In this article, songwriters learn how to hook their listeners and how to keep them engaged in the storytelling of the song.
In part 1 of this series of articles “How to tell a story in a song” I showed you what ingredients you need to tell a story. This article, part 2, is all about the possibilities of moving your story forward. Specifically, we talk about Narrative Drive and Specificity to hook your listeners and to keep them engaged.
You'll find all the links to the Westlife songs, lyrics, the spreadsheet and the infographic here.
Songs should tell the listener what they are about right from the beginning because through that clarity we get a sense of what kind of song we’re listening to.
If it's a love song, make it clear by letting the listener know at what stage the two lovers are in their relationship. Right from the first line of the song, we should be able to tell: Have they just fallen in love? Are they taking the next step? Have they broken up? Or does their love even last after parted by death?
As already stated in part 1 of this article series, the best way to hook your listeners in the first verse, or even better the first line of your song, is to introduce a problem for your character to face.
Songs, as well as stories, need to hook their audience quickly. By referring to a specific problem you not only give your audience a sense of what your song is about but more importantly you’re setting up an expectation as to how to solve that problem if they ever find themselves in the same situation.
The lyrics give a promise to the listener. This promise is set up in the first lines of a song. Just look at the beginning of the following songs:
If you’d like to see more song beginnings, here are the beginnings of 10 well-known love songs.
There are three ways you can start your song: action, exposition/narrative, or setting.
The Action beginning pulls the listener right into an unfolding event.
There is no explanation as to how the protagonist got there. We feel like we’re a part of the situation because action openings are immediate and close. They are easily recognizable by using action verbs like ‘fill’, ‘fade’, ‘stay’, ‘run’ etc.
“Shadows fill an empty heart as love is fading.” – What About Now by Daughtry. The song was covered by Westlife on the album Where We Are.
An action opening line can also be achieved through addressing another person right in the first line of the song. If the protagonist ‘talks’ to someone, that’s an action. It’s immediate and close, too, and it plunges the listener into a situation where he/she first has to find out what’s going on (Narrative Drive = mystery. Find out more about Narrative Drive below).
Some songs begin with an explanation before going into action. It can be about the situation the characters are in or about a character.
We receive the same level of information the protagonist has which creates suspense (see Narrative Drive below). Typical for a narrative beginning is when a fact is stated or the character tells us about something he/she has experienced.
Sometimes there's a narrative beginning by using dialogue. That's when we don't know if the protagonist is talking to someone or talking only to himself.
The trick is to find out if the couple has already separated. If she's just a 'shadow' or she's 'gone', then the chances of the protagonist talking to her face to face are pretty slim. So if she's not there, then it's the protagonist stating a fact, hence narrative.
Starting with a description of the surroundings rather than character action, dialogue or narrative creates distance between the listener and the characters in your song.
When you begin your song with setting, the environment gains more importance than the characters.
This type of song beginning is the one which is used the least in all of the 137 original songs of Westlife.
Sometimes it’s hard to determine if a song begins with setting or action when the character is telling someone about something. This could be action (dialogue). But if we look at the character as the storyteller, the description of a person or an emotion or a place belongs to setting.
Note: Find out more about ‘How to Launch a Scene’ on the Story Grid website: https://storygrid.com/how-to-launch-a-scene/
Action creates mystery because the listener knows less than your characters in the songs thus making them curious to find out more about them and the situation they are in.
Narrative creates a little more distance between the characters and the listeners, but through having the same level of information, there’s suspense. Especially if you introduce a problem in the first lines of the song, the listener wonders how that conflict can be solved.
Narrative Drive is all about how much information a listener has in relation to the protagonist.
Using one form of narrative drive can keep the listener engaged in the storytelling of the song.
There are three possibilities to create Narrative Drive and to empower creative songwriting:
Note: Find out more about Narrative Drive on the Story Grid website: https://storygrid.com/writing-a-page-turner-part-1/
Singles, once again, use narrative drive the most to keep the listener engaged.
In the following graphic, you can see how much an album uses Narrative Drive to keep the attention of their listeners (yellow line).
It’s also clear to see that Suspense is most often used when we have the same information as the protagonist.
Overall 30% of all the 137 original Westlife songs use Suspense. 25% use Mystery and only 4% dramatic irony.
Using mystery should not be mistaken for not being specific enough. Even if we know less than the protagonist, avoid abstract lyrics that are relying only on visual imagery because it can leave the listener confused as to what the song is about.
For example, the song Nothing is impossible (spreadsheet #41) is not telling a story at all. It starts off with a great promise: “Isn’t life strange, a total mystery.”
Now, why is life a mystery, especially when it comes to love and meeting someone?
When the lyrics say that “two hearts are inseparable”, they’re only going as far as saying love at first sight might exist. But there isn’t a twist or a crisis. Nothing. The song jumps from meeting someone to a random fight and then to how they belong together. There’s just too much left out to create mystery.
If I have no idea who those two are and what they went through, I am unable to empathize with the protagonist.
Specificity breeds universality.
The more specific you are in a story, the more universal the story becomes. I haven’t added a column in my spreadsheet where I look at the specificity of a song, but I will keep track of that in further song analysis’.
