Everything in this life is a story. The “spinning of a yarn” or the art of storytelling is arguably the world’s oldest and best loved pastime. Storytelling is so ingrained in the very fiber of humanity that even though crafting compelling stories may not always be intuitive, we all know a good one when we hear it. There are countless tricks of the trade that good story tellers use to captivate us, but in this post I’d like to focus on just a few handy tools for drawing your audience in and letting them live vicariously through your real or imagined experiences.
Sense based writing is perhaps the most useful tool in plucking yourself from your scuffed up kicks and letting your audience strap them on and take them for a spin. Generally, we all experience the world through the same set of senses. We can see, smell, hear, touch, and if it passes those tests, taste. We also have kinesthetic and proprioceptive sensations which allow us to experience jumping on a trampoline or riding in a car and our body’s spatial relation to itself (close your eyes and touch your nose). These are the vehicles by which we carry out our daily life. Tapping into these wells of experience is not only the best way to relate to someone, it’s the only way. The senses are the only prism through which anyone has ever experienced anything so people are bound to process your songs in the context of their own prior experience. Keeping this reality in mind is of utmost importance if you want your material to have an impact.
Trudging through the dense forest of sensory perception, we can make use of well beaten paths of common experience called archetypes. The more lives are lived and stories are told, the more concrete the patterns become. Examples include: situations like the battle between good and evil or the circle of life; settings like a jungle to express wildness and danger or an island to convey isolation; symbols like darkness to show ignorance or despair and water to indicate birth and life; characters like the evil genius or the damsel in distress, and plenty of others. Really, anything can be an archetype. The only requirement is that the essential meaning of the symbol is fairly universally understood. While one may be tempted to shrink from “that old chestnut”, good writers know that conventions are conventions for a reason. They work.
We’ve all heard the emo girl at the open mic with the over the top plea to the one who’s breaking her heart. We’ve also heard the cold detached nihilist kid’s free verse about how you shouldn’t even listen to him because you could never understand. Choosing your level of involvement in the narrative you’re telling serves to lend or detract credibility in your lyric. Part of survival is developing a healthy skepticism when someone seems to lack situational awareness. This obviously carries over to songwriting and storytelling. If your narration lacks an even temperament or consistency, you become less reliable as a narrator. This can be used to great effect, but the point of mentioning it here is just to make sure that you are considering how keeping the content at arm’s length or burying your face in it or contradicting yourself altogether impacts how trustworthy your narrator is.
Ultimately, all forms of entertainment are essentially the same. You can’t have a great story without complications. The magician who picks out the wrong card from the deck only to pull your folded card from his breast pocket is the same as the author who brings back the character that you watched fall over the cliff and makes her save the day. Storytelling and songwriting hinge on establishing and defying expectation. So whether you figured it was going to be terrible and it went great or you were sure it was going to be smooth sailing and you got arrested for unpaid parking tickets, there has to be a setup and a surprise. These swings can be juxtaposed in verse against chorus, or chorus against bridge, or verse against verse, etc. There are numerous customary song forms which I won’t go into here. Just know that good writers are intentional in the use of movement and the ebb and flow of tribulation and triumph and you should be, too.
All of that said, feel free to entirely disregard it. There are certainly no rules and you’re just as much an artist if you make a song that is the sound of an automatic can opener spinning while you repeat “Rinky dinky, who made a stinky” for three minutes in your best Morgan Freeman voice… not that you’ll top the charts… or won’t. The most important thing is to have fun and enjoy the process of decorating and redecorating the empty space that is your song and your story.