The relevant storytelling criteria for analyzing lyrics.

Step 2: What are the most important storytelling criteria when you analyze a song?

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The storytelling criteria for writing great songs.
The storytelling criteria for writing great songs.

This is part 2 of 5 of how to discover your Uniqueness Factor.

Step 2: What are the most important storytelling criteria when you analyze a song?

I've analyzed the lyrics of all the 82 songs of the seven studio albums of Placebo.

This analysis proved once again that the craft of telling captivating stories in songs or on albums truly matters in songwriting.

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The relevant storytelling criteria for analyzing lyrics.

After studying the lyrics of a song, we have a general understanding of what the song is about. We know the problem the character in the song deals with, and we know if there was an unexpected event in the character’s life that turned the tables - for better or worse.

In this article, I’ll show you a list of special criteria that you need to answer to discover your Uniqueness Factor.

 

Answering those criteria will help you deep dive into the song’s story, its character, and its meaning. That’s how you can discover ...

  • what the song is about,
  • what type of person the character in the song is,
  • what he has to deal with,
  • and how it all turns out for the character -

... in a way that you can compare the songs and albums with each other so that you have a clear understanding of the storytelling strength of that song.

That means you will know in which areas the song is strong, and where you’ve missed out on an opportunity to make it even stronger.

 

The primary storytelling criteria for songs:

When I analyze the lyrics, I have a list of specific criteria that I answer for each song. 

 

The most important criteria are:

 

Remember: The Success Factors are EU Album Sales and UK Chart Position.

 

1. The problem that the character faces in the song has been resolved.

An answer to the issue that the song deals with offers a resolution/closure for the listener, and it completes the song.

WHY? So the listener won’t feel like he’s left hanging in the ropes, wondering how it all turned out.

 

Placebo Infographic - Graph 1.4

 

In the case of Placebo, single releases were the songs that left open the ending the most.

The album tracks offered a solution to the problem almost all the time. 

When we compare the European album sales and the chart position with this storytelling criteria, we can say that this first criterion does not influence those two chosen factors of success that I have selected for comparison.

BUT the albums Black Market Music, Sleeping With Ghosts, and Meds are Placebo’s most sold albums in Europa. Therefore we can say that it is an expectation of the fans of Placebo that the problem is resolved that the song addresses.

 

2. The answer to the problem in the song is helpful for the listener.

People prefer stories that end on a positive note rather than with a bad outcome for the character.

Especially when you want to write captivating love stories, you want to tell prescriptive tales so that your listeners can apply what they’ve learned in their own lives and hope for a positive outcome.

Other musicians or bands rather tell cautionary stories in their songs to show their listeners what they should avoid to not get into a deeper mess.

WHY? So that you know if your listeners want you to act as their guide/mentor/inspiration to help them achieve what they want, or if they look to you to know what they shouldn’t do.

 

Placebo - Songs Analysis Discography

 

In the case of Placebo, I mainly looked at how often the answer to the problem in the song was NOT helpful.

The reason WHY I did that: After creating the graph for how many times the answer was helpful, I noticed that the line mirrored the line of the success factor of the chart position for the entire album.

That’s why I switched it around.

In Placebo’s case, you can see that until the last two albums, not having a helpful answer (to the problem the character deals with in the song) was an influential factor for the album’s success.

Whenever the lines of the discography result moves parallel to the success factor, it's an indication that the corresponding storytelling criteria belongs to one of the main criteria that make up the Uniquess Factor.

This storytelling criteria tells you what your fans are looking for the most. 

That's why you should pay close attention to their expectations = what do they value in your songs.

 

3. The character is at a positive stage of what he deals with externally.

Externally can either be love, life, freedom, respect, justice, honor, or power. It’s every category of what a character might WANT.

No matter what the root of the problem is your character has to face, we have to track if he’s already at a positive level of what he WANTS in his life, or if he starts with not being loved, or his life is threatened, or he’s not free, or he’s not recognized, has no power ...

WHY? This will provide a clue to how much your audience wants the character in your song to suffer, face challenges, or (in some cases) even get to an even better place.

 

Placebo - Discography External Genre positive stage

 

This criterion used to be a factor for the success of the single releases, but it is no longer that important (since Battle for the Sun).

Interesting, though, is that the single releases show a protagonist who is in about 60% of the singles at a positive stage of what he deals with externally - on the album tracks, it’s only half of that.

