January 26th, 2018

What Writers Can Learn From Song Lyrics

I was chatting with an old friend via email this morning, and we were discussing song lyrics. It’s a favorite topic of mine, because I’ve always wanted to write them. After all, they’re just a hugely abbreviated form of writing. Mini Flash Fiction, with poetry thrown in. Extreme write tight! 

If they can do this with less than a page, what should I be able to do with 365 of them?! No excuses. Lyrics inspire me to write better.

I love how songwriters can capture a mood or a situation with one stanza. As an author, I’m held captive by the words. Taking something old, and through brilliant writing, making it over in a new way. The lyrics to Carly Simon’s song, Jesse, inspired my July release, The Last True Cowboy. 

Music styles change (a huge amount, in just my lifetime!), but for me, the lyrics are the magic. If the notes can hold a candle to the lyrics, you’ve got a hit. It’s funny; I don’t really care for country music for the most part, but I find the lyrics very strong.

Here are a few snippets that I’ve loved for years:

 

We had no cameras
to shoot the landscape
we passed the hash pipe
and played our Doors tapes
and it was dark
so dark at night
and we held onto each other
like brother to brother
we promised our mothers we’d write
and we would all go down together

                      Billy Joel – Goodnight Saigon

 

 

 

So she took her love
For to gaze awhile
Upon the fields of barley
In his arms she fell as her hair came down
Among the fields of gold

Sting – Fields of Gold

 

 

 

 

How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy
There is no monopoly in common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

Sting – Russians

 

 

 

And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance

Garth Brooks – The Dance

 

I’m gonna love you forever
Forever and ever, amen
As long as old men sit and talk about the weather
As long as old women sit and talk about old men
If you wonder how long I’ll be faithful
I’ll be happy to tell you again
I’m gonna love you
Forever and ever
Forever and ever, amen

Randy Travis – Forever and Ever, Amen

 

Fat man sitting on a little stool Takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you
Hands me the ticket smiles and whispers good luck
Cuddle up angel cuddle up my little dove
Well ride down baby into this tunnel of love

I can feel the soft silk of your blouse
And them soft thrills in our little fun house
Then the lights go out and it’s just the three of us
You me and all that stuff were so scared of
Gotta ride down baby into this tunnel of love

               Bruce Springsteen – Tunnel of Love

I swear I’m going to try writing some!

Are you captivated by lyrics? Share your faves in the comments!

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About Laura

Author Headshot SmallLaura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women’s Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central. The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Laura began a video blog for writers, answering their burning questions. You can watch all the episodes HERE. If you have a question you’d like her to address in a future episode, leave her a comment!

Did you know Laura teaches craft classes? Check out her upcoming ones, both online and in person, HERE.

55 comments to What Writers Can Learn From Song Lyrics

  • Tracy Fox

    Enya – Even in The Shadows

    Even in the shadows
    I turn around
    To find you walk away
    And even when I whisper
    The winds will come
    To steal the words I say
    I could fall and keep on falling
    I could call and keep on calling
    Wonder why this love is over
    Wonder why it’s not forever
    Even in the silence
    I hear my heart
    It’s still a part of you
    And even in the morning
    When light has come
    I don’t know what to do

  • My three favorite musical acts are my favorites for a combination of lyrics, music, and gorgeous vocals and harmony. Here are a few favorites, but it’s nearly impossible to pick out one song from each:

    INDIGO GIRLS – DECONSTRUCTION

    We talked up all night
    And still came to no conclusion
    We started a fight
    That ended in silent confusion

    And as we sat stuck
    You could hear the trash truck
    Making its way through the neighborhood

    Picking up the thrown out
    Different from house to house
    We get to decide what we think is no good

    We’re sculpted from youth
    The chipping away makes me weary
    And as for the truth
    It seems like we just pick a theory

    Ah it’s the one that justifies
    Our daily lives
    And backs us with quiver and arrows

    To protect openings
    Cause when the warring begins
    How quickly the wide open narrows

    Into the smallness of
    Our deconstruction of love
    We thought it was changing
    But it never was
    It’s just the same as it ever was

    (full lyrics here: https://tinyurl.com/y7g736d3)

    BRANDI CARLILE – HEROES AND SONGS

    Some rights and some wrongs
    Some heroes and songs
    Are much better left unsolved
    Between fiction and fact
    Illusion and pact
    Where we’ve been into what we’ve become
    Although we have changed
    We’re never estranged
    And there’s nothing I’d trade from before
    I love you my friend, my dear means to an end
    But you’re not in my dreams anymore.

