Steve Papke from the U.S. state of Georgia writes that he’s having difficulty “going from black and white storytelling to deeper expressions that allow others to hear their own story–so each person doesn’t just connect, but can experience their own interpretation. Is there any technique to help?”
Steve: The key is a lot of self-editing, and finding images that are specific enough to give the listener a window into the characters but universal enough to be broadly understood while allowing the listener to fill in the blanks. I’ll often write about four verses and then squeeze them down to two by getting rid of extraneous scenes that don’t really move the narrative forward. My song “I Found My Wife on Match.Com,” starts
I was on Match.com, lookin’ for somethin’
A woman to get my ol’ heart a’ pumpin’
She wanted fun with no commitment
Her picture showed she had the right equipment
We set a date in a bar downtown
She said she’d be there wouldn’t let me down
I’m sippin’ a beer waitin’ on the love of my life
When who should walk in… but my wife
In my initial draft, I introduced the character’s dissatisfaction with his marriage, I had a line or two on the search, I ate up a couple of lines with them chatting online and setting up the date, and then I had him entering the bar and finding a table. But as I started working through the song and playing it, I realized I didn’t need all of that, and that the listener can easily understand the story without the extra verbiage. It’s like an impressionist painting: It’s blurry if you stand too close, but back up a bit and the image is clear.
Dylan and Springsteen are masters of this. Check out, say, Tangled up in Blue (“There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air”) or Jungleland (“In a bedroom locked, in whispers of soft refusal and then surrender”).
John in Texas asks about freeform writing. “Do you use any structure at all when using this method? Particularly as if you sell lyrics it must be in some form that someone would visualize how it could be made into a song.”
John… Freeform writing is wonderful, and in many respects it’s an essential part of songwriting. My house is littered with notebooks and scraps of paper where I jot down ideas for lyrics—little quips, quotes or questions that are the building blocks of songs. Most of them are destined for the ash heap of non-history, but a handful make it into actual songs: “Heartbreak diet,” “Porkchops and teardrops,” or “I’ve got a half-pint of whiskey and a quarter tank of gas.” When they do become songs, though, they rarely remain freeform, if by that you mean not worrying about meter and rhyme and song structure.
With a handful of exceptions, songs need some kind of structure. That doesn’t mean you always need a bridge. I’ve written plenty of songs without. It doesn’t even mean that they need a refrain. I’ve written a few that don’t repeat any lines. And they don’t necessarily need rhymes. Stairway to Heaven isn’t exactly full of them (though it’s got a few), and Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega doesn’t have any (but even just reading it you can hear the beat of the song pulsing through, with each line four syllables long).
It’s hard, though, to imagine what most people might consider a “song” that lacks all of those elements, and you’d likely have a hard time selling something that’s really, truly freeform. So if you want to sell your songs, I’d suggest generally following the rules, at least until you’ve made a name for yourself. If freeform is your passion, you’re probably better off sticking to poetry.
The Lyrics Doctor