What romance writers can learn from studying love songs.

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What if I told you that instead of reading the next Nicholas Sparks novel, you could just turn on your favourite love album to study love stories? 

I had never thought about the importance of storytelling in songwriting until Shawn brought it up at the Story Grid certification seminar in February 2019. So far I had only used the Story Grid for editing novels, but the more I thought about what kind of writer I wanted to work with, the clearer it became: they are songwriters. Knowing that the Story Grid could be applied to songs, I decided to choose one genre and study those songs.

And I chose the most popular genre for songs there is: love songs.

I wondered if the craft of storytelling influences why some songs and albums are hits and why others aren’t? I wanted to find out what made a love song work and most of all, what didn’t.

My research brought up an interesting idea:

What can romance writers learn from listening to love songs?

The following recommendations for writing a love story are based on having analysed the storytelling of over 100 love songs.

Core Emotion, cover art, and song intros

Songs evoke certain emotions much faster than a novel can. From the moment the song begins, we know what kind of song to expect. Is it joyful, dark, sad, upbeat, emotional? The melody of any song, especially a love song, sets certain expectations and tells us if we will hear about the magic of falling in love, a tearful heartbreak or a long goodbye. By listening to those first few notes, we decide if we’re in the mood for that kind of song. If not, we might skip the song or change the station.

The melody sets a similar intention like the cover of a book. We choose love stories to feel romance, be it wrapped in a cautionary or prescriptive tale. The image on the front of a love story aims to stir up an emotion too.

A photo of a couple kissing in the rain lets you know these two have just found each other again such as on the cover of The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. One simple photo tells you to expect a love story with lots of ups and downs that lead to an emotional reunion. Or the cover of Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster has a picture of a butterfly trapped in a glass jar. This makes you feel like the main character is holding back the beauty they carry inside of them. So you are expecting a darker side of love while still hoping for a happy ending.

Or look at the book covers of Cecilia Ahern. They use mainly fonts to convey a kind of magical and playful feeling telling us those stories will touch us deeply but will also lift us up again.

Song intros:

Learn from studying songs: Whenever you listen to a love song, pay attention to the mood of the song and what the first lines are. Then ask yourself what mood you want to convey in the first paragraph of your story or by choosing a book cover.

Most songs let their listeners ease into the song by letting the instruments introduce the melody first. 

Our expectations set from the melody are proven right or wrong with the first lines of the song.

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.”  (“That’s Amore” by Dean Martin)

  • Melody Intro: Funny Italian ‘dance on the street with me’ intro 
  • Expectation: Positive. Love is something to enjoy.
  • Type of beginning (lyrics): Action
  • Obligatory/Conventional Love Genre elements in the first lines: Lover’s meet scene.

“So close, no matter how far. Couldn’t be much more from the heart.” (“Nothing else Matters” by Metallica) 

  • Melody Intro: Slow, somber and gentle guitar intro
  • Expectation: Deep, true, soft song about love.
  • Type of beginning (lyrics): Narrative
  • Obligatory/Conventional Love Genre elements in the first lines: Commitment or Intimacy value. Confession of love scene.

“I guess this time you’re really leaving. I heard your suitcase say goodbye.” (“I’ll be there for you” by Bon Jovi)

  • Melody Intro: Very subtle as if you’re just waking. 
  • Expectation: Waiting for a revelation.
  • Type of beginning (lyrics): Action (Dialogue)
  • Obligatory/Conventional Love Genre elements in the first lines: Lover’s break up scene.

Or check out some more beginnings of songs in this PDF.

First lines of love stories.

So if you are writing a love story, make sure to establish as soon as possible what kind of love story your readers can expect. In songs, that revelation is done in the first few lines. In stories, it should be in your first scene or chapter. This doesn’t mean you need to start right away with an obligatory scene. 

Using action (dialogue) or narrative/exposition to introduce a problem the protagonist faces is one possibility to hook the reader right from the beginning of the song.

Use the beginning of your story to establish your genre or to let something interesting happen rather than only describing the colours of the sky. Because setting does not tell the reader much other than painting a picture that’s not filled with anything that truly matters to your characters or hence to your readers.

The songs I analysed that were only evoking images in the lyrics left me confused because I ended up having no idea what the song was about. And if I don’t know what a song or story is about, I’m not going to read or remember it.

To see my point in action, here are some first lines of a few well-known love stories.

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen) – Narrative beginning. Convention: External need.
  • “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” (Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell) – Narrative beginning. Lover’s meet.
  • “I suppose the important thing is to make some sort of difference,” she said. “You know, actually change something.” (One Day by David Nicholls) – Action (Dialogue) beginning. Love stories always have an internal genre. From this beginning, we get the sense this story could have a Worldview internal genre. A couple of lines later she’s cuddling in bed with her lover. One paragraph and we’re right in the middle of a love story.
  • “When he emerges from the bathroom she is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through the travel brochures that were beside his bed.” (Me before you by Jojo Moyes) – Action beginning. A man comes out of the bathroom and she’s on the bed. We get a sense of what they were doing before the story started.

