Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 6, 2023

Writing Short Stories: Lessons from Singer-songwriters

By Eldred "Bob" Bird

guitar with a notepad and a pen for writing songs

Besides writing, music is one of my passions. So much so that I volunteer at the Musical Instrument Museum here in Phoenix as a gallery guide. While working my shift recently, I had a thought—there are a lot of people in music that I can learn from when it comes to writing short stories.

The music industry is full of amazing storytellers, especially folk and country music. Somehow these singer-songwriters manage to pack interesting characters, compelling storylines, and tons of emotion into only a minutes long performance. True, the music lifts their tales to a higher level, but the right words still do the heavy lifting.

So, how can we as writers learn from these poets and troubadours? Let’s take a look at some lyrics from a few of my favorite singer-songwriters and see what we can discover.

Characters

If you want to hook a reader right away, a compelling character goes a long way toward doing the job. The problem is how to accomplish the task with only a few lines. Country storyteller Tom T. Hall was a master at this. This is the beginning of his song Faster Horses:

He was an old-time cowboy, don't you understand
His eyes were sharp as razor blades his face was leather tan
His toes were pointed inward from a-hangin' on a horse
He was an old philosopher, of course
He was so thin I swear you could have used him for a whip
He had to drink a beer to keep his britches on his hips
I knew I had to ask him about the mysteries of life
He spit between his boots and he replied

Building the Story

In the first ten or fifteen seconds of the song he manages to create a character we can immediately picture and makes us want to know more about him. He does this by using familiar images such as an “old-time cowboy” and colorful descriptions like “eyes as sharp as razor blades” and “so thin you could have used him as a whip.” The “spit between his boots” puts an exclamation point on the description.

A couple other Tom T. Hall songs that feature wonderful character portraits worth studying are “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine” and “The Year that Clayton Delaney Died.”

Compelling Storylines

No matter how fascinating your characters are, if they don’t have a story to tell then they’re not going to hold the reader’s interest. This is where we can learn from the story-song writers. These performers manage to pack a full story into such a compact space. It’s like flash fiction set to music.

One of my all-time favorite practitioners of the story-song was Harry Chapin. No one could spin a tale like Harry. Most of his songs were too long for radio play, but a few managed to sneak onto the charts. The most famous of those was Cat’s in the Cradle, the story of the relationship between a father and son. Every verse is a snapshot of how their relationship develops over the years. The first verse creates the foundation and sets an expectation for where the relationship might go:

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talking 'fore I knew it, and as he grew
He'd say "I'm gonna be like you, dad"
"You know I'm gonna be like you"

Building the Story

Each new verse builds on the theme until the final revelation. In less than four minutes we see a whole generation pass and a complete cautionary tale unfolds. The fact that the story is told in first person adds to the emotional impact, making the moral of the story even more poignant, as shown by the last couple of lines:

And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He'd grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

Other examples from the Chapin catalogue I highly recommend include WOLD, Taxi, Mr. Tanner, and Story of a Life. Take the time to listen not just to the words but how they are put together to paint the landscape of each of these lives.

Emotional Impact

As writers, we’re all aware of the importance of an emotional hook, especially when you’re trying to capture the reader’s attention right away. Musical storytelling is no different. In both short stories and story-songs we have limited time and space to accomplish this task, so it’s a good idea to set that stage immediately.

A perfect example of a fast emotional hook comes from Operator by Jim Croce. The whole song is just dialogue—one side of a telephone conversation. Within the first few lines we know what is motivating the singer.

Operator, well could you help me place this call?
See, the number on the matchbook is old and faded
She's living in L.A. with my best old ex-friend Ray
A guy she said she knew well and sometimes hated

Building the Story

With the line “the number on the matchbook is old and faded” we get a sense that whatever he’s dealing with isn’t recent, but something from his past that he’s still holding on to. In the very next lines, we find out what he’s dealing with is heartbreak and betrayal. The chorus shows how he’s trying to deal with these feelings:

Isn't that the way they say it goes? Well, let's forget all that
And give me the number if you can find it
So I can call just to tell 'em I'm fine and to show
I've overcome the blow, I've learned to take it well
I only wish my words could just convince myself
That it just wasn't real, but that's not the way it feels

He sees forgiveness as the path to his healing, but we get the feeling that the scars are too deep. After getting the number, he still begs the operator for help. In the last verse we see his real motivation for attempting to make the call:

Operator, well let's forget about this call
There's no one there I really wanted to talk to
Thank you for your time, ah, you've been so much more than kind
And you can keep the dime

In the end we realize that he’s so lonely and heartbroken that he’s just looking for someone to talk to. That’s his whole reason for dialing the operator—just to hear a friendly voice.

If you’d like to hear more of this artist and his ability to evoke strong emotions, I would suggest listening to Time in a Bottle, Another of his most famous songs.

Final Thoughts

These artists are more than just musicians and entertainers, they’re poets, philosophers, and writers as well. Their songs give a window into so many different aspects of life, while managing to accomplish it with an economy of words. This article just scratches the surface. There’s so much more we can learn from their examples.

Your Assignment

Pick some of your favorite artists, dig deep into their catalogues, and really listen to their words. You’re sure to find some hidden gems you can learn from and incorporate into your own writer voice.

