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Discussion: Lyric-Writing in the Context of Classical Storytelling

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Believe it or not, there are people in this world who make their entire living from storytelling.  Stephen King comes to mind, of course, as does J K Rowling, but when you turn on your television tonight (if you have one in your house ... I don't ...), you will be confronted with stories among too-many channels to mention.  And all of them, quite necessarily, will be built upon a formula that has been studied since ancient times by storytellers (yes, even "ancient" ones) who had an audience to please and a deadline to meet.  The play-by-play of this formula ... the "three-act play," or pick-any-one novel or episode ... goes like this:

  1. Prologue:  "We live in a place where absolutely nothing interesting happens."  (But, this First Act will be stuffed with things that will become relevant later.)
  2. Plot Point One:  With the Second Act, the Hero's life is suddenly up-ended.  ("She unexpectedly said, 'goodbye!'")  The Hero spends much of the Second Act trying to get a grip on the situation, as he is at the same time inexorably pushed to the ...
  3. Plot Point Two:  ... when, at the beginning of the Third Act, our Hero is irrevocably driven to action.  He cannot stay still.  He cannot gather up his marbles and go home.  He must beat the odds, overcome the foe, get the girl back.  The most-pivotal point in this Act is when his future course of action becomes crystal-clear to him (for the first time ...), and he commits himself completely to achieving it.  (Whether or not he ultimately does so, is secondary.)
  4. Climax:  The moment we've all been waiting for.


As a lyricist, you are, in fact, "a storyteller."  But you are "a poetic storyteller."  You must somehow tell the entire story using just a handful of verses.  


And in fact, there are three ways that you can go about doing it:  what I will call "first derivative (direct)", and "second derivative (indirect)," and "who-cares derivative (universal)."  (More on that in a moment.)


But first, there are two critical things that your lyric must achieve:

  1. Enter at the Second Plot Point:  Your storytelling must introduce a Hero at the instant of the Third Act – Plot Point Two.  "The girl has left," and the Hero must pursue her!  Or, as the case may be, "die trying."
  2. Cover All the Bases:  Even though you enter at Point Two, you must cover all four bases satisfactorily.  The listener's own life experiences can be used to achieve the Prologue, and a few well-placed lines can get us to the starting gate.  Although your song might or might not have a "happy-or-otherwise ending," it should very definitely (and, unmistakably, and, satisfyingly) point to it.


Now, let me close by explaining what I mean by "first vs. second derivative."  In calculus, engineering, thermodynamics and other obscure topics, sometimes we refer to "change," "rate of change," "rate of change of rate of change," and so-forth. :ph34r:  But, never mind all that.  The issue here is:  is your singer experiencing (or relating"the story itself" (first derivative), or is (s)he commenting on it "one step removed" (second)?  Or, are you simply "talking about Everyman" (universal)?


To me, "second-derivative songs" are by far the most interesting, while also certainly the most hard to write.


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"HTH!™"  ... Okay, I'll stop right there ... So, what do you think?


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P.S.:  Did I, in writing this, take liberties with "Aristotle's Incline?" with respect to how the Three Acts actually fall, and so forth?  Uh huh. :blink:  "But, good news!  We're not in college, now!"

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And, Jenn, Hobo, I would very quickly agree with both of you.


Music speaks to a far-deeper level of the soul than speech ever could.  


However, for the purposes of my post, I am constraining myself to the acknowledged-subset of songs that strive to tell stories which could, for the purposes of the song, be expressed in verse.  (Of which there are many thousands ...)


I freely acknowledge that there is a gulf of music ... and, of pure-human emotion ... which cannot be expressed in this oh-so limited way!


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  • 3 weeks later...

David Crosby said that the most important part of songs was the tale telling

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Interesting analysis of the 3 types. You think 2nd derivative is the most interesting.  I would vote for 1st.  I'd rather hear the angst(?) of the person going through this than a one-step-removed version of someone telling me about it.  For example:  Margaritaville, John Denver's Seasons of the Heart ("It's just some things that mean so much
And we just don't feel the same"); Dan Fogelberg's Same Old Lang Syne (Met my old lover in the grocery store,The snow was falling Christmas Eve")


But I still love The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (2nd) and others.  


Of course, there is no one right answer. Just what moves each of us.




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