    (full lyrics here: https://tinyurl.com/y8gvkfxt)

    THE ACCIDENTALS – ARIZONA STARS

    I think that life is like a jack pine
    We cycle through the growth and fire
    When someone burns us down, we rise up through unlikely ground
    And this time we grow even higher
    I…I try, But striving for perfection is a waste of time
    I apologize, But it wasn’t all for nothing in the scheme of life
    I…I try, But striving for perfection is a waste of time
    I apologize, But all these imperfections are mine
    I try to remember the better times
    I try to remember the better times

    (full lyrics here: https://tinyurl.com/yddgjvgb)

    And now I have to go off and listen to every song I have by these three acts. See you in a couple weeks. 😛

  • Merissa Racine

    I’ve been thinking the same thing. In three or four minutes, especially country music, you’ve got a whole story. There’s a line in a new song I’ve heard where he’s singing about where the relationship is going, “Is it written in the stars, babe, or is it written in the sand”. That line just speaks to me.

  • How about just one line? From “Poison and Wine” by the Civil Wars: “I don’t love you but I always will.” One line like that, that captures so much, can make a song. That was a soundtrack song while writing THE FAR END OF HAPPY, along with “Say Something (I’m Giving Up on You).

  • Jennifer

    Terrific article. How about Cyndi Lauper:

    Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick,
    And think of you
    Caught up in circles confusion
    Is nothing new
    Flashback–warm nights–
    Almost left behind
    Suitcases of memories,
    Time after–

    I mean, there’s a flashback right there in the first verse and it’s only two words–“warm nights.”

  • My ‘click’ moment for my hero of What’s in a Name? came from Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band.” Papa, I don’t think I said I love you near enough.”

  • Laura, thanks so much for starting this rousing discussion of my favorite source of Mini Flash Fiction and cliche-busting, song lyrics and other poetry. And thanks everyone else for your awesome and inspiring contributions! Months worth of food for thought.

  • I listen to country music every day while I do my barn work and find SO many ideas for stories. One of my current WIPs was inspiried by (don’t laugh) Dierks Bentley’s, Drunk on a Plane.
    Those songwriters amaze me with their gift for crafting entire moods/worlds/stories in just a line or two. Eric Church is my current obsession. HIs writing is so raw and real. So many books could come from his music.

  • I’m in awe of those that can create story in song. I listen to every genre, from classic rock to rap—and even country.

  • I too would love to write song lyrics! I keep a journal with some of my favorites.

    Hayes Carll is as country as you can get, but the lyrics to this song slay me…maybe because I’ve been there.

    You say ‘I love you’
    I say ‘me too’
    We don’t think much about it
    It’s just a thing that we do

    We go out walking
    We don’t talk much
    We lie down together
    But our hearts never touch

    Oh baby it’s a hard way
    It’s an eternity
    We got the life that we wanted
    Not the love that we need

    We never go to bed angry
    Cause we never fight
    Yeah we never go crazy
    In the middle of the night

    We could stay here forever
    Just holding on
    We both had our reasons
    But our reasons are gone

    Oh baby it’s a hard way
    It’s an eternity
    We got the life that we wanted
    Not the love that we need

    In our hearts we knew better
    But we couldn’t let go
    Now it’s time to quit our island
    What we’ve always known

  • So song lyrics are where my writing bug started! I wrote songs for years before I ever tried to pen a novel. In fact, in a YA book I recently wrote (still in editing stages), there’s a musical involved, and one day I popped over and wrote a song that would go with that faux show:

    If he could see past my skin
    Would he begin
    To understand my heart
    And show sympathy
    For what I feel
    The depth of my grief

    If I could see beyond his mask
    But I won’t ask
    What he’s hiding in his heart
    Whatever misery
    Makes him
    Behave like such a beast

    Why pretend he’s someone I want him to be
    The man I imagined is just that—a fantasy
    We look for what we hope to find
    Reach out with both eyes blind
    And act surprised when it all turns to dust and destiny

    There’s more, but I’ll leave it at that! (Oh yeah, (c) 2017 on those lyrics and all that jazz!)

