The third principle underlying effective narrative development in songwriting is Verisimilitude: “like the truth” or “felt truth.” It has its roots in both the Platonic and Aristotelian dramatic theory of mimesis: the imitation or representation of nature.
Plato, in The Laws, defends poets against the attacks of those who charge them with believing what their own hero’s say, but Plato says that a poet is like a fountain, which pours out anything which flows into it; he imitates reality, and therefore makes his characters utter opinions which can contradict one another, but he himself does not know which of them is true.
So our stories must seem true whether they’re true or not; must be probable within their own unique construct. Subject matter is pretext, behind which may lie a more common and shared emotional experience. In fact it’s probably better if it’s a fiction because often the imagination has nowhere to go in the face of facts. If your grandfather was eighty-one when he passed, but eighty-four sounds better, by golly he was eighty-four!
The writer wants to convince the listener of the truth of the utterance, not whether something actually happened; not fidelity to events, but fidelity to ideas and emotions. Because of this the song is like an argument.
Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good song!
We write the title. We become actors, male and female. Our songs are not memoirs, but vehicles for emotion and opportunities for empathy and catharsis.
We can control some things that will lend truth to our stories like:
- The use of detail especially particular details: “..the ace of hearts to mark her page”. This lends credibility to the singer as if he/she were really there.
- Tone: The character’s way of talking and word choice must be consistent with his/her personality and upbringing. Would he/she actually say that, or say it like that? Is it conversational or formal dialogue?
- The underlying chord choices should support the intended emotion of the lyric.
- Song structure-Does the form support the emotional arch of the narrative line?
- Mis-setting the lyric. The wrong syllable is accented: “There’s a Ti-ger behind you!” We won’t trust the singer as much, because nobody talks that way!
None of these formal devices should call attention to themselves, making our story’s seem realistic and offhand, facilitating the listener’s willingness to “suspend his/her disbelief.”
We can’t help but bring our own experiences and world views to the requirements of our stories, but if we maintain the Truth throughout, the Personal can become the Universal.
Steve Leslie is a professional songwriter and publisher in Nashville, Tennessee. He teaches songwriting at www.songassembly.co