Storytelling Techniques to Use in your Lyric Writing
I think it’s interesting how similar all creative fields are. From painting, to sculpting, to writing, the medium changes, but the intention to create and express ourselves is always there, and often follows many of the same general principles.
Among the wide array of creative fields there are, the two I always find myself and many other musicians and songwriters referencing is creative writing and film, and specifically, the storytelling aspect of them.
For that reason I want to share with you some storytelling techniques that I think are great tools to help in your songwriting and lyric writing.
To spice up your lyrics you can apply popular storytelling structures such as The Hero’s Journey, Freytag’s Pyramid or 5 Act Structure, or In Medias Res. You can also use writing devices such as foreshadowing, show don’t tell, metaphors and similes, and changing the point of view the song is told from.
Story Structures That Work for Songwriting
Let’s look at structures for stories. When you’re writing lyrics you’re usually trying to deliver some kind of message, tell a story, describe a moment or event, etc. So it can be very beneficial to know different ways of organizing how you tell it.
Here are some structures and how they can relate/help when writing songs.
One of the most common stories is the Hero’s Journey. This is the type of story where you have a main protagonist who sets out to accomplish a great task or goal and is slowly changed as a person by the journey.
A great example of this is The Matrix, where Neo starts out as a regular guy and is slowly changed by his journey until becoming “The One”.
How this helps you with writing lyrics: Let’s say you’re writing a song about how you went from having nothing to having everything you ever wanted. For example, a song about getting out of poverty and becoming a star and coming home to bring your entourage up with you in your success.
This is basically following the narrative of the Hero’s Journey, so using this story structure will help you write lyrics in a way that effectively communicates what you are trying to say.
- Verse 1: Talks about living in poverty and wanting to become a star.
- Chorus 1: Mentions all the things you’d do with your success
- Verse 2: Tells the audience what it’s like to live in poverty.
- Chorus 2: Contrast with all the things you’ll do with your success and how you’d share it with your boys/family/community.
- Bridge: Talks about your biggest break that made you a star.
- Chorus 3: Tells all the things you now do with your attained success and how you share it with your boys/family/community
The Hero’s Journey can also be very useful for writing a concept album where every song walks you through a story from the beginning to the end of the album.
If you’re interested in writing concept albums check out this recent article What is a Concept Album and How to Write One.
Freytag’s Pyramid or 5 Act Structure
These two are very similar except that Freytag’s Pyramid has a tragic ending and the 5 Act Structure just resolves but is not tragic.
For example, Romeo and Juliet has a tragic ending, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind leaves the couple together on a beach making new memories to replace the ones they lost.
These story structures are made up of 5 acts,
- Exposition: Establishes the basic plot and the world it takes place in.
- Rising Action: The series of events that the main protagonist experiences in pursuit of their goal.
- Climax: The point of no return.
- Falling Action: The consequences of the protagonist’s actions after reaching the point of no return.
- Resolution: How things turned out. In a tragedy, it’s the protagonist’s lowest point.
How this helps you with writing lyrics: Let’s say you are writing a song about wanting to be in a relationship that you can be vulnerable in to grow as a person. You set out to meet someone but when the relationship starts you are very emotionally guarded.
By facing the many challenges of being in a relationship you eventually become more confident and open with being vulnerable and eventually become a stronger person because of it.
This is following the narrative of the 5 Act Structure.
- Verse 1: Narrates meeting someone new and wanting a relationship where you trust the other person.
- Chorus 1: Establishes the main point, it’s hard to trust and be vulnerable.
- Verse 2: Gives examples of times it was hard to trust and be vulnerable
- Chorus 2: It’s hard to be vulnerable.
- Bridge: Talks about what the other person did that made you trust them and want to open up.
- Chorus 3: Resolves how being vulnerable was hard but now you can do it
- Outro: You are now stronger for it.
If it was meant to have a tragic ending like with a Freytag Pyramid, it could end with how trust was gained but the relationship ended due to an erroneous misunderstanding that broke that trust.
