Storytelling

Writing You Lyrics

Storytelling

Telling a Story

Crafting song lyrics is like writing a story — cut and dry. As songwriters, it’s important to acknowledge your position as a storyteller, sharing stories and expressing meaning through words and music. With this comes a range of considerations to apply to your work, such as: 

  • To what extent can (or should) your lyrics be autobiographical?
  • What is the use and importance of truth in relation to writing lyrics?
  • How does the art of storytelling weave into the process of writing lyrics?
  • What is an appropriate balance of truth and fiction in writing lyrics?

And when we listen to lyrics, there are a few important points we take for granted that are crucial in helping us understanding the song:

  • What is the narrative voice of the song (who is talking to us)?
  • How captivating is the story?
  • What is the artist trying to express with this story?
  • Might I learn something from this experience, or at least will I enjoy hearing this story?

These are all questions that we should be pondering when writing our own lyrics, too. These questions assume more of a meaning in the redrafting stage as we begin to look at the effect of the song as a whole.

All songs tell a story of some description. However, some songs offer a huge amount of detailed narrative content, and the lyrics hold this story as their focus. Musical theatre is a good example, as songs are used to move the plot forward, contributing to the action in real-time and telling the story through narrators or characters relating their experiences. These techniques can be applied to songwriting of all kinds and, as well as the story, you need to consider characterisation, situation and audience.

Consider

When writing a storytelling lyric, you should consider the following questions:

  • What is the song about?
  • What circumstances will unfold as the song progresses?
  • Who is the speaker in the song?
  • Who does the song address?
  • When and where is the song taking place?
  • Is there a conflict in the song? If so, what?
  • Will the conflict be resolved at the end? How?

The example song below is by Jason Robert Brown. It opens the show ‘The Last Five Years’ and introduces us to a complex plot. It tells us about the characters, their history and gives us detail about the present relationship between them.

Telling a Story

Telling true stories, (yours or someone else’s), can be a very powerful way to write lyrics. A large proportion of successful song lyrics involve communicating truthful experiences to the audience, vital for singer-songwriters.

The degree to which you tell the truth and share your stories is up to you. It’s important to remember that the truth is in the experience: most songs can be described as poetic versions of truthful experiences. So, you might change and create elements of a story to make it work better for the song, but it’s generally unwise to change details simply because you feel uncomfortable revealing truth. Audiences can feel the truth in a lyric, so real content is a powerful and important element.

'Sunday Bloody Sunday' - U2

‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is the opening track from U2’s 1983 album, War. It’s noted for its militaristic drumbeat, harsh guitar, and melodic harmonies. One of U2’s most overtly political songs, its lyric describes the horror felt by an observer of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, mainly focusing on the Bloody Sunday incident in Derry where British troops shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders.

Here are some more examples of true story songs.

Fictional Stories

Many songwriters create fictional stories for their songs, but doing this well depends on your creative storytelling ability. That means it can be easier to write lyrics based on true content. 

However, experimenting with writing fiction is important for every songwriter. All songs are a mixture of real and fictional stories and so, whatever kind of writer you are and whichever genre you prefer, it’s worth trying out different combinations of the two.