What Songs Teach Us About Fiction Writing

While most of the songs I listen to don’t merit much analysis—okay, so I admit it, I listen to a lot of artists philosophers aren’t supposed to like…I’m more likely to be listening to Michael Jackson than Arvo Part or Satie—other songs employ solid writing techniques that are worthy of discussion. Point of view (most are in 2nd, for good reason), voice, mood, tension, pacing even. And I’m not even getting into the music, but I suppose in the best songs, the sound must coalesce with the lyrics in the same progression, also telling and reinforcing a story.

Storytelling. I bet a lot of you are thinking, folk songs. But there are some surprises out there. I Heard Love is Blind by Amy Winehouse is an unexpected one. It took me a long time to come around to her. I just didn’t much care for Rehab and so I never bothered to listen to her other tracks. It wasn’t until after she died that I started listening to some songs from her album Frank, which is the strangest mish-mash of styles, all coming together coherently.

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Fiction writers—you’ve heard it. It all starts with voice. Once you’ve got the voice, you just keep writing, go, go, go. No voice, no go. In songs, we often talk about the voice of the vocalist, but rarely about the voice exhibited by the lyrics.

I find most pop lyrics quite expendable, to tell the truth. I wanna rock with you all night. Don’t get me wrong, I love these songs. I’m contemplating doing a cover by James Morrison which has similarly vacuous lyrics (and I love him, that’s not a criticism!) But in these I don’t pay attention to the lyrics, which for the most part can be boiled down to Let’s have sex. 

To be precise, the lyrics of these songs aren’t quite expendable, but they certainly can be replaced with whatever words. Na, na, na…nanananaaaah!

In Winehouse, the voice comes from a solid point of view, a unique perspective on the world that invokes a troubled soul, at once vulnerable and rough. Amy Winehouse, love her or hate her, was a strong character. Besides the character invoked by the lyrics is an entire world of moods and influences that converge in a way very few artists are able to do. She did more than tell a story. She acted that story. The story came from her character, not the other way around, which makes the narrative more compelling. Her persona and stage presence (which was probably very different from the actual Amy Winehouse, despite the real life connection to Rehab) had all the things you want to draw out of your fictional characters, most importantly their spectacular contradictions and imperfections.

So here’s my imperfect cover of I Heard Love is Blind…I’m recording, once again, on my iPod in the kitchen.

One version of her song starts out as a soft jazz tune, evoking something classy, sophisticated. You want to hold a martini and lean against a shiny black grand piano. But the lyrics…oh the lyrics. They tell the story of a ridiculous girl—one would not be off the mark in calling her a stupid ho though I’m reluctant to use that phrase—who cheats on her boyfriend/husband and rationalizes this act in hilarious ways, “I was thinking of you when I came.”

And, from this point of view, it’s her boyfriend’s fault she cheated on him. “What did you expect? You left me here alone.”

What’s working here: There’s a back story, “off the page” so to speak. We suspect her ‘steady’ is not such a savory character himself. The world this ‘protagonist’ inhabits is decidedly low class.

There’s tension. What’s going to be the response from her boyfriend? It will probably involve an equally irrational reply, probably much worse.

There’s excellent pacing. The song title, Love is Blind, comes into the last line as a satisfying conclusion to the story, wrapping up the blindness and rampant irrationality that came before. The mood begins in apologetic explanation, then, perhaps after an ‘off the page’ response, anger. Then to soften the blow, “But he looked like you…”

All of this in the context of soft jazz, a sophistication that has so much ugliness bubbling under the surface.

The music is something we don’t have as fiction writers. But that contrast of the music to the story is something we can learn from. A clashing environment, a stylistic juxtaposition to the content.

What contrasts can you come up with that might help you tell your story in an interesting way? How do songs influence your writing?

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25 thoughts on “What Songs Teach Us About Fiction Writing

  1. Songs create a mood. I have quoted song lyrics many times in my stories. If the reader knows the song, it adds something indelible. Also, I have often thought that the best songs tell a story. In fact, some are little miracles of economical storytelling. If you look at “Stardust” or “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” it’s all there.

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    • “In fact, some are little miracles of economical storytelling.” That’s a great way of putting it. Great examples of that too! You know, it just occurred to me that this would make an excellent writing prompt—write lyrics for a song. It’s a different thing from writing poetry, but just as economical.

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        • There’s a lot of truth to that even today. I guess the only distinction I would make is that I think songs should be a little bit more accessible, but there are certainly many examples of songs that feel more like poetry. Maybe I should turn my novel into a song? “Sing, O goddess, of the anger of Dr. Isaac Fischelson…” That would be EPIC. 😉

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  2. Songs became modern day poetry, and now Slam is trying to make poetry cool again (I love it and I hope it succeeds!)
    Regarding the songwriting process I took a class where the teacher said “When you’re writing a song you have to be able to answer three simple questions :
    – What’s the story
    – Who’s saying the story
    – To whom?
    If you can’t answer one of them I’m sorry but your song is lacking meaning and won’t be good enough to be relatable.”
    I try to focus on that when I write.

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    • So funny that you mention Slam poetry. As a high school student, I used to go to open mic nights all the time and it was always a combination of slam and music. The two go hand in hand. And the directness of slam makes it appealing, although the stuff I heard there was pretty angsty!

      Good points on the songwriting. I haven’t been able to figure out how to write lyrics, but the idea of connecting the whole process to novel writing creates a conceptual bridge for me.

