Learn from storytellers to write better song lyrics:

How to write better song lyrics: learn from storytellers

Do you want to know how to write better song lyrics? Don’t you wish there was a simple formula? We all do. In truth, there isn’t a simple formula we can all follow. However, there are things we can do to improve our songwriting (and lyric writing) and one of those is to learn this powerful technique from storytellers.

A good storyteller catches the attention of the reader and keeps it till the end. And that is exactly what you are trying to do in every song you write. So how do storytellers do it?

It is not down to luck. It is because good storytellers understand, either instinctively or through study, that stories need to have a structure. In general that structure encompasses three steps:

  1. Exposition.
  2. Conflict.
  3. Resolution.

1. Exposition

What does exposition mean? Typing that phrase into Google I see the following explanation:

Exposition (introduction) – Beginning of the story; characters, background, and setting revealed.

Ok, that’s fairly clear. Exposition is the introduction of characters, the setting & the background to the story. I can understand how the works in a story but can we also do that in a song?

Yes we can, here is an example, the song is Good Night, New York recorded by Nanci Griffith. The song was written by Julie Gold.

My mother came to America
Sailed through the harbor of hopes and of dreams
Back in the Thirties
With the streets paved in gold
And the sky laced with moonbeams
Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons
Here in the free world, we’re the lucky ones

The scene is set for sure. The songwriter is looking back to when her mother arrived in America. An idealised America. The ‘free world’ where the ‘streets are paved with gold’.

Hmm, if ever we expect there’s going to be a ‘fly in the ointment’ so to speak, it’s going to be after an opening like that. No?

Let’s see if the song uses the next tool of the good storyteller to introduce that fly (so to speak), i.e. conflict.

2. Conflict

What does conflict mean? Let’s again type that phrase into Google.

Conflict is a struggle between people which may be physical, or between conflicting ideas. … Conflicts can either be within one person, or they can involve several people or groups.

Let’s look for conflict in the lyrics. I would say that the conflict here is rooted in the songwriter’s worry. Despite such a wonderful start she has been given in life, she is worried that she has not made the most of it. She worries that she may have ‘failed her’.

My mother came to America
Sailed through the harbor of hopes and of dreams
And here in the future
I hope I’ve not failed her
Cause nothings the way that it seems

It’s not a physical conflict but there is an element of conflicting ideas, both of the idealised idea of America itself and the conflict within the individual’s hopes for themselves and the reality of where they are in life. The person in the song is worried she has failed her mother – because she hasn’t lived up to the promise. Even if that promise was to a certain extent a fantasy.

3. Resolution

We’ve uncovered conflict, now let’s see if that conflict is resolved. In the last verse we have the followng lyrics.

All of my yearning
All of my hunger
Maybe I’m learning
Sometimes I wonder
Good night, New York
Before the Kennedys
Before the Beatles
Before the Vietnam War
Back to a time when anything was possible
Having less meant knowing more
Brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts
Here in the free world, for that second chance

She may have worried about fulfilling her promise, but it’s not over. There’s a second chance. This is the resolution. For all of her, ‘ yearning and hunger’ there are still opportunities for learning. The, ‘free world’, offers opportunities for a second chance. And there are lessons to be learned from the past when ‘having less meant knowing more’.

In the song lyrics for, Good Night, New York we see the use of exposition, conflict and resolution to give structure to the story and to keep the listener hooked all the way to the end.

Now that you know how to write better song lyrics, give it a go

You can use the same structure to write you own song lyrics. It is undoubtedly true that if you are able to write lyrics that will keep your listeners’ attention from the start to the end – you will be writing better songs. Give it a go.

The song Good Night, New York is performed by Nanci Griffith is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter .

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this article, please comment below. 🙂

Photo by Gary Bridgman.

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