Who are some of your favorite songwriters? What have you learned from their lyrics and what kind of effect have they had on your writing? Let us know in the comments below.

* * * * * *

About Bob

Eldred "Bob" Bird

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).

His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

Top Image by 3422763 via Pixabay

Bob Juggling Knives

28 comments on “Writing Short Stories: Lessons from Singer-songwriters”

    1. Thanks. I'm glad this resonated with you. Music has always been a big part of my personal story, so it means a lot to me to have toe opportunity to share this.

  1. Thank you for your article Bob. I agree completely. An old boyfriend of mine was a musician, a singer songwriter and he played guitar. His songs were pure poetry back then and made me appreciate the words of the songs I have listened to ever since.

  2. Wow. I have always loved music for it's sound, rhythm, and the stories. Somehow I never thought to study them and apply that study to my writing. Powerful. Thank you, Bob. This is a tool I can use immediately and a lesson I'll not soon forget.

    1. Oops. I forgot to tell you the song I thought of when reading this post. Mr. Bojangles by Jerry Jeff Walker. The version I hear in my head is by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The story though-
      "He'd dance for you,
      In worn out shoes,
      Silver hair,
      A ragged shirt,
      And baggy pants. He'd dance for you
      In worn out shoes
      Silver hair
      A ragged shirt
      And baggy pants"
      And in the next verse:
      "He looked to me
      To be
      The eyes of age"

      Man. I can see Mr. Bojangles so clearly! Definitely a lesson in story telling.

      1. I've listened to these guys forever, and this is probably my favorite song from them. The first time I heard it I think I was in middle school. The lyrics played out in my head like a movie. I can still picture it to this day!

    2. Thanks, Lynette. I love how something can be a part of our lives for so long, then suddenly take on new meaning when we look at it from a different perspective.

  3. Hi Bob,
    Cool topic for story building. This also reminds me of flash fiction and could help short story writing too.

    Kris

    1. Yeah, it really is in the same boat as flash fiction, with the added dimension of music and rhyme just to complicate the process. It takes a word-master thinking on a different level to accomplish the task.

  4. Just an added note. This las week we lost one of my all time favorite storytellers. Jimmy Buffett. He didn't just write amazing stories set to music, he lived them. Jimmy, you will be sorely missed.

    Fair winds and following seas, Mr. Buffett. May you enjoy this next big adventure you've embarked on.

    1. I love that song! I've been a Don McLean fan since the early '70s. Most people don't realize that his catalogue goes so much deeper than just American Pie and Vincent. A great storyteller for sure.

  5. Brilliant, Eldrid! I've always loved folk and country & western songs for the same reasons--storytelling and emotion. Plus, they get that rhyme in there. How do they do that so effortlessly? I need to take a closer look at the compact way the songs are structured. I've been enjoying a Phil Vasser album recently. He writes and sings about how life is slipping away, as in My Next Thirty Years and Last Day of My Life. I sing along to Little Red Rodeo as he chases after his girl. Love old-time western songs that tell a complete story, like Streets of Laredo. How about the Beatles' Paperback Writer? Kind of apropos.
    Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
    It took me years to write, will you take a look?
    It's based on a novel by a man named Lear
    And I need a job
    So I wanna be a paperback writer
    Paperback writer
    It's a dirty story of a dirty man
    And his clinging wife doesn't understand
    His son is working for the Daily Mail
    It's a steady job
    But he wants to be a paperback writer
    Paperback writer

  6. Gordon Lightfoot has been my favourite singer/songwriter for over 50 years, and the influence of his lyrics on my writing has been profound. Lightfoot was part of Toronto’s Yorkville coffee house scene back in the late 1960s, and he went on to write and perform over 500 songs. He toured right up until a few weeks before his death on May 1st of this year. He was 84. Lightfoot wrote about life, love, loss, loneliness and longing. He used simple words to create the vivid images that told his stories.

    Some of my personal favourites:
    Early Morning Rain
    Song For A Winter’s Night
    Home From The Forest
    Beautiful
    The Last Time I Saw Her Face
    Steel Rail Blues
    Second Cup Of Coffee
    Spanish Moss
    Affair on Fifth Avenue
    Hi’way Songs

    (My cat Jenny loves his music too, but I think the subtlety of his lyrics is beyond her.)

    1. Great choice, Maggie. I grew up on Gordon Lightfoot's music. I think My sister and brother-in-law had just about everything he ever recorded. His music was part of the soundtrack of my life.

      1. "His music was part of the soundtrack of my life."

        Great line, Bob. I'm glad you know and admire his work too.

        Your post today was a great example of how one art form enhances another. Music, writing, art ... They all let us express how we see the world.

        ~ Maggie

  7. The three songs that make me stop and listen, with my throat aching...EVERY time:

    * Landslide (Stevie Nicks)

    * Wide Open Spaces (Dixie Chicks)

    * Leader of the Band (Dan Fogelberg)

    And I had no idea Chapin was such a prolific songwriter- I love tons of his songs (that I didn't know were his)!

  8. I love Chapin, Croce, and Tom T. Hall. All great storytellers. I've learned to cut my short stories so they use less words to get the point across. Great pos.

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