Monday, December 19, 2005

Learning From Song Lyrics

I love music. I love good tunes. I really love good lyrics. Lyrics that tell a story, that capture you. Unique, poetic lyrics.

Good lyrics inspire me as a writer, particularly those that tell a complete story. I’m captivated and challenged by such songs. Just think of how very few words there are in a song. If you’re going to tell a good story in a song, every word has to count. And here’s the key—the listener must be drawn in immediately to the story. Must immediately care about the main character’s plight and the outcome.

We authors, who tend to spend way too much time on backstory and introduction of our characters, can learn a lot by listening to good ballads. Here’s one from Bon Jovi, one of my fave rockers. (Keep in mind it’s a secular song.) It’s called The Right Side of Wrong. (If you want to get a better feel for the song, you can listen to a portion of the chorus
here.) I choose this song because the first time I heard it, I noticed how quickly I was drawn into the story. Immediately I connected with these guys—even though they’re doing something wrong. And it led me to examine the song—what elements in the lyrics pull me in? To make me almost want them to get away with their crime?

The Right Side of Wrong

A friend of a friend needs a favor.

No questions asked, there's not much more to say.
Me and the wife, we need the money.
We've got four kids all hungry, one on the way.

Slip these sweat socks in your shirt and pray they think your packin'.
Be sure to keep your head down, don't look 'em in the eye.
And don't get fancy, Ricky, we ain't Jimmy Cagney.
Look at me. Let's do the job, and let's get home tonight.

I got a half tank of gas, and if we run all the lights,
We'll slip across the border on the wrong side of right.
And just like Butch and Sundance, we'll ride until the dawn,
Sipping whiskey, singing cowboy songs On the Right Side of Wrong.

We picked a helluva of a night, from the shore I see the skyline.
In a couple of hours from now, Rick, we're gonna get out of this life.
We'll stop for smokes. I brought a six pack. We'll stop at lookers on the way back.
We'll laugh this off, keep your fingers crossed that all goes well tonight.

I got a half tank of gas, and if we run all the lights,
We'll slip across the border on the wrong side of right.
And just like Butch and Sundance we'll ride until the dawn,
Sipping whiskey, singing cowboy songs On the Right Side of Wrong.

We'll make the grade, they'll know our names. I need a friend to drive—here,
Wear my necklace of St. Christopher and talk to him while I go inside.
I'll take that suitcase, get the cash and we'll be gone before you know.
Wait until we tell the girls we're moving down to the Gulf of Mexico!

(guitar solo)

A friend of a friend needed a favor.
Life was just what happened while we were busy making plans.
We never saw nothing. There was a run-in.
.9 millimeter steel was coming for the windshield of that Oldsmobile
As the cop said, “Show your hands!”

I got a half tank of gas and if we run all the lights,
We'll slip across the border on the wrong side of right.
And just like Butch and Sundance, we'll ride until the dawn,
Sipping whiskey, singing cowboy songs On the Right Side of Wrong

What do you think? What makes us care for these guys so quickly? What can we learn from this song about making our own characters empathetic?


Vennessa said...

I'm going to skip on commenting on this particular song, simply because it's late and my mind isn't playing along. :-)

But I did want to agree with you, Brandilyn, on lyrics. They also inspire me greatly.

Many of my story ideas originate from lyrics, the song becoming my theme for that wip.

My current wip is the result of a song that made me wonder what would happen to the main character should he return to the town he fled when he was under suspicion of murder.

I write 'sequels' to songs.

Another big inspiration for me is houses or locations. But that's for another post.

Cara Putman said...

I think what makes it work is that we know the motivation immediately. They need the money for one of the men's family. Four kids with one on the way. While it doesn't necessarily make it right, it does make it understandable.

Lynetta said...

I agree with Cara about the wife and kids tugging at our heartstrings. Who would want four children to go hungry?

Also, I think it's how the words are crafted. The guy's brutal honesty makes us stop and listen to what he has to say. His words aren't flowery; they reveal a hard-luck case who's tired of struggling (and sometimes failing) to make ends meet.

Lynette Eason said...

I LOVE song lyrics. I think the reason one is drawn into that song is because the character is doing something something wrong in order to do something right - take care of his family. And I think because most of us can relate to his plight, we can kind of understand where he's coming from - especially if we put ourselves in his situation. A pregnant spouse and 4 hungry kids. Who wouldn't steal to feed their children if there was no other option?

My husband writes songs...his latest is on Newsong's newest release - Rescue. Yup, that was an advertisement...pardon me.

Anyway, he wrote a song for two friends of ours who lost a baby at birth. They named her Grace Elisabeth. She was born on September 11, 2001. We were in the hospital waiting room watching the 2nd tower come down when she made her brief appearance into this world.

I think even people who've never lost a child can relate because it starts out with something that EVERYONE can agree with - life hurts sometimes. Also, I love it when the song has a deeper meaning than the surface one. Notice the reference to Grace. Yes, the song is talking about the little girl, but it's deeper meaning is God's Grace. Anyway, the lyrics are:

Yes, life hurts sometimes,
And strength seems hard to find.
Just to think to hold, then lose your newborn girl,
And still trust the hand of Jesus,
What a witness to the world.

Because of Grace, I am stronger,
Because of Grace, these eyes can see,
There's a hand to hold forever,
That I can trust through anything,
Because of Grace, I am hopeful
There's a deeper destiny
And I can have peace here in this place
Because of Grace.
There's not a day that I can't face
Because of Grace.

Jesus made a way,
Holy Love displayed.
He died and rose to be the hope of all mankind
His mercy is still falling and His light, it still shines


Heaven's hand now holds the treasure that you long so much to see,
But you can rest assured forever,
with Grace you have eternity!


Lynette Eason said...

oops the last line was supposed to be: With Grace, you'll have eternity.

Anyway, you get the idea.


Gina Holmes said...

Great way to put the adage "why should we care." You're such a good teacher BC with a clever way of getting the point across! BTW, just started Web of Lies and loving it!

Jenny said...

I've always liked songs that tell a story. Lately however, I've been listening to Rod Stewart's American Songbook Volume 1. My parents used to sing all these songs when I was little and they bring back such memories. But now I'm hearing the flow and lilt of the words. Songs such as You Go to My Head and They Can't Take That Away From Me have lyrics to rival their lovely melodies. These Foolish Things inspires a story in me with Bogey and Bacall and The Way You Look Tonight, you know stories are already written from that inspiration. I can listen to these ad nauseum. It's the turn of the phrase that whispers in my head. I hear it and see it coming from my DH's lips. I want to dance with my Phil and have him dip me (won't happen, but I can dream). Makes it quite easy to write a love scene when this going in the background:-)
Abundant blessings!

Camy Tang said...

Other people have said it well--we sympathize with the protag because we relate to his needs and his concern for his family. We also appreciate the honesty. Then the irony and the consequences have greater emotional impact.

It's just so hard to figure out how to make characters sympathetic, especially if they're spiritually far away from God at the opening of the story, or making wrong choices. What makes me relate to a character might not make someone else relate at all.

How do you evoke sympathy? How do you measure it?


Pammer said...

I think it is the desperation that pushes them to do the wrong thing. In ways I think most of us have been there, whether we want to admit or not, not exactly what they are doing or did, but something that to us seemed to be the only way out of a situation that was unbearable. That makes us empathize if not sympathize.

Good question.