What can the great songwriter’s lyrics teach us about writing?
A lot of writers are lovers of music; many listen to music while they write. But how many are actually influenced by songs. And when I say influenced, I mean – not only take their inspiration from – but actually look at songwriting as a way to improve their own writing. As writers, we are always told to look at the great writers for tips on how to write well – look at Hemingway for economy of prose, look at Elmore Leonard for crackling dialogue – but what about the great songwriters?
To give some examples of what writers can learn from songwriters, I’m going to use one of my favourite songwriters: Bruce Springsteen. I could just as easily have used Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and on and on (and I may do in future columns) but the article would most likely end up 5,000 words long and…let’s face it…neither of us wants that!
So what can Bruce Springsteen teach a writer about writing?
Descriptions and similes
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things, for instance “faster than a speeding bullet”. However, that simile is a cliché and oftentimes writers descend into cliché when they write similes. What great songwriters can teach us is how to approach the simile from left of centre and come up with something new and original. Springsteen has always done this in his songwriting. From lines such as
“Endless juke joints in Valentino drag,
Where dancers scrape the tears up
Off a street dressed down in rags.”
“There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away,
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burnt-out Chevrolets.”
I could go on quoting for hours – as I could with Dylan or Cohen – but you get the idea. The use of interesting and unusual juxtapositions of imagery to create new and striking descriptions and similes.
Here are a couple of quotes by Springsteen on writing the characters in his songs:
“Slowly, the dread that I managed to keep out of [the song] ‘Rosalita’ squeezed its way into the lives of the people on [the album] Born to Run.”
“The songs [for the album Darkness on the Edge of Town] were difficult to write. I was searching for a tone between Born to Run’s spiritual hopefulness and ‘70s cynicism. I wanted my characters to feel older but not beaten. The daily struggle in every song increased. The possibility of transcendence or personal redemption felt harder to come by. I steered away from escapism and sat my characters down in the middle of a community under siege.”
Here, there is this notion that the characters are real people, that what happens to them is out of the writer’s hands: ‘the dread … squeezed its way in’ and ‘the daily struggle in every song increased’. Throughout his career, Springsteen’s characters grew in ways that he could never have foreseen and couldn’t control. Of course, this was because he changed, and those changes were reflected in his characters. Most prose writers feel exactly the same way about their characters. Characters must not be forced; they must be allowed to find their own way, to be living, breathing people that will connect with the reader.
Show Don’t Tell
Springsteen builds the personality of the characters in his songs – especially his later songs – out of the simple mundane things that happen to them. With the exception of ‘big’ songs, like ‘Born in the USA’, there’s very little telling – it’s all about showing us what the person’s life is like. This is especially true of the songs on Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad where Springsteen lets the seemingly mundane details of the character’s life coalesce into a portrait of the person. By the end of the song, it may seem like little has happened but we will usually have a clear picture of who the character is or will have witnessed some kind of transformation that they went through.
I’ll finish on one of my favourite Springsteen descriptions that encapsulates in a couple of lines the character, Mary, from the song ‘Thunder Road’. It’s not the nicest image but it’s brutally human and honest:
“So, you’re scared and you’re thinking
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore,
Well, show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,
You ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re alright.”