What Songwriters Can Teach Us About Storytelling

by
Annell López
5.13.24

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 199.

One of the challenges of working within the constraints and limitations of short fiction is creating compelling characters who come alive in just a few pages and with strong narrative arcs. In my quest to study characterization, I’ve turned to song lyrics. Like short fiction, many songs offer a story or feature characters who are dealing with conflict. Like authors, songwriters rely on memorable details to convey their characters’ internality, motivations, and desires—and they have far fewer words to work with than most writers of short fiction.

Take, for instance, Pearl Jam’s 2006 song “Unemployable.” Told from a third-person point of view, “Unemployable” tells the story of a working-class man struggling financially. The song’s opening lines offer a master class in characterization and compression: “He’s got a big gold ring that says ‘Jesus Saves’ and is dented from the punch thrown at work that day / when he smashed the metal locker where he kept his things / after the big boss said, ‘You best be on your way.’” That singular image—a dented ring that reads “Jesus Saves”— suggests the character’s connection to Christianity, indicating his belief in hope and salvation in the face of adversity. The fact that the ring is damaged is a sign that the character is indeed facing a moment of crisis. The listener soon learns the gold ring is “dented from the punch thrown at work that day” after he was fired from his job. This display of anger and aggression illustrates the desperation the character feels.

As the song progresses, the listener learns more about this character and what that job meant to him. The challenges in his professional life lead to challenges in his personal life: “Well, his wife and kid are sleeping but he’s still awake; / on his brain weighs the curse of thirty bills unpaid. / Gets up, lights a cigarette he’s grown to hate, / thinking if he can’t sleep, how will he ever dream?” The imagery of the character’s sleepless nights conveys the weight of poverty, anxiety, and stress that define the primary conflict of the story: How will this man handle both the practical and psychological burdens of his unemployment, the financial debts and the depression triggered by his job loss?

The chorus of the song underscores the sacrifices made by the protagonist in his struggle to keep his head above water. It also emphasizes themes of endurance and resilience: “Oh, yeah / So this life is sacrificed / Oh, yeah / Jumping trains just to survive.” Addressing financial strain, existential dread, and fear of the unknown, the lyrics explore the multifaceted nature of one character’s struggles with work and self-worth. In just over three minutes, songwriters Matt Cameron, Eddie Vedder, and Mike McCready drive the narrative forward and engage the audience on an emotional level.

Studying songs like this reminds me that strong imagery and a few well-chosen details go a long way toward crafting compelling characters with complex motivations and desires. It’s easy to assume that the more we know about a character, the better we know that character. But that isn’t always the case. As you write, ask yourself how much information your reader truly needs. Can you conjure a memorable image that reveals something important about the character’s internal landscape? Are you providing your readers with the right information to help them understand your characters’ motivations and desires? Or are you providing extraneous details? Sometimes a few words is all we need.  

 

Annell López is a Dominican immigrant. She is the winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize and the author of the story collection I’ll Give You a Reason (Feminist Press, 2024). A Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review’s Adult Writers Workshops, she has also received support from Tin House. Her work has appeared in American Short FictionBrooklyn RailGuernicaMichigan Quarterly ReviewRefinery29, and elsewhere. López received her MFA from the University of New Orleans. She is working on a novel.

Art: John Doyle