The magic 40% of Placebo's discography

So if Placebo would release a new album, I'd recommend them that they keep it around the 40% mark because Sleeping with Ghosts was their most successful album (sales).

And isn't it amazing to see that album tracks, single releases, and all the songs taken together of Sleeping With Ghosts are around that average result = the 40%?

That means the average of what the Placebo fans are used to about this storytelling criteria corresponds with the the percentage of their most succesful album.

 

4. The song includes a well-known moment that represents what the character deals with externally.

Externally can either be love, life, freedom, respect, justice, honor, or power. It’s every category of what a character might WANT.

Every one of those mentioned factors belongs to a different kind of story (genre).

  • Love/Hate = Love Stories
  • Life/Death = Action, Thriller, Horror Stories
  • Freedom/Subjugation = Western Stories
  • Shamed/Respected = Performance Stories
  • Justice/Injustice = Crime Stories
  • Honor/Dishonor = War Stories
  • Power/Impotence = Society Stories

And each genre has different moments that belong to that kind of story.

For example, love stories need the confession of love scene, while in stories about life and death, we want to see how the hero overpowers the villain. Or in performance stories, there’s the big event or the big game in the end that we can’t wait to see - like in Rocky, the big fight.

WHY? If you know into which genre of storytelling the topic of your song falls into, you will know what’s at stake for your character. You will know what he can win and what can he lose = either love, life, freedom, success, justice, honor, or power. And you can use that in your lyrics.

 

Placebo Songs Genre

 

Placebo - Discography Themes Moments Genre

 

If we compare the singles with the success factor of the chart position, we can find a correlation between the storytelling criteria and this success factor.

The single releases since the album Black Market Music show this correlation.

The magic 70% of Placebo's discography

So if Placebo would release a new album, I'd recommend them that they keep it around the 70% mark of this storytelling criteria because Sleeping with Ghosts was their most successful album (sales).

And once again, Sleeping With Ghosts is the one album that is closest to the average result of the discography for this particular storytelling criteria.

That means the average of what the Placebo fans are used to about this storytelling criteria corresponds with the the percentage of their most succesful album.

 

5. The song includes a convention that the listener is familiar with concerning what the character deals with externally.

Externally can either be love, life, freedom, respect, justice, honor, or power. It’s every category of what a character might WANT.

Conventions “are specific requirements in terms of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward.” (Story Grid)

Each genre of storytelling has different conventions: like the rival in a love story or the red herrings in a crime story, or there’s a hero, a victim, and a villain in a story about life and death.

WHY? If you include those requirements that belong to your story’s genre, you will make it even more apparent to your listener what your song is about.

 

Placebo - Discography Conventions external genre

 

Placebo fans are okay with songs not having many conventions in it that support or hinder the character getting what he WANTS.

Still, Black Market Music, Sleeping With Ghosts, and Meds are Placebo’s albums that have the highest number of European sales - and all of them are around the 75% mark.

 

6. The character is at a positive stage of what he deals with internally.

Internally can either be about a character’s worldview, morality, or social standing = status. It’s every category of what a character might NEED on an internal level.

People can be naive, selfish, or have sold out for what they want.

But there are also those steadfast characters who are mature, selfless and hold on to what they think is right without selling out.

Depending on the band/musician, they might either focus on troubled characters or on the ones who act noble or have already found wisdom or meaning in their lives and act as mentors.

WHY? If you know what your character NEEDS, you can make him win on an internal level even if he doesn’t get what he WANTS externally (or vice versa). Furthermore, if you know what kind of person your character is and what he NEEDS internally, you know how he will face his external challenge to get what he WANTS. Will he be weak? Naive? Or wise enough to see the consequences of his actions?

 

Placebo - Discography Internal Genre Stage

 

The internal struggles of a character are significant in the songs of Placebo.

Especially considering the single releases - from the first to the last album, we have a parallel line between the UK chart position and the average of the songs that were released as singles.

So we can say with certainty that whenever Placebo wants to release a new single to promote an album, they should check that the character in their songs is at a positive internal state of mind. This criterion will boost their album’s chart position.

44% is the average of how often the protagonist should be at a positive stage on all the album tracks, including the single releases. 

 

7. The song includes a well-known moment that represents what he deals with internally. 

Internally can either be about a character’s worldview, morality, or social standing = status. It’s every category of what a character might NEED on an internal level.

Every one of those mentioned factors belongs to a different kind of story (genre).

