Finding the Story From a Line of Lyric

Do you ever find that you randomly come up with a killer line of lyric, something that’s clever, poetic, rhythmic and imaginative all rolled up in one great phrase… but nothing else happens? And try as you might, you just can’t come up with more lyric to add to it?

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If that happens to you, here’s what you can do with that one line of genius that can help expand it into a complete lyric. Imagine (as a thought experiment) that you’re writing a song that’s eventually going to become Lorde’s big hit, “Royals” (Lorde & Joe Little) Let’s imagine the process that could have led to that great lyric:

  1. Find the topic. Let’s say that the killer line of lyric you came up with as a starting point was “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” Ask yourself, what kind of song would that line come from? You’ve got several options, one of which is a song about cars, but the better one is a poor person dreaming about being at the top of society, living the dream. Lorde eventually drops hints of a backing story, perhaps the music industry, or perhaps some other kind of “elite.” If it were your song, you could have gone in any direction you wanted, of course.
  2. Create word lists. You may have a topic, but you don’t have a story. Creating a list of words helps to create the story. If you’ve decided your song is about imagining being rich, you might fill your list with words like “gold”, “money”, “fantasy”, “ball gown”, and so on. But there are lots of ways of being rich. It might be money, it might be popularity, it might be.. anything you want it to be.
  3. Find the first level of your story. Those words may not yet give you a story. So keep adding to your list, and then start putting words together. “…trashing the hotel room”, “tigers on a gold leash”, “didn’t come from money,” and now you’ve got a direction to move in. Perhaps that killer line of lyric is leading to a song is about poor people (whatever that ultimately means to you) who aren’t quite sure what being rich is all about, or perhaps poor people who don’t like what being rich usually seems to imply. What if being poor/rich are metaphors for something else entirely?
  4. Find the final version of your story. In “Royals”, the final story is about a person who wasn’t just dreaming about being “rich”: she was dreaming about being a “ruler” of sorts — not a member of the royalty (musical royalty?), but a different kind of leader. She wanted to be rich, but not the way she saw it around her. In the end, it’s always up to you.

You’ll find that the more words you add to your list, the more the story starts to emerge. So creating word lists is key to building a lyric where you only have that one killer line as a starting point.

One of the best things you can do with a line of lyric that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere is to put it away for a while. Take it out once every couple of weeks, and try to add a line to the end of it, and maybe add a line before it. Eventually, something will click.

Take the time to let your line inform the rest of your song. And if your word lists aren’t helping, throw them out and start new word lists. The human imagination eventually opens up and gives you a story you can use.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

EEssential Secrets of Songwriting Bundleach eBook in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle shows you the fundamental principles that make great songs great. Write better songs, starting RIGHT NOW!

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One Comment

  1. Great advice and I find recording a few lines and then listening

    to the playback a few days later works wonders

    Its amazing what will stand out and what you will throw out , but thats

    the business one bad line can turn into a Very Good line ,

    The subconscious drives us all if we use it properly

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