How to tell  a story in a song.
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Storytelling in Songwriting

Storytelling in Songwriting

This is part 1 of 5 of my analysis of telling stories in love songs.

Are you looking for tips on how to write a love song that will touch the hearts of your listeners? Ever wondered how to tell a captivating story in a song?

I've analysed the storytelling of over 140 songs to prove that the craft of telling captivating stories in songs or on albums truly matters in songwriting.

In this first article, I tell you all about what you need in order to tell a story. We look at the ingredients of what a story needs and I give you a complete guide of how to tell a working story from the beginning to the ending.

 

You'll find all the links to the Westlife songs, lyrics, the spreadsheet and the infographic here.

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How to tell a story in a song.

What do we need in order to tell a story?

Stories are in our DNA from the time we’re born. But in order for a story to resonate, certain elements must be present. Songs are no different. 

Since not everyone is familiar with the craft of storytelling, here are the most important ingredients:

  1. We need a character. The protagonist.
  2. The protagonist needs to have a conscious object of desire. A goal. Something he’s after. He needs a purpose.
  3. A story needs conflict. It can’t be a walk in the park where the character goes from A to B without any complications. He/She needs to face a problem.
  4. There needs to be a turning point. Call it a twist or a crossroads. Something that catapults the protagonist into a dilemma.
  5. There must be something at stake. Something that can be lost or gained depending on how the character chooses in his dilemma.
  6. Every decision has consequences. So how do the protagonist’s actions or his decision turn out? What’s the resolution?

 

1. The main character = the protagonist

There is the possibility to sing solely about the colors of the sky, the falling leaves or something else that just concerns the beauty of nature.

But if you want to engage your listeners in a great story you need a character. Someone the listener can identify or even empathize with. 

Even if you haven't thought about storytelling in songwriting, as soon as we sing about the troubles of life, facing incredible odds or simply confessing love there's a character in your song that the listener will consider as a real person. It doesn't matter if your audience reflects that character to be the singer of the band or is putting himself/herself in the situation or circumstances of that person, so as to understand or empathize with their perspective, opinion, or point of view.

Having a character is essential for songwriting because a song should address a problem. And only a person can face a problem.

(More about character will be released soon in another article of this series)

 

2. What is the protagonist fighting for?

In order to understand what the song is about the protagonist needs a goal. 

Listeners can invest themselves better in a song if they are able to root for the protagonist because they want him/her to achieve what he/she wants. By giving the character a purpose the listener will cheer for him/her if he/she reaches her goal or be sad with him/her if something went wrong, at least as long as the character was fighting for what he/she wanted.

 

The purpose of the protagonist is what he/she wants. To define a WANT we can look at the stages of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Story Grid Gas Gauge of Needs

In the Story Grid (method for editing stories developed by Shawn Coyne) we call it the Gas Gauge of Needs. 

On the left, you see the NEED. That NEED defines the Genre.

In every kind of story, the genre should be established as quickly as possible to set up expectations that are gonna be paid off. Those expectations are the promise a writer gives their audience.

So in the song itself, the first few lines should tell the listener what the song will be about. Is it about life and death (Action) or about third-party validation (Performance, Status). In the case of Westlife, we should expect that the first few lines make it clear that it's a song about love.

But how many Westlife songs establish the love song in the first few lines?

 

Lobe Song Storytelling Songwriting Beginning of a song to establish the genre

Westlife Storytelling Songwriting Genre Beginning Story Love Singles

 

In the smaller graph, you can see that Westlife's original songs (that were released as singles) established the love story more quickly than on the B-sides or on the album tracks.

 

No matter if the goal is achieved or not, 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 faces his/her problem, chooses in the dilemma and what the outcome of his/her choices are. 

 

3. The protagonist faces a problem

Memorable songs, or songs that “work,” have a protagonist who changes. And the reason they change is by facing conflict.

If we look at storytelling in songs we specifically look to see if the protagonist faces a problem. In love stories, the two lovers face obstacles that either strengthen their desire to commit or push them to break up. Not every story is about lovers meeting, falling in love and living happily ever after. So if you want to tell a love story in a song, include a problem that needs solving.