    Great post, Laura!

  • colleen

    Sting, Dan Fogelberg, Billy Joel—some of my favorites for their music and lyrics. We can’t forget the legend who just announced the end of his tour …

    “I am”… I said
    To no one there
    And no one heard at all
    Not even the chair
    ~Neil Diamond

  • You guys have me thinking of more! Love Walkin’ in Memphis by Marc Cohn:
    Saw the ghost of Elvis
    On Union Avenue
    Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
    Then I watched him walk right through
    Now security they did not see him
    They just hovered ’round his tomb
    But there’s a pretty little thing
    Waiting for the King
    Down in the Jungle Room

    then the next verse:
    Now Muriel plays piano
    Every Friday at the Hollywood
    And they brought me down to see her
    And they asked me if I would
    Do a little number
    And I sang with all my might
    She said
    “Tell me are you a Christian child?”
    And I said “Ma’am, I am tonight”

  • crbwriter

    I love song lyrics, too! I credit Jimmy Buffett with devising a masterful character arc in the refrains for Margaritaville:
    It’s nobody’s fault
    It could be my fault
    It’s my own damn fault.
    I trust you all can fill in with the rest of the words.

  • There are a few songs always make me stop and listen (and often cry).

    Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, particularly this stanza:

    Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
    ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
    But time makes you bolder
    Even children get older
    And I’m getting older, too

    Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces

    Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
    Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
    To find a dream and a life of their own
    A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

    Many precede and many will follow
    A young girl’s dreams no longer hollow
    It takes the shape of a place out west
    But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed

    She needs wide open spaces
    Room to make her big mistakes
    She needs new faces
    She knows the high stakes

    She traveled this road as a child
    Wide eyed and grinning, she never tired
    But now she won’t be coming back with the rest
    If these are life’s lessons, she’ll take this test

    She needs wide open spaces
    Room to make her big mistakes
    She needs new faces
    She knows the high stakes
    She knows the high stakes

    As her folks drive away, her dad yells, “Check the oil!”
    Mom stares out the window and says, “I’m leaving my girl”
    She said, “It didn’t seem like that long ago”
    When she stood there and let her own folks know

    She needed wide open spaces
    Room to make her big mistakes
    She needs new faces
    She knows the high stakes

    I’m also a HUGE FAN of Don Henley’s “Heart of the Matter”, particularly this beginning part. That last line just nails my heart to the wall.

    I got the call today, I didn’t want to hear
    But I knew that it would come
    An old, true friend of ours was talkin’ on the phone
    She said you found someone
    And I thought of all the bad luck
    And the struggles we went through
    And how I lost me and you lost you
    What are these voices outside love’s open door
    Make us throw off our contentment
    And beg for something more?

  • JC Booker

    I loved this post. I have songs for many of my scenes. I can write and edit a dozen times, but I can get that original fresh feeling back when I play the song.

    This is my favorite (Rod Stewart). “She” is a delightful childlike woman and “he” is a serious mature man, oblivious to her romantically until she suddenly says “Please kiss me”.” He surprises himself when he does – and realizes he’s in love with her. “Am I the person I was this morning, And are you the same you.” Aw.

    For the First Time

    Are those your eyes, is that your smile
    I’ve been lookin at you forever
    But I never saw you before
    Are these your hands holding mine
    Now I wonder how I could of been so blind

    For the first time I am looking in your eyes
    For the first time I’m seeing who you are
    I can’t believe how much I see
    When you’re lookin back at me
    Now I understand why love is…
    Love is… for the first time…

    Can this be real, can this be true
    Am I the person I was this morning
    And are you the same you
    It’s all so strange how can it be
    All along this love was right in front of me

    Such a long time ago
    I had given up on finding this emotion..ever again
    But you’re here with me now
    Yes I’ve found you some how
    And I’ve never been so sure

  • I thought I knew all the Stewart songs, JC, but I didn’t know that one – thanks!

  • She’s got eyes of the bluest skies
    As if they thought of rain
    I hate to look into those eyes
    And see an ounce of pain
    Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place
    Where as a child I’d hide
    And pray for the thunder
    And the rain
    To quietly pass me by

    Sweet Child of Mine by Guns and Roses. I remember being stunned at the beautiful sentiment in this hard rock song!

