Guest post by Uche Ibe & Jeremy Young
The best songs, that last the longest in people’s minds, will typically feel both familiar and exotic, all at the same time. It’s that balance that helps songs transcend either being too cliché and boring, or too out there for you to relate.
So how do you achieve such a delicate balance?
In order to find that perfect middle ground between something comforting that you’ve heard a million times and something new that feels fresh and exciting, you’re going to need to learn how to craft your story. It’s an art that may take years to perfect, if ever, but there’s no reason you can’t start today.
Learning to use stories in your songs is, in my opinion, the best thing you can do to improve the quality of your songcraft and the longevity of your listeners’ attention. So let’s get started, first by diving into why stories grab people’s attention in song form.
Why are stories so powerful?
Well, firstly, stories make a point. This is probably the most important reason why you’re going to want to use stories in your songs, as an artist seeking to send a message and craft your persona through your creative output.
Stories send a message, and they help to deliver that message in a parcel of narrative that is both outside of your perspective, yet which echoes back to you as the storyteller.
Secondly, stories are simply more memorable than lyrics that are written without additional context or a narrative arc. In order for words to resonate with a diverse listener base, they need to be packaged in a sensical flow, and resolve with any dramas that are set up.
When we look back at our lives, especially to our childhood, we often remember phrases, jingles, and stories we heard when we were younger. They’ve made a lasting impression on us, and are associated with memories attributed to them during those times. The best songs will do the same.
Thirdly, stories create emotions, seemingly out of the blue. You never know what’s going to hit with whom; sometimes a personal story involving struggle is going to tap into something your listener has experienced, and connect with them emotionally. These emotions are at the core of what make us human, and storytelling is the most ancient human art form to help bring them out.
Lastly, stories build connections. This is similar to the above point, but it’s something we can all relate to. Ever listened to a song and just felt like the singer was talking to you directly?
Yup, this is the power of storytelling in songwriting. Stories create bonds and connections between complete strangers—making it seem like you have known this artist, or even the characters, your whole life.
How to tell a story
Alright, let’s back it up a bit. Let’s talk about how to construct a story in the most traditional, classical sense. Basically, every good story (whether it’s placed into a movie, a play, a campfire adventure, or a song) is made up of three linear parts.
The first part of your story is where you introduce your hero—or your protagonist—and where you establish the status quo. In other words, you need to create a foundation of information, that events will eventually shake up. You can also detail the “inciting incident” that sets the story in motion, or save that to reference later on.
In general, Act I is a simple phase, where the listener or audience is still getting to know the characters and the setting. We need to be given an indication who’s telling the story and whose side we’re on.
Something in Act I should then be forced into change, or provoke it. It might not work out at first—and in fact this change might cause even more ripples in the original foundation—but that’s all good, because Act II is coming up next and it’s all about conflict and uncertainty.
Now we’re in the meat of the story. There’s no turning back, for the listener or for the characters; they’ve experienced change and now they must adapt.
Every great story that has an emotional impact must include moments of moral or sentimental conflict. Conflict is simply the obstacles that the hero has to face to get to their end desire. Often extra conflict is brought on by the initial round of decisions made in response to the sudden changes in Act I, so characters can be expected to go through even more turmoil here in Act II.
At this middle phase of your story, our hero may also experience a rising action moment; which refers to that point where one must decide to go all in, and the weight of the risk begins to set in. In other words, the pressures of one’s actions just got a whole lot more loaded. Whatever obstacles must be overcome, there’s no going back to the way things were.
At the end of our story, the hero finds a way to deal with any remaining conflict and resolve the drama. Whether the characters can go back to the way things were before, the status quo, or whether they’re changed forever (for better or worse), at least the conflicts have subsided and we’ve made it through.
Act III is about closure. It is where you begin to give answers to your story’s main questions, start looking ahead, and begin to reflect on how far we’ve come; bringing the narrative to a satisfying close.
How to get started using stories in your songs?
Now, everything we just explained is subject to change. Obviously, every storyteller has their preferences for how things should flow, and how they’d like to shape the plot or characters’ journeys. Remember, these are just the basic building blocks—how you use them to build your castle is entirely up to you.
That said, here are some ideas for how to get started incorporating these story elements in your musical pieces.
1. Always be gathering ideas
The first step to utilizing the power of storytelling in your songs is to gather and keep ideas, at all times. No matter how “stupid” or irrelevant you might think your idea is when you first dream or imagine it, make sure you keep it. You never know when you might need it.
I usually have a small notebook (yes I still use a pen and paper) that goes with me everywhere. I journal everything I see, and write down any idea that comes into my brain. Stories usually start with a simple idea that grows and densifies over time, and you never know when lightning is going to strike.
Try to write one idea a day for the next 30 days in a journal. Doing this will help you develop observational skills, and your subconscious will enjoy the creative exercise. Don’t worry about making all the complex connections just yet—this is called freewriting.
2. Use your own challenges as inspiration
As human beings living on this planet, we have all experienced obstacles, struggles, and conflicts in our own lives. Let these be the making of your next great story!
Since we don’t typically imagine our lives as Hollywood dramas, it may be difficult to imagine the struggles you’ve gone through as being interesting or relevant to anyone else; this is 100% not true. Songs are supposed to be universal, familiar, easily identifiable.
Think about the conflicts in your life and the emotions you felt trying to deal with them. What did you do? What steps did you take to overcome them? At what point did you decide that you had to get over this challenge?
There’s no need to tell your full story—these are ideas that you can draw from, in order to get started developing a new story fit for the themes you’d like to explore in your song. Not coming up with anything? Ask a friend or family member to tell you a story! People will gladly talk to you and tell you their experiences (if you ask them nicely).
3. Just start writing
You’ve probably heard this a thousand times, but the truth is that you just need to start writing. Pick up your pen and paper or open your laptop and start writing right now, or if it works for you, you can create a writing schedule to get words down on paper in consistent times.
Similar to the first idea, the more you write, the better you’ll get at ideation and parsing through your ideas to find meaning and connections. In other words, you’ll just improve with more practice.
Nothing beats actually sitting down and doing the work. Consistently writing everyday for the next 30 days will definitely improve your writing.
4. Get expert help
Finally, the last recommendation I have to get better at storytelling in your songwriting is to seek outside ears and eyes. An expert looking over your writings will be able to spot mistakes and show you how to improve. And even if it’s just one of your friends, they’ll be able to tell you if your story is coming across.
There you have it. Using stories in your songs will definitely help deliver your message to your listeners, and resonate hopefully for years to come. If you are looking to add extra emotion, hook someone with added drama, and make a deeper connection to your audience, then you need to start weaving stories in there.
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Uche Ibe is a passionate singer and blogger at www.welovesinging.com. He enjoys teaching people how to sing and helping them become better singers. You can connect with him by visiting his blog or sending him an email.
Jeremy Young is a Montreal-based musician and writer, and the Editor-in-Chief of Soundfly’s blog, Flypaper.
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