In a sense, every song is a story song – it tells the story the writer is attempting to convey in that song. But in a more specific way, for the purpose of this article, I am defining a story song as one that contains the easily recognized elements of telling a narrative, linear story – beginning, middle and end, with a recognizable story arc that contains the classic elements of drama and delivery. Like a mini-short story, book, or movie.
I have written before about the connection between story form in a screenplay and a pop song – and I would again recommend you pick a book on screenwriting for some valuable tips on focusing your songwriting (in an overview sense).
But even songs that are not intentionally written as a story song can contain the elements of a story song, a song that has a more linear narrative overview.
The most common characteristic of inexperienced songwriters I see when they are writing a song with a story is the tendency to generalize the story and imagery to the point of losing the listener’s interest – if the listener cannot relate to the narrative in some way, how can he get emotionally involved? There is a balance between universality and specificity that a good writer feels in telling a story. What is necessary for the listener to know and what is not? What moves the story forward in a dramatic way and what does not?
The other day on the way to TAXI I was listening to the new country radio station in LA – and they played a variety of really good songs (radio stations usually do while trying to establish a listener base – they get predictable later). Anyway, one of the songs they played was "Boy Named Sue," written by Shel Silverstein, and made popular by Johnny Cash.
I have never particularly cared for the song – never thought about it one way or the other. But I hadn't heard it in a while, so it was interesting to listen to it from a fresh perspective – sometimes things you know really well get so familiar that you don't really hear them for what they are.
That day I noticed the story arc and how the writer engages the listener in each stage – there is a surprise in every verse – and for Johnny Cash’s audience at the time (I believe Folsom prisoners) – a real language, values, and cultural connection.
I also noticed the story itself – it developed like a film, visually and narratively – emotionally building through anger, outrage, revenge, climax, and eventual understanding and wisdom (and at the very end, humor) – with the main character changed in a redemptive way – quite a feat for such a basic song. A lot of it of course due to Johnny Cash's delivery and believability, but the story really is written into the song. Ten straight verses, with no obvious chorus – real story song.
Now, artistically and culturally people are in different places – but from an emotional / structural perspective sometimes it is good to reference what other people (particularly great artists) have done with the choices they made in their material. You might want to look at a song like “Boy Named Sue” for a paradigm to work with in your song. Not as a reference to duplicate – but as an example of structural and emotional development that has resonated in the past with an audience and has stood the test of time as structurally sound.
When you look at your song, is it simple and easily relatable to your listener’s experience? If it is, is it fresh and interesting in it’s approach or is predictable and similar to the way other writer’s have handled the material subject matter and emotional context before?
The same morning I heard another song that must be a hit because I heard it twice – it is a song about a father and son and it has references to McDonald’s and Scooby Do – imagery the audience knows and is every day connected – not theoretical.
I personally find that kind of stuff a bit mundane for the most part, but when handled well, and within the context of telling a story like this song was doing (about being a good example for his son and realizing his son was learning from him by watching him), I would imagine those references would give the intended listener the feeling of connection with the artist – he is “a regular guy” – “one of us.”
I heard another song by a female artist singing about the simple things in life being all she needs – a common theme in country music. But the way she dealt with it felt fresh and different – she took some of the cultural currents from pop culture as the negatives to contrast with the simple life and she did it effectively for her audience.
You might want to use a bit more of that kind of relatable imagery to get more of an emotional connection with your intended audience in your songs. When you use theoretical, generalized imagery and phrasing, it doesn’t feel as immediate to you listener – and it is more difficult to keep them paying attention to the story line development where you deliver the emotional content of your song.
You can order Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting from michaelanderson.com or Amazon.com.