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I believe that one of the best ways to start off a new song — especially when I’m experiencing some writer’s block — is to outline my song. I started doing this after witnessing a co-writer of mine naturally starting off writing like this once in a session, since then I’ve started incorporating it regularly when I write on my own.
I find that outlining is such a great way to make sure my song progresses throughout the verses and hits satisfyingly at the chorus. The message of the lyrics become clear, I can imagine how I might want the chords to change and fit the sections and the overall arc of the song is easier to write.
While I don’t have to outline the entire song, per se, especially if I’m freewriting, it is extremely helpful when I’m in a time crunch or I have an idea that isn’t executing properly. Here are my suggestions on how to outline a song before you get into the throes of writing it.
1. A Traditional Storyline
This is probably the easiest and most intuitive way to outline. If you’re a storyteller, outline your verses like you would a plot. Make sure it develops through the sections and hits a peak point in the bridge. Think of the settings and characters and how they change over the course of the song, starting from the beginning and working towards a clear ending.
For example, in a traditional three-act structure, characters move through their storylines in the following model:
- Act I: Set up and exposition, who are the characters and what are their lives like. Something happens to break their normal cycle or lifestyle.
- Act II: Tragedy overtakes the character’s life, things fall apart and the characters need to start figuring out ways to improve their standing.
- Act III: Characters discover themselves in the process of dealing with adversity, and triumph over disaster. There’s a return to the status quo, but now the character has completed a journey of empowerment.
Think about how you might be able to develop a plot line across the three verses and repeated choruses in your song, in order to elevate the flow of your narrative.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “10 Myths About Songwriting Busted!”
2. Chorus-First (or Writing Backwards)
If you tend to write choruses (or hooks) first, try outlining your chorus first. Write down the main idea that should be expressed and get really clear on what your song is about. After that, you can work backwards; now you can decide the events or phrases that will smoothly lead to your chorus. You can outline your verses and make sure each line leads to your hook.
Let’s say your chorus goes something like this:
I’ll give you a break,
If you want me to,
But say the word,
And I’ll stay with you.
Assuming the main idea of the song is, “But say the word, and I’ll stay with you,” you now have a direction for your verses. You can try to have each line of your verse relate to your hook so that everything ties together:
I know things have been tough lately -> But say the word, and I’ll stay with you,
And it’s different than before -> But say the word, and I’ll stay with you,
A distance has grown between us -> But say the word, and I’ll stay with you,
It’s getting hard to ignore -> But say the word, and I’ll stay with you.
While you wouldn’t repeat the hook after each verse line, by testing your verse lines this way, it’s a great way to keep things precise. While writing backwards isn’t necessary for every song, it can be helpful to build out an outline.
3. Emotion-Based Sections
Many popular songs have moved away from the traditional storyline. Instead of events or stories, think of the emotions you want associated with each section. You can still use that conflict-resolution model found in storylines, or write backwards by establishing the main emotion in the chorus.
Or you can take the emotional feel for the entire song and write a few phrases for each section, making sure you have one emotion per section so that the meaning remains clear.
Here’s an example emotional outline for a verse-chorus song:
- Verse: sad and frustrated about situation, afraid, full of doubt
- Pre-Chorus: finding hope, things turning around, reflective
- Chorus: motivated, determined, excited
This way, things move smoothly as the emotions develop through each section. In this example, there is a clear emotional conflict in the verse that resolves in the chorus, much like a traditional storyline. Listeners won’t be shocked to hear sadness in the verse and sudden excitement in the chorus because you’ve taken the time to progress through the emotions.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “3 Ways to Grip Your Listeners With Opening Lines.”
4. Images for Each Section
If your inspiration regularly comes from Pinterest and the like, perhaps the form of outlining you need is simply to find images that correspond with the sections of your song, and take it from there. Try to find a few that work together and make notes on what kind of storyline or emotions they evoke.
Using the last example, let’s find some pictures to animate each emotional section:
Verse: Sad and frustrated about situation, afraid, full of doubt.
Pre-Chorus: Finding hope, things turning around, reflective.
Chorus: Motivated, determined, excited.
5. Divide and Conquer
When your thoughts are scattered, go ahead and brainstorm, write freeform poetry, collect images, etc. Create the world of your song this way, like a song scrapbook, and come back to it later. This is when you can start dividing your ideas into sections, and narrowing down your main idea and song progression.
If you want to write a song that’s beach-themed, here’s what a brainstorm might look like:
Try it out!
One of these might work out every single time and you’ve found your ideal songwriting outline strategy — or you may have to try a few out and switch them up according to the song and how you’re feeling that day.
One thing’s for sure, trying new techniques and ways of outlining your song can definitely lead to interesting ideas you wouldn’t have come across before.
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