"How To Tell Stories Through Songs" Songrwriting concept: a notepad and a pencil resting on the soundboard of an acoustic guitar with a cup of coffee in the background

How To Tell Stories Through Songs

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Everybody loves a good story, and music is no exception. Stories in human society have been shared since we were prehistoric hunters huddled around campfires, and for almost just as long, these stories have also been sung. The Iliad and The Odyssey, classics of ancient Greek literature, were originally performed as songs. While storytelling songs aren’t topping the charts the way they did in the 60s and 70s, recording artists of today still use narrative approaches to entice their audience. Whether you’re just about to start writing songs or you’re a seasoned pro, here are some ideas for you to craft storytelling songs of your own.

Table of Contents:
What makes a good story in a song?
Setting the story with the opening line
Character development in songwriting
Plots within songs
Conveying a theme
Expressing conflict
Bring your storytelling songs to life

What makes a good story in a song?

Joe Reed, a legendary professor at Wesleyan University, said about storytelling, “To make a good pudding you gotta put in the fishhooks.” He meant that the essence of a good story was the element of surprise and incongruent juxtaposition. Indeed the same rules apply to song narrative as apply to crafting novels or films. Writing instructors disagree on the most essential elements in storytelling, but most concur on five of them: setting, character, plot, theme, and conflict. You have much less time for exposition in a song, so distill your ideas and get to the point quickly. Sometimes omitting details and letting the listener fill in the blanks is the most interesting choice.

Setting the story with the opening line

Where does your story occur? The opening line of a song sets the tone and provides the setting of your story. Some examples of solid openings:

“Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world”
Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’

“My son was born just the other day, came to the world in the usual way”
Harry Chapin, “Cat’s In The Cradle”

“You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset”
Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me”

Where are we? What is happening? These are questions which your setting will answer. In a song, you don’t have the luxury of time and space, so don’t expound on details and instead let the listener’s imagination fill in gaps. For example, we can extrapolate that Harry Chapin’s song starts in a hospital and Taylor’s possibly starts in a teenage bedroom.

“Virgil Kane is the name, and I served on the Danville train”
The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

“My name is Joe Roberts, I work for the state”
Bruce Springsteen, “Highway Patrolman”

We don’t know much about Virgil and Joe except that they are working class and Virgil is possibly in the military, judging by the title. The clear, concise setting leaves us waiting to hear more.

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Character development in songwriting

Storytelling songs inevitably involve people. Some songwriters take great joy in playing with character names. The Beatles have Mean Mr. Mustard, Polythene Pam, and Rocky Raccoon. Bob Dylan wrote about Tiny Montgomery, the Jack of Hearts, Frankie Lee, and Judas Priest. Springsteen has Crazy Janey, Sloppy Sue, Big Bones Billy, and many women: Mary, Candy, Bobby Jean, Kitty, Sherry, Puerto Rican Jane, and Rosalita. Creative names are important in songs, as they can evoke images in the listener’s mind.

You won’t necessarily be developing your characters beyond a certain point, but it is important that your listener connect to them. Emphasizing their humanity makes them more interesting and makes the listener want to hear more. Tom Petty’s “Into The Great Wide Open” establishes Eddie as a naive wannabe rock star, giving him both humanity and motivation. Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman does the same as it paints a timeless picture of a lonely county power line worker doing his job solo out on the prairie.

A good story generally has multiple characters, and a good storytelling song is no exception. The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” is about one solitary individual, but the narrator becomes a character by addressing him directly. Likewise, Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” features a classic protagonist-antagonist relationship with the narrator calling out the subject. However you choose to unfold your song characters, an evocative name, examples of their humanity and motivation, and additional perspective from secondary characters will go a long way.

Plots within songs

Even the simplest and most abstract songs have a plot of sorts. Songs unfold in real time, so you hear events in a real-time sequence even if they are not linear. That is the essence of plot; the plot is the sequence of events as the songwriter has designed them.

You want to craft your song plot for maximum impact. The main question, according to storytelling teacher Barbara Vance, is: “How can I take the sequence of events that I have in my head and make it as suspenseful and as emotionally gravitational as possible?” One device is to start the story at the end, like the clichéd record scratch beginning in TV shows. Nas does this in his song “Rewind” where the bullet goes back in the gun at the beginning.

But because you have a small window of time to capture the listener’s attention, most songs do tell a story in linear time. How you choose to reveal information is where the art of storytelling comes in. Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” reveals at the end that the character is an absent father calling his child. Rupert Holmes’s “Escape” has the star-crossed lovers finding each other again through their personal ads. One of the most masterful storytelling songs ever written, “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry, uses ambiguity and tempo to create an atmosphere of unease. She slips in a subtle detail in the next to last verse, indicating that Billie Joe might have killed himself due to what he and the narrator threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge (a baby?). A casual listener might miss the subtle reveal, but the attention to detail and the way the plot unfolds are crucial elements in telling a fascinating story.

Conveying a theme

The theme or message of a song is what most people will walk away remembering. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said…but will never forget how you made them feel.” A plot is important, but how many people are aware that “Wonderful Tonight” is a story of addiction/codependency or glean that “Margaritaville” is about a guy who gets drunk alone and cuts his foot? People walk away with the feeling conveyed by the message behind the song; in “Wonderful Tonight,” it would be “I love you and I love spending time with you” and for “Margaritaville” it’s the vibe of the Gulf of Mexico beaches.

Ask yourself: Why are you telling this story? What message are you intending to convey? In some songs the messages are loud and clear and for others it takes a bit more work to figure out what’s going on. The message of Cardi B’s “WAP” is very up front, where a song like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” takes a bit more thought to digest fully.

Ultimately you will want to use theme to connect your story to something larger than itself; the more universal the message, the more likely it will resonate with people. The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” is an in-your-face universal message; Radiohead’s “Creep” and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” both tap into common themes of isolation. Themes of death, loss, heartbreak, friendship, coming of age, and disillusionment have all proven popular over the years. A North Carolina State University study in 2018 found that they could divide most pop songs from the last 60 years into 12 different thematic categories. So when in doubt, pick a popular theme. Knowing the underlying message behind your story will help you craft the song in the most engaging way possible.

Expressing conflict

Like any good TV show, play, or movie, a storytelling song should have conflict to pique the listeners’ interest. Bruce Springsteen’s characters fight against systemic class injustice, their own inner darkness, and often both at the same time. Songs like The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” examine conflict from a standpoint of resolution. Some writers can even make conflict amusing; Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” describes a drunken, doomed relationship where the narrator puts the blame on herself and her own desire for luxury. Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of The Wasps” describes a man in love with a woman who’s half-bee and dies when it gets cold outside, but not before stinging him.

In writing conflict into your storytelling songs, it’s good to remember the theatrical device of raising the stakes. There should be urgency. Think not just about problems, but fires that need to be put out immediately. The lyrical urgency of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” or Joy Division’s “Transmission” are good examples. The conflict doesn’t need to resolve, but the lack of resolution should be a conscious device to make the audience feel something. You can borrow the technique of marrying inner conflict to outer conflict used by writers like Springsteen and Mitchell, presenting one as an extension of the other to be overcome simultaneously. This is a tried-and-true storytelling device that is endlessly fascinating to an audience.

Bring your storytelling songs to life

Once you’ve masterfully crafted songs that tell a story, it’s time to bring them to life. Disc Makers is here when you’re ready to complete your next album release with CDs, vinyl, and more.

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Chris Huff

About Chris Huff

Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 25 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and his full-length album, 'bout Time is available on iTunes.

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