The Story in the Song, Part II

Did you all enjoy yesterday’s post? I did! It had my two favorite songs in it. Also I got to subtly mention Blade on my writing blog. (did you all catch that? :-)

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Which is: what can studying the story song do for those of us who are not musically inclined and just want to write a good story?

Well, like I said yesterday, the story song = poetry + plot + music. Basically, it is a 5-10 minute lesson in making a coherent and gripping plot as brief and beautiful as possible. It is the ultimate example of the only tip I remember from dear old Strunk and White:

Omit needless words. Omit needless words. And then set to music.

We can just cut music out of the equation and concentrate on poetry and plot. There, isn’t that easier? No?

Of course not. Succinct is hard. That’s why we should study it.

Let’s look at the first verse of Grace’s favorite song ever, introduced yesterday: “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.”

When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murrays green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in nineteen fifteen my country said Son
It’s time to stop rambling ’cause there’s work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we sailed away from the quay
And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers
We sailed off to Gallipoli

That could quite easily be the first 2-3 chapters of a novel. There’d be a quirky sidekick, probably, and a lot of internal dialogue.  (also Mel Gibson. basically it would be the movie Gallipoli…) But look what Bogle does with it! He picks out the key elements, sets them to poetry, and we’re off.

“The gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun.” Oh my goodness me. Gorgeousness.

I’m not going to go through the whole song. You get the point. Let’s be honest, Part II of this series was really just an excuse for me to post some more of my favorite songs. (for you to examine! totally altruistic, here.) So lets have one of those classic country story songs, from Mr. Marty Robbins. There’s a talking head at the front, but not for very long. I give you… “El Paso.”

And let’s end on…hm. Well, you know how yesterday I posted my two favoritest songs in the whole wide world? There’s some competition for number 3, but this one is a close contender. Sorry for the so-so quality, but it had to be the Dwight Yoakam version. The best version, of course, is when he plays it with Flaco Jimenez but I couldn’t find that..

So that’s it! The Story Song, and how it can Help You Become a Better Writer.


Horrifying side note: if you type “lyrics” into google, the autofill thingy turns it into “lyrics to bleeding love” as the first choice. I just want to say, I had to endure that song’s rise to the top in TWO countries. TWO. I HAD TO LISTEN TO IT CONSTANTLY TWICE. Pity me.


The Story in the Song, Part I

A bit late but as promised, part one of a planned two-part series. This would have been up yesterday, except the last week of finals pretty much killed me. Killed me dead.


Today I want to discuss a very specific type of writing that is not talked about in mainstream writing publications or forums. Probably because the fact that it’s set to music makes it seem unimportant to prose writers. But think about what a good writer you have to be to tell a powerful, memorable story in approximately 5 minutes or less. With music. Basically poetry + plot + music composition. Three of the hardest things ever.

I speak, of course, of the story song.

What are story songs? Time for Obvious Girl! They are songs with a specific story, a specific narrative. They’re descended from Old English ballads and people sometimes call them ballads in modern times, too, though that term seems to encompass more than I want. When I say story song, I mean a song with a plot. A song that could be paraphrased into a story.

What’s that? You want examples? But of course. I’ve posted some below, but you might also be interested in “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, “The Girls from Texas” by Ry Cooder, “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by everyone with a guitar, “Stan” by Eminem, or “Fancy” by Reba McEntire.

As you can see just from that brief list, country music has always been particularly successful with the story song. Someone once said (and I paraphrase, because I can’t remember the original) that rock and roll is Saturday night, and country music is Sunday morning. Rock and roll is the sex, drugs, and alcohol, country music is the hangover, the regret. It is in the tragedy of regret that country music finds the story.

This is not to say that all story-songs are sad. Scroll down and click on the last song, if you want the ultimate example. But tragedy makes a better narrative than a party.

So following you will find youtube clips of some different story songs. The first two also happen to be two of my favorite songs in the entire world. No, no, I’m going to go ahead and say it. They’re my two favorite songs in the entire world. Hands down. Wha. bam.

First up, we have “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” written by Eric Bogle and performed by numerous artists. But as usual, when the Pogues do a song, that’s the version we go with. (it’s about 8 minutes long, just fyi.)

Classic story song, right there. There’s a hero and a struggle. It has a specific time and setting. Beginning, middle, and end. Tragedy. The whole shabang. And Shane MacGowan at vocals. *swoons*

My other favorite song was written by Kris Kristofferson, who should have stuck to songwriting and not moonlighted as a vampire’s sidekick. (hehe. I made a funny.) Kristofferson of course wrote “Me and Bobby McGee,” a story song immortalized by Janis Joplin, but it is this song, performed by the one and only Man in Black, that I love love love.

