The Weekly Writing Tips are a collection of best practices for writing and reporting at Global Voices. April's tips are brought to you by Elizabeth Rivera, Latin America editor.
Last week we learned some storytelling tips from filmmaker Andrew Stanton. Now I invite you to explore songs as inspiration for our storytelling techniques. I am a big music fan and without a doubt many of the most powerful stories I've come across are songs.
‘Make your story sing: Learn from songwriters how to tell stories in just a few words’
Steve Buttry, director of Student Media at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication, tells us in his blog The Buttry Diary:
A common conflict in newspaper newsrooms today is newsholes getting tighter and writers complaining about space limitations on their stories. While space is not limited online, busy digital readers still favor tighter stories. Without question, some stories lose important substance as they get cut for tighter newsholes. But writers should not assume that length restrictions preclude quality narrative writing. Listen to some of your favorite songs. Study the storytelling of the songwriters. They tell powerful stories in fewer words than the average daily news story. Use those techniques in your stories.
Follow the story arc
Jack Hart, retired writing coach from the Oregonian and author of A Writer’s Coach, teaches writers to follow a story arc. Buttry used the story arc to analyze a song, so let's do the same with one of Global Voices’ favorite songs: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen; one of the weirdest, most inspired and least-understood songs in the history of rock.
Songwriter Freddy Mercury never disclosed the meaning of the lyrics. Perhaps it's this mystery, along with a great interpretation, that has made it one of the most sung songs in English. And here's the first lesson we can take from it: nobody had ever heard anything quite like it before.
- Exposition: The exposition is where you introduce your protagonist and set the scene. A song doesn’t have room for wasted words. You need to start moving your story along from your first words. Freddy Mercury does it immediately in his first two stanzas. A cold, depressed feeling, life doesn't feel real. The sort of feeling you get when you want to wake up from a dream. Also some brief whimsical reminiscing about carefree days when he (the character) was ‘easy come, easy go’.
- Protagonist engages the complication: The song shifts from exposition to rising action, when the protagonist engages the complication, or the central conflict, of the story. In this case, Mercury uses the dialogue with his mom which ends with the statement: “I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.”
- Rising action: That whole ‘mamma-mia’ bit; adrenaline-ridden, panicked thoughts, on the edge, and about to ‘pull the trigger’.
- Climax: Mercury showed how you don’t need a lot of space to set up the climax of your story. He did it in four sentences, when after all the ranting we hear this challenge: So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?
- Denouement: This is where you draw your story quickly to a close following the climax.
- Conflict/resolution: Freddy Mercury gives up. Love is gone, so nothing really matters.
There are also other important elements to take into account in our storytelling that we can borrow from songwriting, according to Steve Buttry:
- Dialogue. Look at a story you’re having trouble cutting. How many quotes are you using? Don’t use quotes for information. Use them for dialogue. Sparse use of dialogue draws attention and adds power to the quotes you use. Look at Mercury's use of dialogue with his mama. It sets the tone, it builds the character.
- Setting: In a short story such as a song, you don’t have as much space to develop each story element thoroughly. Character, plot, conflict and theme are the most important elements of this story and each is fully developed. Setting is important in Queen's song and it's stated in the beginning.
- Hearing the notes that aren’t played: The reader hears some of the notes we don’t play, so to speak. The reader becomes a more active participant in the story, filling in important details rather than becoming a passive sponge absorbing every scrap we can empty from our notebooks. This song is a perfect example.
- Scenes: The story unfolds in scenes, which don’t need to be long and do need to move the story along.
- Action: The song bristles with action. Verbs give your story its sense of action. Check out the verbs in this song: escape, kill, throw away, let go, stone, love, cry, sent shivers. They are loaded with action, emotion, violence. Every sentence revolves around active verbs.
- Repetition. Of course, a news story can’t use a chorus — or in this case a catchy phrase like “I'm just a poor boy” — to repeat a theme as frequently as a song. But other forms of repetition can emphasize points or build momentum.
- Adapt to your medium. Of course, newswriting is not the same thing as songwriting. You may need to use some attribution; the songwriter simply narrates. You can’t select just the interesting facts and details. There are important facts that you need to get into the story. Journalism ethics require fairness, while many songs take sides. BUT don’t use the differences between songwriting and your medium as excuses to keep you from strong storytelling. Use them as challenges that will hone your skill as you overcome them to write the most engaging, memorable stories.
- Read aloud. No one writes a song without singing it and listening to it to work out the pacing and the rhythm. Similarly, you need to hear your story as you write it and especially when you think you’re done. Read the whole story aloud, so you can hear the flow, the pace, the dialogue.
- Rewrite. Too many reporters feel they need to perfect their lead before they can move on. They never get into the flow of the story because they keep interrupting that flow by looking for the perfect word. The fictional novelist William Forester has great advice for writers in the movie “Finding Forester”: “You write the first draft with your heart; you rewrite with your head.” Let that first draft flow without trying to make it perfect. Then go back and examine each passage, trimming the excess words and seeking the perfect words to make your story sing.
So, what's your favorite song? What is it about its story that draws you back to listen to it over and over again? Use it too to inspire your writing.