If song lyrics had to be 100% real, music as we know it would be a lot less interesting. Fiction in music is empowering for songwriters and exciting for listeners. Instead of representing the world exactly as we see it, fiction lets us dream up entirely new worlds and invite our listeners to experience them. But if you’ve never added a fictional element to your lyrics before, it can be tough to know where and how to start. Here are four tips to help:
Root fictional lyrics in something real
If you want your fictional narratives and characters to resonate with your listeners, they’ll need to be rooted in a place inside you that’s very much real. You can think of it as a filter for your real thoughts, experiences, and memories: What you put into it will look very different from the places fiction takes your lyrics. Without coming from a genuine place, the story you inject into your lyrics might have a hard time connecting with listeners. It gives us permission as songwriters to talk about difficult experiences from our lives at a safe distance and to transform situations that were specific only to us into lyrics everyone can resonate with. There’s no singular way to do this, so experiment with transforming real into fiction until something works.
Try speaking through characters
The beauty of speaking through characters in music is that they can be and say things that we can’t in our daily lives. Our human experiences are limited, but the things fictional characters can do and talk about are limitless. If you’ve never created a fictional character for your music before, you can start by freewriting about whatever comes to mind. Over time, notice if you keep coming back to specific things like memories, places, or phrases. Start shaping a fictional character based off of the things you consciously or unconsciously return to again and again during this process and develop it as you go along. Characters are ideal vehicles for fiction for single songs, concept albums, or even narratives that pop up in your music again and again.
Create stories listeners will be invested in
Whether we’re writing fiction or recounting reality in our lyrics, the stories we tell have to be human and engaging for listeners to be invested. But, all too often, we limit our imaginations and end up saying something forgettable as songwriters. Think broadly about what pulls you in to movies, books, and other artists’ songs. If the narrative you create for your music isn’t interesting and meaningful, it won’t end up connecting with audiences. To create something that truly works, experiment writing fictional lyrics until you stumble across something that strikes you. When that happens, isolate exactly what got you excited and start developing it.
Untether your lyrics from reality
There aren’t any rules to writing fiction in music other than if what you dream up isn’t interesting; the listeners won’t care. There’s a lot of technical attention that needs to get paid to things like singing and playing instruments in songwriting. Writing fiction is completely different because you’re not limited when it comes to following the rules. Instead of telling real stories exactly how they happened, you can take your audiences back in time, sing from the viewpoint of a tree, or transport them to a made-up realm on another planet. It lets you write about anything you want however you want. Yet, the music you write won’t catch on unless it’s exciting and relatable to your listeners. The weird world of fiction might not seem like something audiences can relate to, but remember that it’s the foundation of countless books, TV shows, and movies. We see ourselves in the media we consume, and that’s what makes us invested in it.
Like everything else in music, writing fictional lyrics takes practice. It requires failing repeatedly until something naturally feels right, so don’t expect this to be a quick process if you’ve never tried it before. It’s not easy, but the worlds you create in your songs can easily become one of the most interesting parts of your music.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.