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  3. I agree with you, most today’s famous singers’ lyrics can be summed up in three words: Lets have sex. But there’s a few like Amy Winehouse whose messages are powerful.

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    • If I may, I’d like to come back with another song, one that in my view has a narrative that might translate well into fiction, and for me, has two wonderfully rich opening lines that inform us, in merely a dozen words, of the main character’s predicament and social status. It’s a Billy Bragg song called ‘Levi Stubbs’ tears’. Here are two old friends of mine doing a cover of it 25 years ago:

      With the money from her accident
      She bought herself a mobile home
      So at least she could get some enjoyment
      Out of being alone
      No one could say that she was left up on the shelf
      ‘It’s you and me against the world kid’, she mumbled to herself

      When the world falls apart, some things stay in place
      Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face

      She ran away from home in her mother’s best coat
      She was married before she was even entitled to vote
      And her husband was one of those blokes
      The sort who only laughs at his own jokes
      The sort a war takes away
      And when there wasn’t a war, he left anyway

      Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
      Are here to make right everything that’s wrong
      Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too
      Are here to make it all okay with you

      One dark night he came home from the sea
      And put a hole in her body where no hole should be
      It hurt her more to see him walking out the door
      And though they stitched her back together, they left her heart in pieces on the floor

      When the world falls apart some things stay in place
      She takes off the Four Tops tape and puts it back in its case
      When the world falls apart some things stay in place
      Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face

      Hariod. ❤

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      • Billy Bragg! I haven’t listened to him since my first year of college. I’m now going to check it out Spotify. I don’t think I made a mix CD without the song “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” with Natalie Merchant. I love their voices together. That and “At My Window Sad and Lonely,” with Wilco.

        I like your friends’ version over the original. I can’t understand a word he says on that song.

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  4. Have you ever written song lyrics yourself? Or composed a song? My daughter is doing it all of the time (“… dad, can I just play my most recent song to you … ” 🙂 )

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    • Sorry it’s taken so long to reply…I’ve been a bit out of the loop. I used to write songs all the time back in high school and I’d play at coffee shops, but I haven’t been able to write song lyrics since then (although I make up stupid songs for Geordie all the time). Something about that process alludes me. I try, but I can’t do it. I can write the music, but not lyrics for some reason. I guess it’s too close to poetry for me, and I’m very far from poetic.

      A little while ago I met up with a friend back in Oklahoma and she pulled out a tape of us playing. It took a while to find a tape player, but we finally found one in my mother’s car. They lyrics were painfully awful and we had a good laugh, but we both admitted that my guitar intro to one of the songs was “badass”. I didn’t remember the song at all. It was strange listening to something I wrote as if I’d never heard it before. Also strange to realize I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to play it!

      What does your daughter play?

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      • Most of her own stuff is in the soul/jazz direction. She used to sing in a rock band for some time, but I think it was not really her thing. She has both guitar and singing lessons and her music is getting more and more interesting (including the lyrics). Of course, I am biased 🙂 but I think she is quite talented and developing it.

        Hope to see you “back in the loop” again soon.

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          • I am not sure she will agree for me to post this here but this is a small thing we did early last year and she put it on youtube herself, so its public: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jp4QaxTEqAw&feature=share
            She had just tried some music software to make a background tune and then she had improvised a song for it. I then had to film her. She had her phone in her hand to play back the song and tried to move her mouth as synchronous as she could. Then she put the things together using some video software. I think in total something like 5 or 6 hours of work went into this thing (including a one-hour biking tour with me, since I had to film her). I think the stuff she is doing now is way better but she has not posted anything again on youtube, as far as I know.

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          • She was the director here, I just did the camera, but she did the cuting and processing. Actually she is working on a film together with one of her girlfriends (and they did a small film already last year). She did her first film when she was in primary school. She went to a kindergarden after school. There she employed everybody including her nursery teacher to play roles in the film. She also played in all kinds of theatre projects as a child. So she has all those communicative and media talents. I better keep out of it :-). The musical talent might come from me (if such things are inherited) but the rest is from her mother (teacher, actress, social worker). I am more the introvert science and philosophy geek and nerd kind of a person.

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          • Well, she did a great job. I might have to recruit her for a project I keep telling myself I’m going to work on: more philosophy videos.

            Philosophy is one of those cross-over disciplines, I think. I would identify myself as a creative person rather than logical (if I had to choose between a false dichotomy) but philosophy seems to require both. I remember thinking I would have a hard time in the logic class, but I found myself saving my logic homework for “dessert”…it was so much fun precisely because there was room for creativity. And then I think of what it takes to come up with a new philosophy, to challenge pre-existing philosophies, and I realize that it requires a creative mind.

            The same probably holds true for science when you get at a certain level of understanding. I wouldn’t know. 🙂

            But the music thing is mysterious. Some people really just don’t have it. I can’t understand why, but I suspect that’s an inherited thing. Who knows. I know if I did inherit it, it must’ve come from my mother since my father could barely hum a tune.

            Are you musical?

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          • My daughter is very good in philosophy at school, it is one of her favorite subjects. Maybe she could help you with your film project.
            I am very musical. I think I got that from my father’s side. My father could hum a melody and wistle a second voice to it. I never managed that but I can improvise melodies in jazz style or baroque stile and also some other stiles. I never learnt to read notes yet but I think I could have become a musician. If you have several talents, you have to choose.

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