story with interesting characters, and does so with a minimum of words. Novelists don’t usually have a constraining limit to the number of words they are to use, and as long as what they write is compelling, they’re usually free to keep writing.

And so there is that word, compelling, again. To compel, in the arts, simply means to force — in the most positive sense of that word — the audience to keep listening.

There is no set of rules for converting a story into music. But if you’ve written a short story or a novel, or if you want to convert an event from history into a song, give the following suggestions a read. Keep in mind that there are several song formats that are possible, so for the sake of argument, let’s say that you’ve chosen a standard verse-chorus-bridge design.

  1. Make a list of major events that happen in the story. Depending on the story, this list could be long. It’s best to start with every major event, no matter how many there are.
  2. Pare the list down to three or four important events. In other words, for the purposes of a 4-minute song, you may need to give subplots a pass. And see if there is a way to combine several events into one.
  3. Think of a universal emotion-based observation that can serve as a chorus. Remember, the chorus is going to be emotive, so you’re likely going to step outside the story to express your emotions. It needs to be something that can work immediately following each verse, no matter what the verse is about.
  4. Let the final “crux of the matter” event be your song’s bridge. This event needs to heighten the emotion of the song and complete the lyric.

The trickiest part of turning a story into a song is converting many thousands of words into just a few for your lyric. The best way to do it, once you’ve got the story condensed to a few major events, is to do a brainstorming-style creating of word lists. For each event, come up with words and phrases that describe the most salient bits.

And then, of course, you need to write a lyric that flows smoothly from one event to the next, that builds energy and excitement over time, and ends up being a satisfying 4 minutes.

To that point, that’s always been the most important part of songwriting. Whether your song is a story or simply describing a situation, good music always ends up being a musical journey. The task is always to make the journey interesting.

Some classic examples:

  1. A Boy Named Sue” (Johnny Cash, poem by Shel Silverstein).
  2. American Pie” (Don McLean)
  3. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (Gordon Lightfoot)
  4. One Tin Soldier” (Original Caste, written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter)

For more recent examples, you’ll find that many country songs are narrative-storyline based, as well as many songs by Taylor Swift (“You Belong With Me” and “Fifteen”). Also, check out “Man Down” (Rihanna, written by Shama “Sak Pase” Joseph, Timothy & Theron Thomas, and Shontelle Layne).

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