  • I love John Denver’s songs. I still play his Greatest Hits album.
    Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy, sunshine in my eyes can make me cry.

    Perhaps love is like a resting place, a shelter from the storm. It exists to give you comfort, it is there to keep you warm. And in those times of trouble when you are most alone, the memory of love will bring you home.
    Thanks for blogging on this subject, Laura. I love song lyrics and poetry. I discovered some wonderful music reading all the responses.

    • I listen to my John Denver and Gordon Lightfoot stations on Pandora all the time, Barb! You’re right. They’re awesome.

      • Fae Rowen

        We were so lucky to have our boat slipped in Ventura County while it was being outfitted. Imagine our surprise the first week-end we went up to spend the week-end on it and our neighbor asked for permission to come aboard. It was John Denver! During the two months of outfitting a new boat with electronics, canvas, sea trials, and more, we were lucky to be invited to John Denver’s (much bigger!) boat for drinks, food and music. What a down-to-earth man.

  • I love being inspired by music lyrics.

    BTW, Neither Garth nor Randy wrote the songs you attributed to them–they just recorded them. Sting, Billy Joel, and Bruce did write the songs attributed to them. 🙂

    denise

  • You’re right! Like with movies and book authors – we remember who covered it – not the author…. That’s sad.

  • Great point! Lyrics must be concise but at the same time captive and emotive. Makes me appreciate well developed writing style even more.

  • Fae Rowen

    Oh, Laura, what a great post. Just thinking about your point gives juice to my brain! I wrote my very first book, the medieval you’ll never see, to Sting’s Fields of Gold. After that, each main character got their own “theme song.” Now I have a playlist for each book. I think of it as the music to go with the movie of the book. My latest “acquisition” is from Thirty Seconds to Mars’ “Walk on Water”: “Can you even see what you’re fighting for?”

    And you know me, I’ve made whole scenes after getting an idea from a song…like the belly-dancing scene in the contemporary.

  • Wonderful post, Laura, and I’ve loved reading through the replies. Here’s a favorite line from John Mellencamp’s Circling Around the Moon.: ‘Spilled dreams soaking into thirsty dust.’ So much to learn!

  • Thanks for this inspiration. Lyrics are the soul of a song.

  • Sheri Thomas

    Desperado is one of my all-time favorites:

    “Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?
    Come down from your fences; open the gate
    It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you
    You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late”

  • […] http://writersinthestormblog.com/2018/01/what-writers-can-learn-from-song-lyrics/ “I love how songwriters can capture a mood or a situation with one stanza. As an author, I’m held captive by the words. Taking something old, and through brilliant writing, making it over in a new way. The lyrics to Carly Simon’ssong, Jesse, inspired my July release, The Last True Cowboy.” I do love songs but usually TV is what inspires me, if anything. […]

  • […] from many places. K.M. Weiland has 4 ways for writers to become better readers, Laura Drake shows what writers can learn from song lyrics, and Danielle Davis tells how to reboot your novel with the short story […]

  • carrienichols

    I love song lyrics! My husband never knows the lyrics, but for me I have to know the lyrics to like a song.

    “Raglan Road”
    On Raglan Road on an autumn day
    I saw her first and knew
    That her dark hair would weave a snare
    That I might one day rue

    I saw the danger, yet I passed
    Along the enchanted way
    And I said, “Let grief be a falling leaf
    At the dawning of the day”

    On Grafton Street in November
    We tripped lightly along the ledge
    Of a deep ravine where can be seen
    The worth of passions pledged

    The ‘Queen of Hearts’ still making tarts
    And I not making hay
    Oh, I loved too much and by such, by such
    Is happiness thrown away

    I gave her gifts of the mind
    I gave her the secret sign
    That’s known to the artists who have known
    The true gods of sound and stone

    And word and tint I did not stint
    For I gave her poems to say
    With her own name there and her own dark hair
    Like clouds over fields of May

    On a quiet street where old ghosts meet
    I see her walking now
    Away from me so hurriedly
    My reason must allow

    That I had loved not as I should
    A creature made of clay
    When the angel woos the clay
    He’ll lose his wings at dawn of day

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