If you’d like to find out more about: How to Launch a Scene, check out this blog post by Anne Hawley.

The central conflict in love stories

Stories are in our DNA from the time we’re born. But in order for a story to resonate, certain elements must be present. Songs are no different. Memorable songs, or songs that “work,” have a protagonist who changes. And the reason they change is by facing conflict. Only by solving a problem a song or story can offer guidance.

Therefore songs, as well as stories, need to have a central conflict. This conflict is set up within the first few lines of the song. Just look at the songs above again. They immediately tell you what they are about. We either get a sense of their position on the love story global value spectrum or they start with an obligatory scene or convention.

You cannot tell a love story without a central conflict. It’s not all about lovers meet, fall in love and live happily ever after. The lovers need to overcome an obstacle in order to either commit or not. Each of them has to fight their own inner demons because people are not perfect. They are naive, ignorant, selfish, or cynical – even if they are not aware of it. Well, most of the time they aren’t until their worldview is challenged by that one special person. 

The question is: Will they be able to overcome what’s holding them back and change for the better?

Learn from studying songs: So when you listen to love songs, maybe the central conflict of a love song you like can inspire your own writing.

Ask yourself: In the song, how does the protagonist address the problem? Has the protagonist changed in order to solve his/her dilemma? 

  • “Nothing else Matters” by Metallica: The crisis question is hinted at in the song right when the protagonist had to decide to listen to other people’s advice or not. The resolution is the name of the song: Nothing else matters. Only love. And we know the protagonist has to be sophisticated in order to understand that.
  • “I’ll be there for you” by Bon Jovi: This song has a naive protagonist. He clings onto the hope that he could change who he is but he doesn’t. Instead of saying: ‘I am’ he still talks about the future ‘I will’.
  • “Swear it Again” by Westlife starts with “I want to know whoever told you I was letting go of the only joy that I have ever known?” introducing the convention of a love story: hinderers. The protagonist faces the problem of how to make his loved one see there is no reason to doubt their love even if others do.

How the central conflict is solved influences how your readers will feel after they finish your story. So always include a problem in your story that needs solving. If it’s an ending where the two lovers reunite and become better people by having overcome their obstacles, the reader will have a positive and possibly deep emotional reaction to your story.

When we listen to “Nothing else Matters” by Metallica we believe in the power of true love. We feel hopeful that there are people who don’t allow their love to fail. But there are also songs that leave us sad like “Still loving you” by the Scorpions because the protagonist is repeatedly saying that he still loves her, but there’s no answer coming from her. Even if he says he’d try to change the things that killed their love, he’s only pleading. He hasn’t come to the understanding that it needs action to show change.

The controlling idea

Love songs are more successful if they have a controlling idea. In about three minutes they give us a short hint of how love works or what might lead to a breakup. Having a controlling idea in your story makes a huge impact on the reader when you have given them either a prescription for what to do or a warning of what not to do. And if you can make a strong impact, your story will likely be remembered.

Controlling Idea of a love story

The controlling idea for a love story is either

Positive: Love triumphs when lovers overcome moral failings or sacrifice their needs for one another.

Negative: Love fails when the lovers don’t evolve beyond desire.

Do we find that kind of global controlling idea in songs? Certainly, if the song has a resolution.

  • “Nothing else Matters” by Metallica: Love triumphs when you don’t listen to what others say and trust your heart. 
  • “I’ll be there for you” by Bon Jovi: Love fails when promises are made to win someone back but no actions are taken.
  • “The Rose’’ by Bette Midler: Love fails when you don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable and risk something. Love triumphs when you look at love as something to care for in order to enjoy its beauty. (The lines of the song are all tiny crisis questions and support prescriptive and cautionary controlling ideas.)
  • “The Way You Look Tonight” by Frank Sinatra is a song dedicated to a single moment of love. But we get the sense that this love will not hold if the protagonist does not accept that time will indeed change the woman he loves.
  • “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash: Love fails when the lovers don’t evolve beyond desire. Obsession will burn every chance to be with each other.
  • “I’d Do Anything for Love” by Meat Loaf: Love triumphs if you are able to understand what’s good and what’s bad for love.

There are also songs that do not have a controlling idea because they leave us wondering what will happen to the protagonist. In “Unchained Melody” the question lingers: Did she wait for him to come home or not? Or in “Still loving you” by the Scorpions: Did she take him back or not? Without knowing the answer we can’t say if the protagonist’s action leads to a positive or negative outcome.

Learn from studying songs: In love songs, you know that love is your global value that’s at stake. So either love triumphs or fails. So just pay attention to the reason why that outcome happened. How was love tested? What’s the main event / the one moment that decided the fate of those two lovers? In a song (that tells a story that works) you have it wrapped up quickly and more obvious than the time it takes to read a novel. 

So whenever you bang your head against your laptop hoping the magic formula might appear, listen to some love songs and maybe you’ll find it in a few minutes.