This is a different kind of story song. More a vignette. The specific actions of narrator/protagonist are not necessarily the important part of the song, they’re merely a method through which the narrator can express his loneliness and regret.

To lighten things up a bit, let’s end with another of the classic story songs. Written by the Absolutely Fabulous Shel Silverstein and performed by the…well, I’ve already introduced Mr. Cash. Here’s “A Boy Named Sue.”

So there you have my brief intro to the story song. And now that I have introduced the concept (“introduced”–I’m sure you’re all rolling your eyes at me now, saying “yes grace, if you say so, I do actually listen to music occasionally”), tune in tomorrow for my post on What This Means For You Even If You Don’t Want To Write Story Songs.

If you do want to write one, well, never having written one myself, I daren’t even try to give suggestions. This article looks promising, though, if you want a more how-to approach.

Eat Your Vegetables

When you were a kid and your mom presented you with, I don’t know, BRUSSEL SPROUTS, *cough* you’d scrunch up your face and push them aside and refuse to eat them, right? Of course you would. They were green and not chocolatey.

brussel sprouts. ew

You would then get that classic parent refrain, “Eat your vegetables, Gracie.” (Your parents probably didn’t call you Gracie, but you get the idea.)

Turns out that in many cases, parents really do have your best interest at heart. (I think this is my first step towards adulthood. *wobble*) Vegetables are, in fact, good for you, even though many of them taste suspiciously like the monsters that live under the bed. And by making you eat your veggies, your parents not only made sure you grew up “healthy and strong,” they taught you a valuable life lesson.

Stuff you don’t like can be good for you in the long run.

Let’s apply this to writing. :-)

Say you read a book and you hate it. People generally fall into two camps on what they do at this point: the “Maybe-it-will-get-better/ I-owe-the-author/ I’ve-already-invested-this-much-time” camp and the “Life’s-too-short-where’s-the-trashcan” camp. I alternate, depending on just how bad the book is. But that’s not the point of this post.

So these bad books are the brussel sprouts of life. Let’s take those brussel sprouts and make lemonade. (what?)

Read the book again. You heard me. Stop whining, it’s good for you.

And take notes.

Where, exactly, does it go wrong? Characters or plot or style or something else? Is your reaction visceral or rational? Is the problem in the way the author did something, or is it just something you happen to not like? (someday I will spiel on romance in mysteries) Compare a chunk of dialogue you don’t like with a chunk from a book you do like. In a technical sense, how are they different? Does the book have any redeeming qualities? Do other people like it (*cough* DaVinci Code *cough*) and if so why do you think they do?

Now apply this to your writing. Look for and avoid those mistakes you saw. This process can be just as rewarding as trying to emulate good books. Every good book (read: book you like) is good both because of what it contains and what it doesn’t contain.

As a bonus, not only does this game help you understand the technical, crafty aspects of writing, it gives you ammunition when you come across someone who actually does like the book. If you’re going to dis someone’s favorite read, they’ll want you to back it up. Now you can! (As APW knows, I am bad at following my own advice. I PROMISE that by the end of the summer I will tell you what I don’t like about the Harry Potter books. crossmyheartandhopetodie.)

the how-grace-outlines post: pushpin plotting

Every writer outlines his or her stories differently. Some use the “seat-of-the-pants” method and don’t outline at all. Others have pages of carefully typed information, or post-it notes lining their wall, or an excel spreadsheet thing. I have used most of these options at one time or another. (hey, I’m not published yet but I have been doing this for a while.)

But I have finally discovered my ideal method. I think it can best be explained in picture form:

grace's outline

This picture wins because you also get to see my hippie flower sheets and my bunny. Yeah, I’m pretty much a professional adult.

This bulletin-board method lets you move plot points, add and subtract plot points, see a basic story arc, keep track of where characters are if you have multiple POV characters, and SO MUCH MORE! (I feel like an infomercial.) It’s working for me, maybe it will work for you too.

The outline pictured is a bit old and unfortunately I don’t have a picture of my current WIP’s outline. But my bulletin-board method is particularly useful for this current WIP, in which there are two overlapping storylines, one of which is not told chronologically. The top half is one storyline, and the bottom half is the other storyline. I was so confused before I bulletin-boarded (?) it. Now I am slightly less confused. It’s beautiful.

I have decided that “bulletin-board method” is not very catchy. Please nominate a better name in the comments section. I will choose a winner, and he or she will receive world-wide recognition and possibly a virtual hug.

ETA: WE HAVE A WINNER!! Can we have a round of applause for Serena, please, who came up with “pushipin plotting.” and as promised: *awkward, don’t-really-know-you hug* Thanks Serena!