What do you do when you’ve got the song’s topic, the basic story, and a whole pile of emotion, but you just can’t find the words to make it all work?
Most songwriters will find that to be a familiar — maybe even common — scenario. What do you do when the lyrics just aren’t happening? Here are some thoughts on that:
- The story is missing. You can’t just write about emotion. Emotions are what you want your audience to feel. True, the best songs are about feelings, but those feelings need to be generated. And it’s the story that does that. If you feel something but can’t write about it, you’re missing the story.
- Write the story if you can’t write the lyric. If you find that every time you try to write the lyric you wind up with garbage, switch gears and try writing a story. It doesn’t need to be a long one. Even just a couple of pages will do. But writing that story will sort things out for you, and put events in the right order. Once you’ve got the story, then turn your attention to a lyric.
- Make word lists. This is a good first step in any lyrics-first songwriting process. If you’ve got emotions, but the story is missing, start making a list of all the words that describe those emotions. Then go back and put those words into two lists: one that has observational, narrative-style words, and the other with more emotional words and phrases. Little by little, a more specific story will start to emerge from those lists, and that story is what has been missing.
- Talk to yourself. Go for a walk, and pretend you’re talking to a friend. Say something like, “Here’s how I feel…” Then start describing to your imaginary friend what’s going on. You may surprise yourself with the kind of story you come up with. You’ll eventually hit on something that will resonate, and you may find the lyrical logjam finally freeing itself.
- Be sure your lyric has a point — a reason for existing. Sure, you’re broken up about your latest break-up, but what’s the point of the song? If all you mean to tell people is that you feel miserable, no wonder you’re having difficulties writing a lyric. You need to dig down and find more about your experiences and your situation. The song needs to be unique, and needs to captivate the audience.
Sometimes all it takes is one poignant line to put everything in perspective. Back in the 70s the Bee Gees wrote “How Deep Is Your Love” – a really great song with about as perfect lyric as you can get.
In the middle of that lyric we get this:
‘Cause we’re living in a world of fools
Breaking us down
When they all should let us be…
Up to that point, it was a lyric that said “I love you, and I need to know how much you love me.” Beautiful imagery, beautiful writing, nothing much unique. But as soon as we hear about living in a world of fools, we get a new perspective: everyone thinks their love is wrong somehow. We feel something powerful in those words. We feel empathy.
The story in “How Deep Is Your Love” is implied, not obvious. It’s that way with many love songs. But even though the story is implied, it’s there, and it’s important.
For your own song, you have to sort through the emotions and find the story. Without the story, you’re just pulling your audience along on a disorganized ride. They need more.
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