In Medias Res
In Media Res translates from Latin to “in the midst of things”.
Essentially the story starts in the heat of the action, then starts over and explains how the story got there.
This is very popular and you’ll see it all over TV and movies, but I think this is a good storytelling structure for songs that start with a chorus because chorus’s tend to be the hooks of the song and tend to be dynamically higher and more intense.
How this helps you with writing lyrics: After the initial chorus (the action part) you could start at the beginning of the story in your first verse and develop the story throughout the song.
For example, you write a song about being in a car crash with your romantic partner.
- Chorus 1: you’re rolling around in the car with your romantic partner as it crashes and describing what the crash is like.
- Verse 1: talks about what you were doing before the crash, giving insight into the relationship which is a toxic one.
- Chorus 2: relates how the car crash is similar to your fights as a couple.
- Verse 2: what it’s like to be in a toxic relationship.
- Bridge: right before the crash you’re driving down the road with your partner and an unforeseen thing happens that causes you to swerve the car over a cliff by accident.
- Chorus 3: you’re in the car crash and it’s a metaphor for the event that ended your relationship.
So as you can see there’s a lot you can take from story structures to help you narrate what your song is about and even adjust the song structure to support the story.
Show, Don’t Tell
Another good technique is the principle of show, don’t tell.
The idea is that you don’t want to be super direct and plain in your lyrics. In order to be more interesting, you want to describe things using your senses so that the listener is shown and feels what you are trying to say.
For example, instead of saying “I was depressed because I made a big selfish mistake and it kept me up at night”
you could say something like “I fell down a hole without light, was pulled by my demons all night”.
In the second example we’re bringing in senses like sight (by mentioning “without light”), touch (by mentioning being pulled) and using images like being pulled down a hole by demons. This shows, rather than tells what is happening.
As you can see, it’s a much more interesting way to say the same thing and great lyrics usually show what they are trying to say rather than just plainly say it.
Metaphors and Similes
Two writing devices that can help you to show rather than tell are metaphors and similes.
Metaphors are comparisons between two things that are not literally related, but whose qualities are carried over in a symbolic way.
“His face was a volcano of rage.” would be a metaphor because his face is not literally a volcano but it is symbolic of how angry his face looked.
Similes are also comparisons but are less direct and more like regular comparisons. They are easy to spot because they will always have words such as “like” and “as”.
“Her face was soft and fair like the petals on a white rose” is a simile because we are saying her face is “like” the petals on a white rose.
If this was a metaphor, it would say “her face was a soft and fair petal on a white rose”.
Foreshadowing is the dropping of hints and warnings about an event that is soon to come.
How can we use that in songwriting? Basically, we can drop hints in our songs about what will happen later on in the song. This could be with lyrics but it could also be with the instrumentation.
For example if the verses and choruses are more happy sounding but the prechorus switches to a sadder minor key briefly, and then you make a bridge out of the prechorus, it’s kind of like you are foreshadowing the bridge using the prechoruses.
Your lyrics could drop hints about the sadder, darker mood or turn of events in the prechorus as it switches to the minor key and really expand on that sad/darkness in the bridge.
This may contrast well with the other happier sections of the song both in content and in the vibe.
Point of View
Sometimes what can make your lyrics interesting isn’t so much what you say but the point of view you are saying it from.
A love song about your relationship may not be a very unique topic, but what could make it more unique is telling the story from the point of view of a bystander, a loved one, an object like a house, door, window, etc.
If you are struggling with making your lyrics interesting because they cover a common topic, try switching the point of view you are telling it from, and it might just give you the spin it needs to be more interesting.
Wrapping it up
A lot of songwriting involves telling a story so with these last few techniques you can try to spice up your lyrics.
You can always just write down the story you want to tell plainly as it comes out, and then look at some of the structures and writing devices above and see what it appears to be falling into before you even try to edit things. Then you can arrange it and spice it up.
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