  • Meaning/Meaninglessness, Naivete/Sophisticated, Blind Belief to Disillusionment, Wisdom/Ignorance = Worldview and Coming-of-Age stories
  • Selfish/Caring about others = Morality
  • Selling Out / Failure to Success = Status

And each genre has different moments that belong to that kind of story.

For example, in worldview stories, the protagonist’s loss of innocence is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the universe. Or in a morality story, the character faces an All Is Lost Moment and either discovers their inner moral code or chooses the wrong path. 

WHY? If you know which internal genre of storytelling best shows your character’s NEED, you will understand the inner turmoil of your character. And you will know how he might change as a person - for better or worse. And you can use that in your lyrics to show how he changes.

 

Placebo - Discography Moments internal genre

 

The album with the most European Sales has the highest quota for this storytelling criteria.

Even though this storytelling criterion doesn’t show a parallel line with the factors of success, Placebo should still pay attention to the most expected moments that promote or show a character’s change for the better or worse.

We know that the internal genre is essential to Placebo’s fans. So delivering on those moments to make it clear at what stage the character is in on his journey, will ground who the character is - and if he can act as a mentor or inspiration, or if he shows us the path we should avoid.

 

8. The song includes a convention that the listener is familiar with concerning what the character deals with internally.

Internally can either be about a character’s worldview, morality, or social standing = status. It’s every category of what a character might NEED on an internal level.

Conventions “are specific requirements in terms of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward.” (Story Grid)

Each genre of storytelling has different conventions, for example:

  • Worldview: there’s a strong mentor figure, or we have a big social problem as subtext
  • Morality: there’s an impossible external conflict, or the character is tormented by ghosts/memories/events of their past. 
  • Status: we have a strong mentor figure who teaches the protagonist how to gain success or avoid failure, or we have a Herald or Threshold Guardian, usually another status striver, but one who has sold out and who provides a cautionary tale for the protagonist.

WHY? If you include those requirements that belong to your story’s genre, you will make it even more apparent to your listener what your song is about, and make the song more three-dimensional.

 

Placebo - Discography Conventions internal genre

 

80% of all the songs released on Placebo’s studio album have a convention that broadens the inner world of the character and/or his social surroundings.

Even if this doesn’t seem like relevant storytelling criteria, consider Loud Like Love their least selling album. The songs of that album least fulfilled the requirements for the positive internal stage of the protagonist, moments, and conventions.

So we can say with certainty that not putting emphasis on the inner state of the protagonist and broadening it with moments and conventions was indeed a reason why Loud Like Love did not sell as well as the other albums.

 

9. There’s a story, or scene/chapter of a possibly larger story told in the song.

In every great story, something unexpected happens, and the character’s first strategy to reach his goal (his WANT) fails.

An unexpected event is the one criterion that decides if the song tells a story (or part of it) or not.

WHY? If the story/scene/chapter you tell in your song about your character has (or at least hints at) an unexpected event that pushes your character into a dilemma or at a crossroads, the situation changes for your character. And we need change to move from the beginning to the ending. Otherwise, everything would stay the same, and we wouldn’t have a story - just a snapshot of a singular moment in time.

 

Placebo - Discography Story told in song

 

Now just look how much singles as well as the tracks on an album influence the chart position of the entire album. There’s a correlation, even though it’s a little tricky to see, because the average line of the albums doesn’t follow the ups and downs the sales chart, but instead it stays in that area.

And once again, Loud Like Love had the least songs that told stories. And you can see the effect on the chart position as well as on the European album sales.

Note: Placebo's song are very hard to understand because there's a lot written in between the lines. That's why the unexpected moments and the story in itself is not that obvious as, for example, in pop love songs.

 

10. The situation changes for the better externally.

No matter if the problem is solved, there will be an emotional reaction in the listener at the end of the song.

It could be excitement, intrigue, a faster beating heart, romance admiration, relief, triumph, rebelliousness, anguish, loss, or even pity.

It all depends on how the character faced his/her problem, chose in the dilemma (after the unexpected moment that put him at a crossroads), and what the outcome of his/her choices is.

WHY? To understand if a story serves as a cautionary tale (negative outcome) or a prescriptive tale (positive result) for the listener, we need to know how the situation has changed externally and internally for the character in the song.

 

Here’s how the situation has changed externally - considering what the character WANTED to achieve/get:

 

Placebo - Discography Positive external value shift

 

Having a character who does NOT get what he wants is one of the factors that makes PLACEBO so unique as a band.