Songs that end with the lovers getting together end positively and that solution tends to be popular amongst listeners. It’s a prescriptive tale that shows what to do to find love. But songs can also end with the lovers breaking up. Those kinds of songs tell the listener what to avoid if they don’t want to lose the one they love. Sometimes those songs feature a protagonist who has learned a lesson and recognizes his mistakes that led to the breakup. So the song ends negatively (breakup) but also shows that the protagonist has reached a broader understanding of life.

In my analysis, I found out that 75% of the songs that were released as singles introduced a problem for the protagonist at the beginning of the song. Album tracks only made it up to 65%. Singles gave a solution to the problem almost 90% of the time and were in 75% of the cases helpful to the listener.

 

Westlife - Conflicts, Problems and Solutions in Songs

 

In this graphic, the pink line shows how many songs on a record had a problem the protagonist had to deal with. Taken from that percentage are the songs that offered a solution and from those songs, I included how many offered a helpful solution. 

Westlife - Conflicts, Problems and Solutions in Songs

Note: For example, on “Back Home” only 22% of the songs had a protagonist facing a problem (2 of 9). But of course, if those two problems are solved in a helpful way that looks good in this graphic (reaching a 100%). So consider the percentage of the songs that include a problem first before you rush your conclusions of how helpful an album is overall.

 

4. Coming to a crossroad

How do we determine if a song is also telling a story?

It’s the turning point. The twist or the crossroad moment.

In every great story, the hero comes to a crossroads. It’s the moment where the story changes direction and brings up a dilemma for the protagonist. 

Turning points can be an action or a revelation. 

An action means another character does something that the protagonist didn’t expect and it changes his situation. Someone makes an active choice to not let the character reach his goal.

A revelation is when new information comes to the fore that questions the character’s approach.

In this graph you can see what song category (singles, album tracks, B-sides) tell the most stories:

Westlife - Turning Points in singles, albums and b-sides

Once again, the songs that were released as singles were the ones that told the most stories. But of all the songs that dealt with a problem, album tracks were by far the ones that told the most stories.

Westlife - Turning Points in singles, albums and b-sides

Just for completion, here are the results of how many songs had stories in them on Westlife’s albums. Of course, the existence of a story is not the only criteria that determine how well an album might sell. (More about that when we talk about character traits in another article of this series)

Westlife - How many songs on their albums told a story?

 

 

5. Raising the stakes & facing a dilemma.

After the crossroad occurs and the story changes direction, the protagonist faces a dilemma forcing him to make a decision.

Getting from A to B is not possible without making a decision first. The character wants to reach his goal but the dilemma reminds him of what's at stake. No matter how he decides, he'll lose something in the process of trying to gain something.

That's why the crisis is either a best bad choice or an irreconcilable goods choice. 

Best Bad Choice: a choice between two unpleasant or very bad options.

Irreconcilable Goods: Two good options but you can’t have both, OR a choice that’s good for you but bad for someone else.

What a character decides in a crisis moment shows who they truly are. They are forced to act/react and that action reveals their character.

For example, do they choose to renounce their careers and spend more time with their family or do they follow their own ambitions and work day and night without having time for their family? Do they fight for the one they love or do they give up?

Coming to a crossroads forces the character to make a choice that will create change. Every story needs something to change between the beginning and the ending. Nothing can stay the same or there wouldn’t be a story. 

 

The crisis question is explicitly stated in approximately 50% of the songs. Most of the time they were a best bad choice situation meaning the character had to choose between the lesser of two bad options. Album tracks (including singles) are the one song category that also used irreconcilable goods questions.

For example, the songs ‘We are one(spreadsheet #18) and ‘Walk Away(spreadsheet #56) are two songs with an irreconcilable goods decision. The question is: Stay friends or become lovers and risk potentially losing their friendship? Having a friend and having a partner is incredible, but it’s hard to make a decision when there’s a chance of losing the relationship. 

 

Westlife - How many songs do have a dilemma that presents itself as a crisis for the protagonist?


Westlife If I let you GoThe song ‘If I let you go(spreadsheet #6) wonderfully constructs the crisis question for the protagonist: 'I’m too shy to ask, I’m too proud to lose but sooner or later I gotta choose.' (© Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Universal Music Publishing Group) The entire song is about that dilemma. How shall the protagonist decide: Confess his love and risk his pride or lose the chance to ever find out what a life with her could have been like.

