Songwriting tools for lyricists

Songwriting and Finding the Story

One of the biggest differences between writing a song and writing a book is the number of words you’ll use. A novel might use 80,000 or more words to describe a story, but with a song lyric you really only get a tiny fraction of that; maybe 100 words or so.

So with novels, the story is usually more intricate and more involved, with many more story threads to pull together. A lyric tends to zero in on something much more precise, something that focuses in on one main point or event or situation.

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The problem with a lyric, therefore, is that you only get a few words to get that story across. And sometimes it’s not a story, per se, since it might be describing a state of mind, or perhaps an emotion.

But even in such songs, there needs to be some kind of back story at least implied by your words. If you’re describing a state of mind, for example, you will want to convey to your audience through your lyric what is causing the state of mind. In other words, even in such songs, there is a story.

And one of the biggest challenges facing lyricists is first finding that story, and then conveying it with an economy of words.

To find the story, you might try any or all of the following:

  1. Write a short story. And that story should ideally end with whatever the song lyric provides. In story songs, the words are the story, but in most song lyrics, it might be best to take the time to write a 1- or 2-page story that describes what’s going on, even if the specific details of that story (or some of them) remain unsaid in your final lyric.
  2. Speak your story aloud through an imagined conversation. Imagine that you’re speaking to someone about something you’re going through. What would you say? What are the details that are leading to your state of mind? These details may or may not appear in your final lyric, but just the saying of them will help you create vocabulary that you’ll be able to draw on.
  3. Write a poem. In this case, a poem does not necessarily equate to a lyric, and your poem need not be written as if you’re creating a lyric. A poem will allow you to approach your song’s topic with a more artistic mind, more similar to what you’d be doing as a lyricist, perhaps, than as a short story writer.

There are probably other things you can do: paint a picture, for example, where the main task is to dig deep to find the story behind your song. Remember, disembodied emotions that don’t seem to have a reason for their existence is a problem in songwriting. In that sense, simply writing about emotions (“Oh, I feel so down”) can leave your audience feeling confused or bored, as they don’t have the story yet.

Once you’ve got a story firmly in your mind, that’s when you’ll want to switch to creating lists of words and phrases, the kind that would make it into a song lyric. Most lyricists know the value of creating word lists. But the benefit to doing your lists once you’ve got the story solidly in your mind is that your lists are far more likely to contain relevant and poignant words, ones that will centre right in on what you want your listeners to feel.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Hey Gary, great tips. I’ve used the short story, and the poem ideas to generate songs. An additional one I have found very helpful is to take a general idea of what you want to express in your song, and then do a “stream of consciousness” flow of whatever comes to mind. The idea is to keep writing – unedited – until you fill a page or so. Later you go back to what you’ve written, and cherry pick certain phrases or words, and build the song around that. It doesn’t always work, obviously, but I have found it quite useful. Example: my song Dream Love. I started with just those two words; did a “stream” flow; and then the song came together quite nicely. If you’re interested, you can listen to it on my ReverbNation page:

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