How to enhance your songwriting by studying good story writing

Recently I’ve watched the Hans Zimmer Masterclass on As a composer and someone who has been following Zimmer’s work for a long time I was very interested to hear what he had to say. One of the biggest take aways I got was the idea that “story is king”. Following the story of the movie and telling the same or accompanying story with your music is what you should focus on. Know what it is that you want to say and how you want to say it.   Afterwards, since I had an all-access pass, I thought about what to watch next. There are many Masterclasses on writing, and since Hans Zimmer focuses so much about story I thought I’d give a masterclass about book writing and journalism a try. So I watched Macolm Gladwells Masterclass. Someone I had never heard of before, but he seemed very knowledgeable, likable and passionate about his craft, so I gave it a try. Everything he said and suggested was aimed at people wanting to write a book or article in a newspaper or magazine. A lot of what was said was about how to keep suspense, how to make you care about a character, how to write in a way that the reader can easily imagine it and more. How is that any different from songwriting?   The purpose of songwriting is to tell the listener a story, be it about a summer love that was never seen again or how much fun you had at the club last Saturday. The goal is to have the listener feel something and identify with the contents of the song. The same story can be told in an interesting way that keeps you engaged, triggers the right sensations and makes you want to keep going to find out how the story ends, or it can be told in a boring manner that doesn’t resonate with listeners in any way. That’s where studying how to write good stories comes in! Writing a book is an enormous undertaking. You have to write in a way so that a reader will be willing to read several hundred pages and give you hours of their time to make it through to the end. No matter how good the content of the story the writer is trying to tell is, if it’s written in an uninteresting way, no one will read that book until the end! Why should it be any different with songwriting? Even though the text it is only part of a „Song“, the ones with great lyrics withstand the test of time, while most party anthems that use cheap filler words and boring padding to make it to the end of the verse get forgotten.   If you have a story to tell, a feeling to convey or you just want to pour your heart out, then wouldn’t it be great if it’s also written in a way that will make listeners WANT to hear you out? I think: Yes, absolutely! Because why take the time to write a song if no one is really going to listen to the words anyway… So I ended up with several pages of tips from Malcolm Gladwell that I found applicable to songwriting and that I will surely use in my own writing from now on.  

Here are just a few:


The best kind of arguments are the ones that are imperfect

If you present your listener with any kind of statement that is too perfect (apples are red), then there is nothing more for the listener to brew over, nothing that sticks with him/her after the song is over. If, however, you present a statement that is in some form incomplete, where all the pieces don’t quite fit together (the color of an evening sky painted by a sun that’s almost set) then the listener has something to think about and can fill the gaps with his/her own imagination. It will also help the listener be more emerged in the song and the listening experience which is what you want.  

Differentiate between the meal and the candy

It’s fine to give your listener bits of candy in between meals. A piece of candy could be some Uh’s and Ah’s, an instrumental bit or repeated words and phrases that just sound good. The meal is the more profound lyrical content of your song. The phrases that have more meaning behind the words and notes and the message you are trying to get across. Getting only candy and no meal or only a little meal is not interesting. Getting only a meal and no candy is not satisfying either. You want some candy to properly round out the meal you just got served.  

Withhold information

If you spill the most interesting bit about your story right at the beginning then it can only go downhill from there. You want the most interesting bit to come at the end and keep readers/listeners engaged until the end. You do this by withholding information! You don’t have to withhold the whole thing all at once. Instead give your listeners bits and pieces to get them curious and invested. You could hint at something tragic that is going to happen to a character in the chorus, while you keep telling about his life in the verses. Then at the end, maybe in the bridge, you reveal what the terrible thing is that is going to happen and you close it with the last chorus.  

Use varied sentence lengths to play with form and meaning

Gladwell is a fan of writing in a way that’s easily understood, because you don’t want to confuse your reader (unless that is the purpose of the song!). To do this he often writes short sentences piled up on one another. He varies this with occasional long sentences though, which when heard in its entirety has a lot more impact than the short sentences before. This could be used to prepare the listener for an emotional moment in the song. For example the long sentence could reveal something that is relevant to the story, while the short sentences are only world building. It could also inspire you to come up with cool rhythms for the song (think of “Chop Suey” by “System of a Down”)  

Don’t assume the audience knows as much as you do

I need to constantly remind myself of this one. Often when trying to convey a story, a feeling or when talking about an interesting character or anything else, it can easily happen that you take certain aspects about the thing you’re trying to communicate for granted. Things that could be essential for the reader/listener to know in order to understand the emotion or mood you’re trying to convey. You, the writer, probably have these things crystal clear in your mind and don’t even think twice about putting them to words. The reader, however has none of that! The reader starts with a blank canvas and is waiting for you to fill it with paint.     If you’ve found this interesting and think you can apply this to your songwriting as well, then I encourage you to check out Malcolm Gladwells Masterclass yourself! I’ve only presented a few of the things I’ve learned from it here, and I’ve probably more than butchered his words. He will be able to convey these things to you much better than I ever could. Click on the link  below to check out the introduction:  

Malcolm Gladwell teaches writing

  I’ll definitely start to learn more about story telling in general, be it writing, theater, dance, music, literature etc. I’ve found Malcolm Gladwells Masterclass really inspiring and enlightening. His class has taught me things that several books on songwriting couldn’t teach me. So I encourage you to learn more about writing. Find books you like, try to understand what made them so good, how they get and keep your attention, and think on how you can apply this to your own writing and you will write songs that make people think, have more impact and stay with them for much longer and form a deeper emotional connection to the song and you, the songwriter.   If you have any tipps on how to become a better songwriter, feel free to share them by commenting on this article.  
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