The song ‘Leaving(spreadsheet #100) is another great example of a song that is solely about a dilemma the protagonist is stuck in. The crisis is very well prepared by following the structure of a story (Goal - Crossroad / Turning Point - Crisis - Decision - Resolution) right in the first verse. What can you do to stop someone from breaking up with you when you know the decision has already been made? The protagonist tries to come up with something that could change her mind. But he becomes wiser when he recognizes it’s too late.

On the other hand, if you have a determined protagonist who knows what he wants he doesn’t face a crisis question. Even if there is a turning point, a protagonist who is confident in what he wants will never doubt himself or ask someone else what to do. He knows. 

In the song ‘I wanna grow old with you(spreadsheet #47) there's no crisis question. Except that he might have wondered if he should stop whatever he was doing and go back to his love. The crisis, therefore, doesn't concern his love for her. I think it's essentially his proof of love. By staying away from her and continuing what he has to do while telling her he wants to grow old with her, he shows that he is confident in their love and trusts what they have.

There is also the possibility that the protagonist addresses the crisis question his love interest faces. For example, in the song ‘Love takes two(spreadsheet #66) the protagonist knows he wants to be with and asks her if she wants the same. He puts her into the dilemma by asking her what she wants. ‘Reach Out(spreadsheet #110) is another example where the love interest has to make a decision: Reach out to the protagonist or not.

 

 

6. What about the resolution? How does it all turn out?

The resolution of a story shows the consequences of the character’s decision made in the dilemma. Most of the time songs that tell a story will either end with a cliffhanger (ends with the crisis) or right after the decision. But not often do we learn how it all turned out.

Westlife - How many songs explicitly state how their story ends.

 

Moments(spreadsheet #12) has a great resolution to a life-changing event. The song starts with life and death stakes: 'If I die tonight' which seems like there was an accident that still threatens the life of the protagonist, but through that incident he’s able to treasure a single moment in time

If a song doesn’t have a resolution it might leave an impression on the listener that something is missing. In ‘You make me feel(spreadsheet #36) the song is about two people who are unsure about their relationship, but the song never resolves their indecision. Its absence is unsatisfying. If the song had included a tiny bit of advice for the character, the listener would not have been left wondering what to do if ever confronted with the same situation. 

 

On the other hand, should every song have a resolution?

Look at ‘Don’t get me wrong(spreadsheet #40). That song is all about a crisis question and its climax. The protagonist never gets an answer from his love interest after he confesses his love. Do we need to know the reaction of the love interest as a listener? It’s hard to say because songs, for the most part, show us only one side of the story. We hardly ever find out what the person the song is dedicated to is thinking.

But should we?

After all, if we were in the same situation, we would only know our side of the story. And the answer for us would rest on what we decided to do. So I believe it’s okay to leave out the resolution if the songwriter wants the listener to realize that if you don’t gather up the courage and ask the other person how they feel, they may never find out.

 

A resolution doesn’t need to be on the nose like ‘They lived happily ever after’. 

Sometimes one single word can make a difference. The song ‘Why do I Love you(spreadsheet #46) begins with the word: 'Suddenly'. Meaning suddenly everything changes. The protagonist is left by his girlfriend. And he has to get over her. It's hard and he tries and somehow he thinks he can't do it, but then 'Suddenly', there's that word again. And it leaves us with an idea that maybe suddenly he has met someone new. This song is helpful to someone going through a breakup because it shows how the protagonist doesn’t give up. That’s why we’re able to hope that ‘suddenly’ his life changed for the better. 

Westlife Album Spectrum - DynamiteThe song ‘Dynamite(spreadsheet #129) is one of Westlife’s latest singles. This song is entertaining and it captures the spark of falling in love and the great adventure it takes you on. But that song is missing a final verse, which should be there to deliver the message of the song. It's fine to have a song about falling in love, but getting a glimpse of what happens next would be even better.

 

And lastly, a resolution is not worth anything if the listener has no idea how the protagonist got to his realization.

