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Writing Fantasy Songs: Part 2

BardLast week, I started this series with a brief look at the function of songs in fantasy stories. Someone pointed out in the comments that I left out love songs. Yikes! With my particular leanings toward writing romantic storylines, how on EARTH could I miss love songs?? Yes, absolutely, there are millions of love songs in the world, and they definitely can have a legitimate place in your stories. The truth is that, as with any art form, music serves to communicate when other forms of communication will not suffice.

With that clarification, it’s time to take a closer look at actually writing your songs. Let me once again offer this brief disclaimer. I’m only an amateur musician. I took several years of piano lessons, but I haven’t played in years. I’m also not a poet. Not even a little bit. I can read music, though, and I have a pretty good sense of rhythm and time, so hopefully my semi-anemic advice will help you at least get started with bringing music to your world.

I think the concept of writing a song for your book can be really intimidating if you don’t have any real background in poetry or music. Really, it needn’t be. For one thing, your song isn’t really meant to be heard—well, not until HBO makes a series out of your story! You don’t really need to worry about the music too much. A basic understanding of meter and timing will suffice to create lyrics. Also, your song doesn’t have to be complete—in fact, even just one verse and a chorus can be enough to give that brushstroke of setting that you need. Start small, and if you need to embellish or expand it later, you can do that.

Let’s break down the elements of the lyrics in a song. If it helps, take a look at some of the songs you listen to and try to identify these elements:

Verses, Bridges, and Choruses:
These are the basic segments of a song. A very common construction at this level might be:

Verse

Verse

Chorus

Verse

Chorus

Bridge

Chorus repeated to end or fade

Pretty simple. The verses tell the story. The chorus repeats a unifying theme, even if the words are different. One of my current favorite songs, Heart of the World by Lady Antebellum, has a chorus that varies each time it’s sung, but manages to include enough of the same words that it’s clearly a chorus. The bridge will usually be half a verse or a couple of lines that might reveal a change in heart on the part of the singer, show some kind of resolution, or just be an indication that the key is about to change. Sometimes, the bridge sort of acts as the climax of the song, and the final chorus repeats would be similar to the denouement.

Rhyming Schemes: The most believable songs include some kind of repetition.  People expect some kind of repetition when they listen to music, whether it’s in the music itself, in the lyrics, or even in just the theme of the song. The most common form of repetition is a rhyming scheme, and there are many, many combinations to choose from! Look at some common songs and identify the rhyming schemes:

Rhyming scheme: AABB

Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends (A)
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends (A)
How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat. (B)
Some dance to remember, some dance to forget (B)

Hotel California, The Eagles, 1977

Rhyme Scheme: ABCCB

You may think that I’m talking foolish (A)
You’ve heard that I’m wild and I’m free (B)
You may wonder how (C)

I can promise you now (C)
This love that I feel for you always will be (B)

Forever and Ever Amen, Randy Travis, 1987

A rhyming scheme helps give structure to a song. The audience comes to expect the repetition of certain sounds, even if they happen infrequently.

Themes: Of course, some of the best songs don’t fit neatly into a rhyming scheme. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (1987) by U2, for example, seems to fit a scheme in places, but there are several exceptions. The unifying repetition in that song comes in a few repeated lines: “Only to be with you” and “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” If you don’t want to rhyme your verses or choruses, look for theme lines that you can repeat to give your reader the expected repetition.

Meter: As you compose your stanzas, you need to consider how many beats each line will have, where the stresses and emphases will fall, and how to make the meter and rhythm consistent. Especially since your lyrics will be read rather than sung, you need to remember that you won’t be able to depend on a vocalist or instrument to cover any flaws in your meter. Try counting out your syllables in each line, marking the syllables that are stressed and unstressed, and making sure each line has a similar beat to it when read aloud.

Here’s an example of how to count syllables and stresses, taken from the song Forever and Ever, Amen, above (stresses are capitalized):

You MAY think that I’M talking FOOLish (A) (9 syllables)
You’ve HEARD that I’m WILDand I’m FREE (B)
(8 syllables)

Study a few songs you know well and see where the stresses are. Count the syllables in each line. You’ll find that artists often elide over syllables or use their voices to cover the lack of syllables, but you’ll get the idea. Then try the same thing with your own composition. Count syllables and think about where the stresses will go. Whenever possible, the stresses should be the natural stress in the word. Tap it out with your fingers, if you need.

Next week, I’ll take a brief look at the ways to give your song a bit more authenticity through vocals and instruments—even though no one can hear them from the page!

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One Comment

  1. Avatar NewGuyDave says:

    When writing the songs for my fantasy novel, SONG OF FURY, I started with Iambic Pentameter, but wanted and old Norse feel. Apparently the two don’t mesh as the former was developed by the Greeks. Long story short, I researched Old Norse, stripped out the rhymes and added some alliteration. The fury song has a decent flow, but was extremely difficult to write, especially for a non-musician. And not rhyming pushed my inner-poet.

    Nice series of posts.
    Cheers,
    Dave

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