Specificity is very important for songwriting. It sets up how believable a song can be and if the listeners will be moved or not. It influences how well we get to know the characters. If we find the character relatable, we can empathize with them.
Specificity also makes a song memorable. We don’t want to hear generic lyrics that there were problems. We need to know exactly what happened. Songs like When I’m with you (spreadsheet #92) or Closer (spreadsheet #115) just leave us wondering what’s going on in those songs.
If we have no idea what happened to the characters in the song we can’t get a sense of what the song is about. If we are confused about what problem a protagonist faces, we can’t even consider the solution as helpful, because we don’t know what specific problem the solution is solving.
Note: The song Wide open (spreadsheet #124) is a perfect example of how much a song can lead to a misunderstanding. Even blunt force imagery is not helping the song gain specificity. Don’t get me wrong, I am used to darker songs because I love the storytelling of My Chemical Romance, but painting a picture of slicing someone open is probably not the way to go for a boyband who mainly sings about love. Even if it’s meant figuratively! I couldn’t stop seeing this one person being cut to pieces. So maybe the visual imagery was done great, it certainly is not the kind of love song that you want to hear a lot. And the song is still too abstract because that imagery is not helping the listener understand what’s happening in the song.
A song that’s very specific is Drive (spreadsheet #51). It’s great that we hear about some specific actions the protagonist would do, because it helps us understand the theme of the song better. The song is not as abstract as others.
The song Puzzle of my Heart (spreadsheet #33) is just stating why that one person is perfect for the protagonist. The song is just telling the listener about that person. Mostly body features that make her so perfect.
But we never find out why she is the puzzle of his heart. The reason is too shallow. Show, don't Tell would have expressed the reason why that person is so special.
Note: Showing refers to seeing a character in action rather than just being told who someone is.
Song structure is different than how one might structure a novel. After a verse, there’s a chorus (maybe even a pre-chorus) before the second verse starts followed by the chorus again. Sometimes there’s also another shorter verse used for the climax.
Because of that specific order, a song does not always follow linear storytelling. Sometimes the chorus gives away the climax decision before we even find out what the crisis is in the second verse.
I do (the best is yet to come) (spreadsheet #96) is a good example of how you can put a story into a song by revealing parts in a non-chronological way. We get a feeling for who this person is because he tells us about his past and how he imagines his future to be. And we know the one person that changed his life: his loved one. This song has captured a very intimate moment: kneeling down to ask someone to marry him. It catches the spark of what question led to his decision and him knowing it's the right thing to do. Proposing feels right to him because she's the one for him. The song is subtle but strong.
You can use flashbacks to tell a story as long as the protagonist has already gained the wisdom and is now sharing his story. At least, if you want a mature protagonist who is able to evaluate his decisions in life. If he’s looking back and still wondering about what went wrong, that tells the listener the character hasn’t learned a thing and is still questioning instead of taking responsibility and accepting what he did.
The song We Are One (spreadsheet #19) is a flashback. The protagonist happily looks back at the moment that changed his life. He is wiser now because he understands that he made the best decision by deciding to commit.
Even if a song is not telling a story, it may still provide a sense of how time passes.
Last mile of the way (spreadsheet #125) is a great song. A sophisticated protagonist who knows what he wants. One, who has seen the world and is prepared to continue his way with her next to him – no matter what waits ahead. I think it’s a good song. Even though the story is not that obvious, we get a feeling of time through the decadence of stones and steel.
Deus ex machina refers to using a tertiary character (for example the sidekick) to solve a problem. It could also be that the problem is solved by coincidence instead of having your main character save the day.
We feel like a higher power stepped in to interfere. That might happen if what happens to the protagonist at the end of the song seems like a miracle, especially if we don’t consider the protagonist worthy of receiving that gift.
Note: We don’t consider the protagonist worthy if he hasn’t gone through meaningful change which means he hasn’t reached a better understanding of life or of what’s meaningful to him.
What I want is what I’ve got (spreadsheet #19): Even though the music is nice, the lyrics fail to deliver something that sticks. The words are boring because there isn’t a problem that’s solved in the song. It's only due to a miracle that the protagonist finds what he was looking for. If this song was a novel, we would have said the ending used deus ex machina. And that's not a very satisfying ending because it does not give the listener the prescription of how to get to a specific outcome.
Hook your listeners by pulling them right into the moment of an unfolding event or by explaining something about the characters or their situation that they have to overcome. Introduce a problem for the character to face in the first lines and, in a love song, try to establish at what stage of their relationship the lovers are in.
Keep your audience engaged by creating mystery or suspense in the storytelling of your song. Make your listeners wonder as to how a particular problem is solved or make them feel the struggle of your protagonist as he/she himself/herself is trying to understand a certain situation.
Make sure to always be specific in your songs. Specificity breeds universality. So think about what kind of person your protagonist is. What makes him/her so unique or his/her love so special? Use specific details so your listener can feel like they know your character and empathize with him/her.
© Stories in Songs, Melanie Naumann
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 2 here.
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”.
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