Song and Story Structure

The other day I was driving around doing the kids’ after school activity pick-ups and all that jazz. And I was listening to music, as you do. There was nothing particularly interesting on the radio, so I started playing around with song structure and thinking about the parallels to novel writing.

Turns out, there are quite a few.

Now, I’m no songwriter or musical connoisseur. You need my husband – the former band member and absolute music junkie – for that. But I can tap my foot and hum along with the best of them. And from my detailed scientific study (a.k.a. fifteen minutes in the car) I figured out a few things.

For sake of illustration, I’m going to take Taylor Swift’s Stay, Stay, Stay. Why this one? Well, we listen to Taylor a lot because my daughter likes her work, and she tells ‘proper’ stories in her songs, with beginning, middle and end. Also, that particular song cracks me up. It’s the line about the football helmet; it just gives me the giggles (you can find the song itself as well as the lyrics on the interwebs).

This song has a pretty standard layout, so it works well as an example. It starts out, like many others, with an intro verse that is sung as fast as the rest, but sounds slower because the accompanying instruments are lighter. Here she lays out the main plot and introduces the characters, easing you into the song’s ‘world’.

Just like the first chapter or two of a novel.

The song picks up with a second verse, fully instrumentalized this time, so it sounds a little pacier. Writers, you just know we’re heading for some plot action, right? And there it is, the first chorus. The chorus in a song works like a climax in a novel; it changes the speed of the narrative, whips things up a little, adds excitement. But just like a song or novel can’t be all verses, they can’t be all chorus either, so after all that frenzy we’re back to another verse.

But the novel, I mean song, is at a different pace now, and this time Taylor only waits one verse before she plunges us back into another chorus. We’re bang smack in the middle of the novel, I mean song, and things are happening fast. Instead of another verse, we’re sent into the slow-down-to-warm-up-again tease of the bridge, and any reader or writer worth their salt knows that now we’re gearing up for the heart racing end climax, the main fireworks, the mother of all Armageddons.

And there it is: three slightly different versions of the chorus, one after the other, bang, bang, bang. The big jitterbugging, hero-gets-the-kiss climax.

So next time you’re wasting time in the car, have a listen to the songs on the radio. A proper listen. What story structures can you spot?

If nothing else, it’s got to beat staring at the traffic in the rain…

Next week: learn to write a query by reading the back of a cereal box!

(Just kidding. Or am I?)

2 thoughts on “Song and Story Structure

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