Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Taylor Swift’s Lyrical Storytelling Provides a Perfect Revision Checklist

By Sarah Skilton, @Sarah_Skilton

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Great writing advice can come from the unlikeliest of places--including song lyrics. Sarah Skilton shares how studying Taylor Swift lyrics can teach a writer a lot about good writing. 

Like Taylor Swift, Sarah Skilton is a genre-hopper! That is where all similarities end! Sarah is the author of two critically acclaimed young adult novels, Bruised and High & Dry, and was a 2018 Edgar awards judge. For adults, she's written a murder mystery, Club Deception, set in a fictional underground magic club; and a romantic comedy, Fame Adjacent, about a former child star on a mission to confront her famous castmates at a 25th reunion show. Writing with Sarvenaz Tash, she is the co-author of Ghosting: A Love Story, which was published in seven countries and six different languages, and which Kirkus called, "An energetic romance that would make Nora Ephron proud."

Sarah’s first novella, “Mind Games,” will appear in the 2021 rom-com anthology Summer in the City, alongside authors Lori Wilde and Priscilla Oliveras. There’s nothing like summer in Manhattan. The days are long and the nights are even longer. But when the lights go out on the city, fireworks explode...! Pre-order Summer in the City.

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Take it away Sarah…

That is not a headline I ever envisioned writing, but then I listened to Taylor Swift’s surprise album, Folklore, this past summer. Ms. Swift’s lyrics, both in Folklore and in previous albums, are full of sensory details, well-crafted metaphors, and specific visuals, all of which make prose memorable.

If your manuscript’s plot is solid, but other elements—such as style, tone, or description—are missing, this checklist will help you fill in the blank space, baby.

To give your revision a boost, ask yourself the following:

1. Does Your Story Contain a Strong Voice?

Musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding, creators of the podcast Switched on Pop, refer to Taylor Swift’s distinct vocal stylings (aka when Taylor draws out a word as part of the melody), as a T-Drop.

This vocal choice has followed Swift through every genre of music she’s performed, and it’s what instantly alerts people that they’re listening to a Taylor Swift song. She’s also known for her confessional-style lyrics that feel universal.

Whether you’re writing in first or third person, your narrative voice should set your book apart from everyone else’s. The good news is, you’re the only one who can write like you. Show the world your unique viewpoint, or even your own slang.

2. Have You Gone Beyond Cliché?

First drafts tend to pour out of us on instinct, and that’s as it should be when getting pages down. But now that you’re in revision mode, take a closer look at your choices. Did you use the best phrasing, descriptions, and dialogue you could have, or simply the ones that entered your head at the time, possibly because they seemed familiar?

Ditch the obvious choices and dig deeper to give your readers an experience they’re not expecting, but that still makes sense for the story you’re telling. Flip source material on its head and go beyond cliche in a manner that works for your characters and plot.

In “Love Story,” from her album Fearless, Taylor Swift literally rewrote Shakespeare. (Why can’t Romeo and Juliet have a happy ending, just this once?) It’s on-brand for her and provides a soaring sense of hope, exemplified by a triumphant key change at the end. It works because she builds toward it naturally.

3. Have You Used Strong Metaphors?

Good metaphors:

1. Are Original

2. Convey Imagery, Emotion, or Mood

3. Aren’t Mixed (use one at a time)

Overused metaphors lack meaning. Make your metaphors count.

In Taylor Swift’s lyrics, a getaway car refers to fleeing a relationship; digging up a grave means picking apart a relationship’s demise; haunting someone means lingering in their memories; a mirrorball is a reflected personality that changes to fit in; and a wake (“we gather here, we line up, weeping in a sunlit room”) refers to the public death of a business relationship.

In Folklore's "Exile" duet with Bon Iver, a loved one used to be the singer's homeland, but they've exiled one another.

In Red's "All Too Well," Taylor agonizes over a phone call in which she feels like "a crumpled-up piece of paper" after her ex-boyfriend “breaks [her] like a promise."

These distinct turns of phrase provide a visual and emotional experience for the audience.

