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Songwriting Workshop 2: Telling Our Story

We're going to start by telling our story in a 'learning' and 'listening' song.

A story is what lets us take our listeners on a journey.

They don't really want to go round and round the parking lot. They were hoping for a drive in the country to actually see something. Sorry, not even that amazing guitar solo or haunting melody can make it up if we fail to tell them a story.

Just as a note for those that write only worship music: We are going to look later at how the story principles apply to worship music - and they do. So we'll need this same framework then, and it will be an advantage for you if you have already worked through this section on story-telling in song.

Now, imagine your song is a three-act play. You start with the message, you weave the storyline, you create the roles, and you write the screenplay. The steps we'll follow with our song are a lot like those for a play, with just one key difference: Our whole play has to fit in only three minutes - and we may have to leave time for an intermission so we can squeeze in that great guitar solo you were thinking of.

A Real Live Song

Just so we can all see the process, we're going to use a workshop song we can look at together. But as we're going through, be thinking of your own song here.

'Where does God go?' is a real song, which was presented at a live Christian songwriting workshop. Fortunately for us, it was written by an incredibly inexperienced songwriter. It doesn't necessarily make every mistake in the book, but it comes pretty close. That means we can learn from the feedback this song received at the live workshop, and we'll be able to learn a lot from picking it apart here ourselves.

You already know the story behind your song. If you are co-writing or working with an arranger or a band, don't forget that it may make a huge difference for them to know the story too, because the music can create the right mood and reinforce the real message inside your song.

So following our own advice, we all need to get on the same page with our sample song, and we need to know the story behind it:

"Late one autumn afternoon, I was helping to tidy out an old house in a very small town in the middle of nowhere. It was kind of run down, as though money had been a struggle. The baking trays and the books said that the owner had worked hard to build a happy life there. But she was gone. Another mortgage foreclosure, but not just a statistic - a real person that had to walk out of her home, leaving everything behind. As the setting sun came through the dusty window, it happened to shine on a box of romance novels, full of promises of happy endings that don't always come true in real life.

There was no sign that she knew the Lord, and no sign that she didn't. But it all seemed very sad, and I wondered what she thought of God, and thought how much God would want to wrap his arms around her, show her truer dreams, place her confidence in a real saviour, and give her a place in a loving eternal home that can never be taken away."

We don't really know what happened. This is just a picture, not a story. 'Ruby' may have won the lottery and moved to Aruba. But we know there are people who are deeply hurting from all kinds of broken dreams. We know they need God's comfort, and we know from our own lives and from scripture that it is often the times when we are down and beaten that we are finally open to listening to God in some area of our lives.

God's gift of imagination

The picture is 'true', as far as we were able to see it. To tell an interesting story - and to communicate truth beyond the picture - we need to go further. We can imagine what might have happened, imagine how God responded, and what choice Ruby faced as she closed the door for the last time. Soon we have a timeless story of hurt, an eternal message of hope, and a choice that we all need to make when the hard times come: Do we pretend God is not there, and just run away? Or do we let ourselves see he is closer than ever, take his hand, and follow him?

Your story will likely lead in some similar direction. There will be elements you know, and others you need to imagine or re-imagine, either because you don't know them, or you need to fit a complicated story into a shorter time.

Here is some good news. People usually expect your songs to be works of fiction. Yes, as a songwriter, you are entitled to a fully paid up Artistic License. You can pick yours up at the back after class. Just make sure you use your powers for good - never claim something is true that is not, or real when it is made up. People need to understand what parts of your song are real - like God's love - and what parts are imagined - the story.

A word of warning: Remember your license is completely invalid when it comes to any re-imagining of God and his word - that part must always be right, and we continually need to check our ideas and our songs with the plumb line of his word. But like the playwright, you can manipulate your characters, scenes and stories in whatever way is necessary to get the message across in the time you have.

Notice that it's taken us more than three minutes just to explain what we're hoping to do in the song. Clearly our story is going to have to have simpler bones, or we are going to hauled off the stage with that old hook around the neck .

The most basic story outline might be:

  • Ruby has left her house and dreams behind
  • She was driven away
  • Will she blame God, or trust God?

OK, that fits. But we do have time to say more, or say it in a more interesting way. We might expand that into three acts:

Act I
Late in the day, sun is setting as though something is coming to an end.
A house where someone has walked out, leaving everything behind.
There are romance novels in a box, maybe the happy endings have been left behind too. Ruby has left her house and dreams behind.

Act II
The house used to be a sunny, happy and hopeful place.
Why did she leave? Clouds came and blotted out her dreams.
Doesn't even matter whether it was her fault, she was driven away.

Now she's out, it's getting dark. She's alone somewhere.
Will she blame God, and become bitter?
Or despite the circumstances, will she turn toward God?
Trust him for whatever comes next?

Now is a great time to chop up your story (or your existing workshop song). Create the simplest outline you can, then divide it into logical acts. Be thinking of detail you must have be there to tell the story, detail that is nice to have be there to keep things interesting, and detail to drop or simplify because it will never fit in three minutes.

Note that the Big Questions and the Important Themes are not necessarily explicitly present here. You are looking for the logical progression in your song, which brings us to: Plot and progression.

The Plot Thickens

There is not a lot of plot to the outline of our sample song.

However, in its defence, there is some progression, which is to say that we learn a little more in each act, there is a gradual revealing, working our way to the big question posed by our picture. Do we want to know more about Ruby as we go? Do we ever get to the point of wondering what happened to her?

Your song definitely needs plot or progression, or even both. If your song isn't really going somewhere, it isn't really going anywhere.

You can repeat the same thing in different ways, but repetition is surprisingly repetitive. If there is no plot, no story, no development, then you might have the equivalent of a chorus (as in a short worship chorus), but you wouldn't have a song.

Having a plot or progression is necessary, but it's not enough. You will likely have read or seen a mystery, and come across another word starting with 'p' - predictable. This is one area where you need to fall back on your foundation: What is it that the world needs this song? What is different? If things are starting to seem predictable, you need to draw up more of the creativity that you intended to be at the heart of your song.

Checking your song for plot or progression is easy. Just ask yourself, or ask someone else: Does each act make you want to learn more?

If curiosity is not raised and maintained, or if things become predictable, the attention of your listeners is not going to be maintained either. One thing the world probably does not need is another boring song. Ooops - did someone say that out loud?

Don't let your song be boring. It's such a tragedy when there is a catchy rhythm knocking at the door, a nice melody asks us to come in, then wow! we open the door and Surprise! The song goes round and round the parking lot, never going anywhere at all.

We absolutely have to spend whatever time is necessary so we get a clear plot or progression. We might talk them into one spin around the parking lot, but by the second or third time, they just want us to stop the song so they can get out.

So we have our basic story now - there is plot, or progression, to our song. We have used our artistic license and imagination to keep it short, but hopefully with enough content so it is not too predictable or boring.

You can go a lot further with a good book on lyrics, but what we needed was an example where we could look at the 'Christian' aspect of lyrics. Our sample song will work fine for that.

Let's move on! Click here for the next section.

Round and round the car park, or will we actually go somewhere?

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