I’ve always considered music and storytelling in any format entwined. Which probably goes to say why I prefer narrative music videos and overall songs with fantastic lyrics. (Don’t get me wrong I like a fair helping of hardcore techno as well). But I find music helps me to write but it also shows us structurally how a story unravels.
(This is one of my favourite music videos. Thank you Tunng.)
As part of the individual tutoring I’m doing at the moment I’m helping a student to write a monologue for her to perform as part of a playwriting exam. I told her to think of songs with lyrical content as the ultimate monologue. They can be in the first person or third person narrative but their intended goal is the same; to tell a story and keep us captured for however many minutes. There have been many times when lyrics hit the spot, they make us stop and sit up at how poignant they are. Or how they resonate. They’re both taking you by the hand and willing you to listen intently, which you do.
In my lesson before I talked at length about the Snow Patrol song ‘How To Be Dead’. I wouldn’t count myself as a massive fan but the reason I liked this song is because it doesn’t have a chorus (which is why it didn’t make that much of an impact on the charts). It’s a clear cut story with two parties identified and contains the beautiful lyric that I never forget, “It seems I’ve stepped over lines you’ve drawn again and again”. Crystal clear, beautifully written and forever imprinted in my mind. But aside from that it’s storytelling, it’s all dialogue.
I also talked about how classic rock ‘n’ roll songs from the fifties are very ‘of the time’ and even more narrative. They’re all about losing their baby or wanting to kiss their girl before dropping them home and persuading them to stay out later or uncouth women (!). The reason I adore my motown is because the lyrics are familiar (not from over-play) because they a story and everyone remembers a good story. We’ll sometimes even go as far as describing a story as being lyrical. One of my most memorable motown songs is a classic, “The Tracks Of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson and The Band. It’s there in its sad tortured self for all to see it’s a story of love-lost and the forlorn qualities of seeing an old flame with a new spark. And it’s laden with beautiful images.
So building on the idea of songs being the perfect template (structurally, I understand that lyrics tend to be more expositional or abstract at times) for monologues my lesson plan included this task. Taking a song that’s fairly narrative add or detract punctuation and/or scene directions to change a list of lyrics into a performable monologue. The story is already there so that’s one less thing to worry about; your aim is to raise the tension, craft the drama and give it the theatrical flavour. As an example I read out lyrics to Death Cab For Cutie’s, “Bixby Canyon Bridge” and Elbow’s, “Scattered Black and Whites”. Then handed over both for my student to explore and basically hack into her own piece of work. As a further experiment to highlight how this might work I did it myself before the lesson and decided to tackle Human Leagues’, “Don’t You Want Me”. Stupidly I didn’t realise that the song is multi-narrative until I came to picking it apart so it ends up being a two-hander, but you’ll get the point.
Click on the photo and you should be able to read it.
I had immense fun doing this and it’s nice to concentrate on what makes something dramatic, garnering a sense of conflict from something that you know or might not know already. You shouldn’t feel constrained by repetition or lyrics that end abruptly or aren’t succinct sentences. It’s something to play around with. Looking at my example I merged sentences, I isolated certain words. I for one am a big fan or the power of silence on stage so play around with pauses. Nothing’s concrete as I keep telling myself and my student; just because you’ve written it down doesn’t mean you have to keep it there. Imagine how different something would read if a pause was entered before a revelation or after. If a fullstop entered half way through the sentence. If the character was whispering or shouting. Depending on what song you choose it’s only a page of work. If you do it yourself please tell me what songs you used and how you found it. Turn a song on it’s head. Maybe give it another meaning… nothing’s concrete.