In “Nothing Else Matters” the protagonist decided not to listen to others anymore. In “I’d Do Anything for Love” the protagonist values being loved by that one particular person so much that he does everything for her and renounces every other temptation.

It’s all about specificity

If you want your novel to stand out, you need to enrich your story with details. I’m not talking about setting, but mostly what makes your characters and their love so special and different from what we’ve seen or read before. 

Specificity breeds universality.

Of course, there are love stories that seem taken off the rack. Even in the songs I’ve analysed there were some that not only lacked a central conflict, but that were so abstractly painting a picture that they failed to deliver what they are about. 

Specificity decides how believable a story can be. In order to be emotionally involved in a song or story and to root for the characters, I need to have a sense of who they are so that I can identify or emphasize with them. If I don’t have any clue of what makes them stand out as people, those stories become another pretty looking doll on a shelf.

We remember couples of love stories because of the conflict they faced and how they’ve overcome it. Just think of Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Rose (Titanic), Tristan and Isolde, Paris and Helena, Lancelot and Guinevere or even Edward and Bella (Twilight). Their love always had a great effect on the people around them and on themselves as well.

Specificity is not only about making your world believable, but it’s also there for innovating your genre. Would you more likely remember a lovers meet scene that happened when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans or a student’s first day at university? The first example gives you specific details you can build on. The second one could be anywhere and even if that might seem like a good thing because your reader could put themselves in the shoes of that character, it’s just so ordinary that it’s not special and because of that not memorable.

Just look at Pride and Prejudice. It’s not only specific to the time it’s set in but with the contrast of all the different types of love story plotlines that either fail or triumph, they emphasize the love between Elizabeth and Darcy.

Learn from studying songs: So whenever you listen to a love song, look out for a line that tells you what kind of person the protagonist is. What makes him so unique or his love so special? Is it something he does? Or the way he talks? With that image or impression in your head, try to come up with some situations that define your characters.

  • “You could be my whole world if I could be your satellite. Let’s dance around this bedroom like tonight’s our only night.” (“Satellite” by Nickelback.)
  • “Hey pretty baby with the high heels on. You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known. You’re just a product of loveliness. I like the groove of your walk, your talk, your dress.” (“The Way you make me feel” by Michael Jackson)

What about character?

In analysing all those love songs I found out that having a character that the listener likes, was even more important for the success of a song than having a crisis.

Of course, I don’t want you to write a story or even a scene without a crisis coming up. But we listen to songs hoping for quick guidance on how to maneuver love. And sometimes we look for a song that just magnifies our emotions when we’re feeling down.

But if we look to a love song for guidance then what we need most is a sophisticated protagonist that we like and whom we can trust. That means anyone who’s whining, weak, obsessed, full of himself, depressed or sad is unlikely the person that has the strength to stand up and fight, or even know what they want. Readers need the type of character that is strong, confident, sophisticated, amiable, sympathetic, or wise.

Your character doesn’t have to start that way. As I already pointed out, your protagonist needs to be flawed in the beginning in order to be able to change. But when he/she does change, and your reader likes the person they’ve become, then this supports that big controlling idea that love triumphs when we become better people. Not naive, but sophisticated. And wise enough to know what’s meaningful.

Learn from studying songs: I am from Germany. Germans love Schlager music (in the US you might know it as ‘entertainer music’ or ‘German hit mix’). There is one song of one of the most popular Schlager musicians we had (Udo Jürgens) which was his most successful love song ever. It’s called: “Ich weiß, was ich will.” (Engl. ‘I know what I want.’ Read the translated version here or enjoy some German Schlager music in the Youtube video of that song.)

protagonist who knows what he wants

That’s exactly what makes a love song stand out. It’s the most important criteria for the success of a love song: A protagonist who knows what he wants. He/She is so strong, sophisticated and wise that in those songs there isn’t even a crisis question. There is no doubt for a person who knows exactly what he/she wants.

That’s why we look to those characters for guidance and why we dream about meeting a person who will fight for us no matter what. That’s the type of person that we see in “Nothing else Matters” or “I’d do anything for love.” And it’s the kind of person we’d like our protagonist to become.

What romance writers can learn from studying love songs

A Story Grid Diagnostic for Songs

When I began this exploration I had no idea what I was actually doing was a Story Grid diagnostic for songs and records. And the amazing thing is it turns out that the craft of telling a story that works influences the success of a single or a record, too.

There is a correlation between the number of records sold and how well the album tracks told captivating stories. It also shows why certain songs are chosen to be released as singles to promote the record. It’s because they tell better stories or have a very mature and likable protagonist who we can look up to for guidance.

If you want to find out how I used the Story Grid to analyse over 130 love songs of one band, visit my website storiesinsongs.com/westlife. You’ll find the complete diagnostic result there including a link to the spreadsheet, the lyrics as well as a huge infographic that visually translates all the spreadsheet data I analyzed.

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

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Melanie Naumann