Bruce Springsteen

The Story Within the Song – It Needs to Be Compelling

If you find that the lyrics you write lack whatever it takes to grab and keep an audience, there are several possible reasons that you need to think about:

  1. The song lacks a good story.
  2. The words you choose don’t connect or resonate in any important way to your audience.
  3. The words (and/or the opinions you express) don’t ring true.

That first one might surprise you, because you’d think that the story is probably going to be the first and most important step to writing something compelling. But it might surprise you, when you pull your songs apart to find out why they aren’t working, how often you’re looking at a song that just doesn’t really have a great story.

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What We Mean By the Story

Some songs are obvious story songs, and it’s not hard to figure out the sequence of events within that story. Listen to Springsteen’s “Born to Run“, read the lyrics, and the images just flow, even if the story is not strictly a “first-this-happened-then-that-happened” song.

The story is whatever the audience creates in their mind while they’re hearing the lyrics. For situational songs — songs that are more about a state of mind than anything else — there still needs to be some sort of story.

If all you’re singing is, “Oooh, I love you so much”, there’s really no story there, and audiences will find it hard to relate to what you’re singing. The emotional words will be hollow and more-or-less meaningless. To give those words meaning, you need to place important images in the minds of the listeners.

When your own words seem a bit meaningless even to you, the cause is simple, even if the solution is a bit more elusive: you didn’t have a cogent story in mind when you wrote the lyrics.

Finding the Story

Let’s say that you’ve written a song where at least some of the lyrics are powerful, evocative and imaginative, but you still feel that they’re disorganized and not really capable of creating a story within the minds of the listeners. What do you do?

The best thing you can do is to write a real story about what you think your song is trying to convey. It doesn’t need to be a long story, just long enough to make the background story obvious.

Writing that story can be one of the most important parts of your songwriting process because it gives you a sequence of events that, like a thread, connects all your thoughts. It puts things in the right order, making the story and your eventual lyric logical and powerful.

And when you then put the magnifying glass on your lyric, you’ll know when and often why a particular line isn’t working: you’ve got the story right in front of you. You may find that what you’ve written is good, but now needs to be put in a different order.

You can use that story to fix lyrics, but you can also use a story to start the lyric-writing process, by letting that story help you create word lists.

So even for songs where the story is obvious, but particularly when the story is elusive or complex, the best thing you can do to get a great lyric is to start the process by writing a short story that gets everything in the right order, and right in front of you.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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