(Here's more on Making Metaphors)

4. Have You Used Objects, Allusion, and Symbolism?

Used with purpose and intention, objects, allusion, and symbolism can elevate your prose beyond the everyday. Little tweaks can make a big difference in your novel.

Where appropriate, and while maintaining your story's voice, take the time to add texture to your story. Symbolism and callbacks can guide your audience through the emotional beats of a book and provide a shared language between author and reader.

In the aforementioned "All Too Well," Taylor begins and ends the song with references to a left-behind scarf that symbolizes lost innocence. In Folklore's "Cardigan," the titular piece of clothing represents feeling abandoned and hoping to be chosen. In "Invisible String," the lyrics “isn’t it just so pretty to think” allude to Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES, and all the melancholic nostalgia that implies, while the string itself is “tying you to me.”

(Here's more on Jamie Fraser Eats an Apple: Using Objects to Inject Character and World-Building into Dialogue)

5. Are Your Characters Three-dimensional?

Villains rarely view themselves as villains. Your protagonists and antagonists should believe their behavior is necessary. Readers should be able to understand why your characters do what they do or feel the way they feel.

Folklore's teenage love triangle (composed of the songs "Cardigan," "Betty," and "August") presents the same story of first love and infidelity from three points of view. Each person involved gets a say, providing a richer, more realistic portrait of the event.

(Here's more on 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist)

6. Have You Used Strong, Specific Details?

Choose the specific over the vague as much as possible. That doesn't have to mean lengthy or drawn-out descriptions; small, simple doses go a long way in defining mood or providing character details.

Check out these lyrics from the T. Swift canon, and take note of the way they provide precise imagery and emotion:
  • “But I knew you / Dancing in your Levi’s / Drunk under a streetlight”
  • "Vintage tee, brand new phone"
  • "Sequin smile, black lipstick"
  • “We were jet-set Bonnie and Clyde”
  • "You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye / And I got that red lip, classic thing that you like”
  • “Oh, your sweet disposition and my wide-eyed gaze / We're singing in the car, getting lost upstate / Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place / And I can picture it after all these days.”

(Here's more on Three Things to Consider When Writing Descriptions)

7. Does Your Story Fit its Genre?

Taylor Swift has moved from country to pop to folk music. Each era makes striking use of genre signifiers, via the instruments and vocal inflection Taylor employs.

Her country-tinged music might include harmonicas or banjos, with references to faded blue jeans and Tim McGraw, while her pop tunes employ reverb, auto tune synthesizers, and a faster drumbeat or a bright horn. In Folkore, piano, haunting instrumentation, and lower register vocals are prominent. All these choices are deliberate ways of delivering on the song’s genre.

Likewise, readers want to feel as though they’re in good hands with your story. They’re trusting you to include certain elements of your book’s genre because that’s one of the reasons they’ve picked it up—for a specific experience.

Romances end with happily-ever-after, thrillers deliver fast-paced action, comedies provoke laughter. Literary fiction might include longer stream of consciousness, while commercial fiction tends toward staccato sentences in declarative narration. Try to include elements that indicate which genre your story belongs to, that readers will recognize as exactly what they came looking for.

(Here's more on The Importance of Genre Specific – Part One)

About Summer in the City

There’s nothing like summer in Manhattan. The days are long and the nights are even longer. But when the lights go out on the city, fireworks explode. . .

Night at the Museum by Lori Wilde

Art restorer Ria Preston knows a thing or two about beauty. And when she discovers her neighborhood crush, gregarious Wall Street advisor Vic Albright, is locked overnight in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her, she can’t resist taking him on a very private tour . . .

Lights Out by Priscilla Oliveras

Back in high school, Vanessa Rios and Mateo Garza were theater troupe rivals. Now Mateo’s a rising Broadway star and Vanessa’s his most scathing critic. Cue a plot twist straight out of central casting: the two end up alone in his NYC apartment during the blackout, setting the stage for what could be their second act romance . . .

Mind Games by Sarah Skilton

What happens in college stays in college—unless you never get over it. In fact, Alison has been waiting to take her revenge on Nick, once the hottest guy on campus, now the hottest guy on the rising magician’s circuit. But her plans to sabotage his first show are upended by the power outage. That’s when the real magic happens . . .

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