Bob Dylan

How Lyric Writing is Always Storytelling, On Some Level

You’re familiar with the genre of the “story song”, where the lyric amounts to “first this happened, then that happened.” But I’d like to make the case that, in a sense, all songs are story songs, where the lyric always works best if it creates a mini movie in the mind of the listener.

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True, a good lyric may not — and I might even say often doesn’t — give us a clear story like a mini novel. But most of the time, it almost does, but remains loose or vague enough that it encourages different images and different stories, depending on who’s listening:

There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief

(“All Along the Watchtower” – Bob Dylan)

But sometimes it amounts only to a set of images from which we might pull together a circumstance that is created by the lyric:

Sing, bird of prey
Beauty begins at the foot of you
Do you believe the manner?
Gold stainless nail
Torn through the distance of man
As they regard the summit

(“Siberian Khatru” – Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman)

If your style of lyric tends to be the kind, like “Siberian Khatru”, that lives in the world of the abstract and the conceptual, you could run the risk of creating lyrics that are hard for people to connect with. And since, in the end, all songs should cause us to feel something, complexity can get in the way.

When you create a complex lyric, you might have some kind of vague organization of mental images — a kind of story — guiding you. So if you’re usually a writer of abstract lyrics, here’s a bit of advice that might help you to strengthen your connection to your listeners, and help them understand what is going on inside your head: Start your songwriting process by writing a short story.

It doesn’t need to be much, even just a couple of paragraphs. That story should be clear and uncluttered. No one will ever read those paragraphs, but they can help you. By writing a short story, you start your process by organizing your thoughts and creating a story that will guide you as you create your lyric.

You’ll likely find that even though you’re going to follow that story-writing process by writing lyrics that are complex and imaginative, you’ve got a clearer story guiding you, sitting somewhere in your creative brain.

By trying this short story method, you’ll hopefully find that images and thoughts that might appear on the surface to be disconnected do have a kind of artistic glue pulling it all together.

For every song you write, you should be able to answer these important questions:

  1. What is the underlying story? (This can be different for different listeners. People coming up with a different story is a positive, not a negative!)
  2. What emotions do I want my listeners to pull from my lyric?
  3. Are the melodies, chords and musical performance helping or hurting the basic story behind my song?

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
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One Comment

  1. I’ve found that the creation of a ot of my story songs starts through a few texts to a band mate – ‘you know that issue with so and so and how he burnt all his bridges by doing such and such and now this and that….? I think there’s a song in that…’ and after a fee more texts like that i have the short story to start writing from….

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