In the song ‘The Difference(spreadsheet #106) I don't even know if the song is about friends or lovers. I know it's a big thank you to someone who has helped the protagonist when they were in a very bad place in life. But the song is mostly saying the other person helped but we don't understand in what way. So as a listener I feel left out because I can't understand how he overcame his troubles. 

The same thing is valid for the song ‘Evergreen(spreadsheet #48). I think it’s great that the protagonist is falling in love with someone. But how is he going to make his love evergreen? There should have been another verse to reveal a little more, even if it was just a hint. We leave the song with no idea what the protagonist is up to and we feel left out.

 

Happily ever after or tragic ending?

When a character comes to a crossroad they are forced to make a decision that will drive meaningful change (more about that when we talk about character in one of the soon-to-be-released articles of this series). If a song has a turning point, the situation for the protagonist changes for better or worse. This moment determines if the song will have a happy or sad ending.

So which albums make us feel content?

I discovered that Westlife’s first album titled ‘Westlife’ as well as ‘Back Home’ have the most stories with a happy ending.

 

Westlife - How content do we feel after listening to their albums. Which albums make us feel most content?
Polarity Shift Westlife Songs - how does the listener feel?

 

Note: This data is taken from the table column: ‘Polarity Shift’ in the spreadsheet. If the song turns from negative to positive or from positive to double positive then the song has a more positive ending than beginning. That change makes us feel good.

It’s interesting to see that once again singles take the lead with the songs that end positively.

 

 

How to tell a story in a song

1. If you want to tell a story in a song you start with creating your character. Ask yourself what kind of person he/she is? Focus on one single personality trait that you want to prove about him/her.

2. Next, you need to give your character a goal. Something he/she tries to achieve. Be it saving someone, confessing his love, apologizing, rebel against something, ... 

3. Reaching his/her goal is never easy. There must be a problem he/she has to face. This problem should be established at the beginning of the song to let the reader know as soon as possible what your song is about. It's all about setting expectations and paying them off in an inevitable, but a surprising payoff.

4. Even by facing a problem right from the start, there's a turning point that throws the protagonist off his path to reach his goal. He/She can't follow her plan without making a decision first.

5. Having to decide between a best bad or an irreconcilable goods choice highlights what's at stake in your story. What can the character lose and/or gain? He/She must make a choice. How the protagonist chooses reveals his/her character. So make sure this choice proves/disproves the one personality trait you wanted to show the listener about your character.

6. To make your song complete and that listeners see the message of your song, include a resolution. What are the consequences of the decision made in the dilemma? Has the protagonist gained something by fighting for what he wanted? Did he lose because he was a coward or made a wrong choice? Did he reach a better understanding even though he lost something?

All those ingredients to tell a story can be switched up in a song due to song structure. That means you can start by introducing the problem in the first verse, foreshadow the resolution in the refrain and in the second verse you show the turning point and the crisis the protagonist had to face. 

Use the third verse for highlighting the outcome or for giving a hint of how it all might have turned out for your protagonist. In that case, you use the refrain for the dilemma.

You can play around with the order of those above-mentioned parts, but try to include them all to tell a captivating story in your song.

Westlife Infographic Storytelling in Songwriting Part 1

 

 




Storytelling in Songwriting - How to tell  a story in a song.

Full data - the spreadsheet

If you want to see the full spreadsheet that I used for collecting my data, you can sign up for my newsletter and I'll send you a link to the complete, downloadable Google Spreadsheet.

Here's an explanation to better understand the spreadsheet: Spreadsheet Explanation


Get the bonus


Links, Downloads & more

If you want to check out the lyrics to the songs mentioned or read my comments, you can find all 137 original Westlife songs here:

 

The infographic

If the spreadsheet is too much to look at (I understand, it's huge!), you can also look at the first part of the infographic that includes all the infographics of this article and more. Open the Westlife Infographic Part 1 here.

 

Fiction writers

If you’re a fiction writer and you wonder how you can write better romance novels by studying love songs, read my blog post on the Story Grid website: “What Romance Writers Can Learn From Studying Love Songs”.

 

More about storytelling in songs

If you want to read more about storytelling in songs, please sign up for my newsletter. I’ll keep you updated with my latest articles and new insights. Find out more about my current projects and song analysis here: Bands & Albums.

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