Not many storytellers (at least the ones that want commercial success) dare to tell cautionary tales because, in general, the audience looks for a happy ending.

But Placebo’s song focus on the inner turmoil of the character, and his situation is externally not on a high starting point (magic 40% of point 3), and it doesn’t end well either. In 75% of the songs, the character is even worse off than before.

But some people are looking exactly for those kinds of stories. A character can’t always get what he WANTS, no matter how much he struggles. That is just life. And another reason why Loud Like Love didn’t sell as well - because it moved against expectations and had too many songs that ended externally on a positive note.

 

11. The situation changes for the better internally.

No matter if the problem is solved, there will be an emotional reaction in the listener at the end of the song.

It could be excitement, intrigue, a faster beating heart, romance admiration, relief, triumph, rebelliousness, anguish, loss, or even pity.

It all depends on how the character faced his/her problem, chose in the dilemma (after the unexpected moment that put him at a crossroads), and what the outcome of his/her choices is.

WHY? To understand if a story serves as a cautionary tale (negative outcome) or a prescriptive tale (positive result) for the listener, we need to know how the situation has changed externally and internally for the character in the song.

 

Here’s how the situation has changed internally for the character - considering what the character NEEDED for his journey or state of mind.

Placebo - Discography Positive internal value shift

 

This chart shows the beauty of great storytelling. 

Even if a character does not externally get what he WANTED, he can still be rewarded internally. 

Every challenge we face, and when we lose, we still grow as a person. Be it that we embrace a broader worldview and start seeing the world in all its gray (instead of black and white), we gain an understanding of what’s truly meaningful, or we have stayed true to our moral compass.

Those are all positive factors. 

And Sleeping With Ghosts is the closest to the average of 62% - in all the different kinds of songs (album tracks or single releases - they do not stray far from the 62% mark).

 

12. Clear Message of the song

If a song has a message, it makes the listener feel like there’s someone out there who understands them.

And that’s the whole point of including something meaningful, something worth communicating.

Because you can help someone by listening to your songs.

You can provide guidance, self-help, joy, or even tell them what not to do to avoid inevitable harmful consequences.

WHY? This goes all back into looking at how the situation has changed for the character in the song (externally and internally), and state the reason for that change. This creates the takeaway for the listener. If we know what has caused the outcome, we can make better decisions for our own lives.

Check out more about the message in a song here: Episode 002 - Does a song need to have a message?

 

Placebo - Discography Message of the song

 

As already stated, Placebo’s songs are not the easiest to understand, but still, we get an intuitive sense of how the situation has turned out for the protagonist.

Everything plays into how we perceive the message - the type of character, his journey, and the challenges he faced and how he dealt with them.

That’s why we can say that in 76% of the songs, the song leaves us with a clear message.

But still, it doesn’t seem like it’s a crucial criterion for success because it serves more for wrapping up what has happened primarily internally or externally for the character.

 

13. Likable Protagonist

Having a character is essential for songwriting because a song should address a problem.

And only a person can face a problem.

The way the character faces the problem shows at what stage of their journey the character is

A character moves through stages of personal development - either concerning their worldview, their morality, or their status.

Internal Genres

 

To define if a character is likable, I’ll look at the stage the character is in.

If he’s at the positive end of his inner self, then this is a massive indicator that we will like the character.

Another indicator is looking at the character and how he behaves in the song: Is he strong? Does he know what he wants? Or does he whine and give up?

WHY? If we like a character in the song, we will consider his journey as valuable to learn something for our own lives. But if we consider him as weak or naive or unlikeable, we will not be inclined to do what he did.

 

 

Placebo - Discography Likeable Protagonist

 

 

There is a correlation between the entire album and the UK chart position. 

More interesting is that one again, Sleeping with Ghosts is the closest to the average of 50% of the complete discography.

 

What do all those charts tell us?

Having analyzed all the criteria for the Placebo albums tells us that Loud Like Love was an outsider among those albums.

It paid less attention to the inner turmoil of the character and ended externally mostly on a positive note - in contrast to the other albums.

In the further analysis in this blog post series, we will see why Loud Like Love did not sell well and what exactly turned Sleeping with Ghosts into a successful album.

 




The storytelling criteria for writing great songs. - The relevant storytelling criteria for analyzing lyrics.

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Links, Downloads & more

If you want to check out the lyrics to the songs mentioned or read my comments, you can them all on the website of songmeaning.com.

 

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