Thursday, November 10, 2011

Crossing the Bridge: Song Structure and Plot

by J. Lea Lopez

I was marveling the other day about how some of my favorite singer-songwriters can really tell a whole story in a four-minute song. I love a good ballad, especially. The music, lyrics, the singer's voice, everything works together to take you on a roller coaster ride of emotion. I tend to write character-driven stories, and it's that same gut-wrenching ride that I strive to impart to my reader. This got me thinking. What can fiction writers learn from songwriters? The answer, I believe, lies in structure.

Thinking back to your elementary and middle school English classes, you may remember charting the plot of a book using something like this:

Look familiar? Was I the only one who felt constricted by this particular diagram? Exposition and rising action were no problem. For the most part, falling action was a no-brainer, and denouement was easy peasy. But I often faltered around the climax. (Please, no psychoanalysis of that statement is necessary.) In many books, the climax felt more like a series of events—a plateau, if you will. And that straight line of rising action is really more of a procession of peaks and valleys. When you break it down, it looks a bit like a song. (For these purposes, "song" refers mainly to current popular music. Song structure varies greatly, not only within but across genres as well.)

The exposition is your basic intro, and the rising action starts with the first verse, followed by the chorus. The verse tells the story, and the chorus gives you the overall theme of the song. (Don't ask me why, but I'd never realized this basic premise of storytelling vs. theme until I read it in those concrete terms, and then I thought of just about every song I'd ever heard and—whaddya know? It's true!) Many songs also have a bridge, which I have come to realize is my favorite part.

Let's take a listen to one of my recent favorites, Take it All, by Adele.

The verse does indeed tell you the story, and the chorus gives you the theme. When the chorus comes in for the first time, there's a burst of new emotion, like a mini-climax, before we come back down a notch for another verse. The bridge starts around 2:08—this is where you hear things change, and instead of coming back down to the emotional/dynamic level of the verse again, we start another build of emotion. It's not a one-note type of climax, it's a gradual build toward and satisfying release from the point of highest emotional impact. The repetition of the chorus closes the song and drives home the general theme again. Was it as good for you as it was for me? A great song has you yearning for that bridge, for those few bars where it all comes together and makes the hair on your arms stand up.

So let's go one more time. Gravity, by Sara Bareilles, is another song that gives you the same ebb and flow of tension in the alternation of verse and chorus, then knocks your socks off with a great bridge (which starts at 2:25). I dare you to try not to get swept up in the tension. I've listened to this song hundreds of times, and I still take a deep breath at the peak of the bridge, when she sings the word "down," and hold it until she releases. Exquisite.

So what can we take away from this (besides learning of my penchant for soulful female singer-songwriters)?

Instead of a three-act structure, or the linear rise and fall in those old plot charts that seem to turn on a dime at the apex, think of your story as a song, or a series of songs. Tell your story in the verses, intertwined with conflicts that help us understand the overarching themes of your novel (the chorus). Build toward that spine-tingling climax. I want you to take me over the bridge. Give me a few moments to savor the dizzying heights before you wrap me up in another cozy chorus and send me on my way.

You can use this structure on both a micro and macro level to weave a story rich with tension and emotion that reaches nearly addictive highs. If you can do that, you'll have me coming back for more of your product again, and again, and again...

What other aspects of songwriting can you apply to fiction? What songs intoxicate YOU with their emotion and powerful storytelling?


Riley Redgate said...

J. Lea, we have the same taste in music! High five!

And this is such a perfect post. I feel like the standard plot diagram might work for your typical short story, since there isn't really room for subplots. But a novel? Definitely a mix-n-match of adding new information and twisting around the information you already have. And it isn't just one line that goes up and down, it's many, woven together. The diagram never does a novel justice - or if it does, I'm glad I haven't read that novel. :P

Joey Francisco said...

There is one song which has the perfect build and is a story. "My Immortal" by Evanescence.

It has the slow build, the raw emotion, and the climax, and then ends as sweetly and hauntingly as it began. The lyrics are truly beautiful.

What a great post.

Btw, besides writing, I have been singing since the age of 7 (yea yea..and could have pursued it professionally as my family was involved in music heavily). This is one song I cannot sing, because every time I've tried, I tear up.

Like a good story, a song should stir deep emotion from within.

Ryan Stuart Lowe said...

Also, don't forget that different novels have different rhythms. Just like some songs are quick and upbeat, some novels flit from moment to moment. While other songs have more of a heavy, building tension, just like novels that drop a bombshell every so often, but mostly drive us towards the chorus and the end.

Some songs switch it up, but most have a certain rhythm that's mostly consistent. I find that after reading a novel for a while, I too start to figure out its rhythm -- and it becomes easier to read and faster to follow. And a lot of plot twists depend on establishing this rhythm and then shattering.

Great idea! It's a useful way to think through plot progression. :-)

Jemi Fraser said...

Wow! This is one of the few structure systems I can maybe wrap my brain around. Thinking of my plot in terms of a song makes sense! My brain doesn't like to work in linear methods, so I like this!!! :)

J. Lea Lopez said...

High five, Riley! Give me a sultry and/or sassy female singer with a piano and I'm set. :-) I agree with your assessment that Freytag's pyramid rarely does a novel justice.

Joey - ohhh... My Immortal is a great song! So haunting and beautiful. It also has one of the powerful bridges I mentioned in the post. I love how the song is basically acoustic until halfway through the bridge, when they bring in the electric guitars and everything else. Brilliant.

Ryan - you're absolutely right about different rhythms and patterns. Just like every song doesn't have the ABABCB form of the two I used as examples here. Not all songs alternate verse and chorus, not all songs have bridges, and not all bridges bring the intensity up. Stories, the same way, can play with these structural elements to manipulate the tension and emotion to suit the story.

Jemi - I'm glad this helps you think of your plot in a way that makes sense! While I think I do generally see things linearly, my scope is always very broad - I see the way the linear elements not only affect the next step down the line, but also how they branch out and affect neighboring aspects.

RSMellette said...

I tell this to filmmakers all the time - particularly syncopation. You've got to mix up pace in a story or you are sunk.

C0 said...

This is an interesting post indeed. I love music, and I often pay attention to the instruments used and the basic structure of the song. Florence + The Machine is the sole occupant of my iPod Shuffle at the moment, although Rihanna's waiting in the left wing.

So as an analogy, would the bridge be "the darkest hour", or would the four-measure instrumental part be that?

Oh. And I'm linking this on my blog.

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