Music is a lot like movies and TV. Some stuff is just bubble gum fluff to be guilty pleasured and not thought about. Some are bold experiments in alternative navel-gazing to be enjoyed by a niche audience. The majority is somewhere in between. Which is where the lessons are to be found and learned.
I’ve never written a song. Or taken a serious stab at poetry. It all looks very hard. You complain about fitting a story into your 30 page TV pilot? Try stuffing it into three verses and a chorus? And yet some of our most gifted lyricists get the job done and make us feel all the feels.
It’s not always a complete story. Maybe it’s simply a moment in time, with the goal of delivering an emotional experience to the audience. Which should always be the aim of your writing. Don’t just tell us what happens, make us ‘feel’.
Songwriters can also teach screenwriters something many of us struggle with…nuance, suggestion, and evocative language.
Have a read of the opening lyrics of the Elvis Costello song "Good Year for the Roses":
"I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtray
Lyin' cold the way you left 'em, but at least your lips caressed them while you packed"
I think we get a good sense of the state of mind of the character here, and of the situation, and yet Elvis didn’t really mention any of it. He paints a powerful visual image. He doesn’t stop there - the title of the song is a reference to the final words he says to his departing former lover. He can’t bring himself to say what he feels, or anything honest, so all he mumbles is some garbage about the roses.
Imagine that scene playing out in your script. It screams emotional authenticity. It politely whispers subtlety and nuance. Everything is being said, but in interesting ways using visual cues and great dialogue. Often what is left unspoken is more powerful than the actual words being uttered.
Let’s stay old school and look at "Big Yellow Taxi" written by Joni Mitchell. Most of that song is ranting about ecological destruction. But that’s not what the song is about. Snuck into the last verse Joni sings about hearing the screen door slam, and the big yellow taxi took her "old man" away. Joni’s character is ranting about the environment, whilst mourning the end of a relationship. ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.’
In most real-life relationships, couples arguing about the dishes aren’t actually arguing about the dishes. Yet in many films and TV shows, couples jump straight into arguing about their emotional issues. Joni shows us how to deflect that emotional pain, or at least pile it onto some global issue rather than face it.
Obviously, Taylor Swift is amazing at this. She may lack subtlety at times, but it’s always emotionally honest and raw. I could reference "All Too Well" - the extended version on her re-do of "Red" is worth reading. Lines like, "Casually cruel in the name of being honest" read like a roadmap for a scriptwriter dealing with a breakup scene. But instead, I want to focus on a rarely heard track on that extended new release, called "Ronan". A warning first - if you have children, I don’t recommend listening to this song in public.
Taylor is using words from a mother’s blog, writing about her son’s death from cancer at aged 4. She’s turned them into a powerful, heart-breaking song:
"What if I'm standing in your closet
Trying to talk to you?
What if I kept the hand-me-downs
You won't grow into?
And what if I really thought some miracle
Would see us through?
What if the miracle was even getting
One moment with you?"
Now Taylor (and the Mom) could’ve written stuff like, ‘I really miss you, and I’m sad you’re gone, and I don’t know how my life is going to go on.’ But they convey those feelings in more powerful ways. Evocative visuals followed by a struggle to find a path out of sorrow.
The first step in any scene in any story is figuring out what you want to say, and how you want the audience to feel as they watch. The VERY NEXT step should be thinking about ways to reach your goals in ways that let your audience filter through their own emotional lens. To guide them, not hit them on the head with a hammer. Nuance, not obviousness. A writer in full command of their craft is able to trust that nuance. To feel confident their indicators, hints, and suggestions, if done well, will be received, and will deliver a much more impactful emotional response.
So next time you need inspiration, read lyrics from some of the great songwriters. Anyone who can make a stranger cry, or laugh, or feel anything at all in three minutes has a rare skill we can all learn from.