The Art Of The Story Song – The Key To Narrative Songwriting

At  4.00 o’clock on a December morning, the narrator of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat begins to tell the heart rending tale of a triangular relationship between two men and one woman.

IOK let’s face it, it’s a subject that that is a staple of popular song, drama, fiction and just about any other art form you can mention.  But Cohen –  like all good writers – take this most over-worked scenarios  and turns it into what might be called nowadays, a fully immersive experience that leaves you shaken and stirred.

Famous Blue Raincoat is a song you can come back to again and again,  perhaps because Cohen doesn’t reveal the whole picture. The arc of the narrative is clear.  The narrator is writing a letter to a friend who has betrayed him by sleeping with his wife (or partner), Jane. The couple stay together but the relationship has changed.

But it’s the detail that intrigues. Prior to the betrayal,  the one time friend goes to a station to meet a train, but return alone with his raincoat ‘torn’ at the shoulder. Cohen gives no further detail. You’re left to fill in the details yourself.  Similarly, the betrayer is no said to be living in the desert. At one stage, he intended to ‘go clear.’ Again no further details. What this means is that every time the listener returns to the song, the imagination  builds a bigger world around these carefully crafted pointers.

Cut to Tangled up in Blue, my favourite Dylan song. The first verse references a marriage and relationship breakdown. From there we go on a disjointed journey, where each verse seems to shine a torch into another period of the narrator’s life (it may even be multiple narrators).  Each scene is vivid. You see the faces, feel the pain and joy,  but Dylan doesn’t join the narrative dots.   He leaves that up to the listener.

Compare and contrast with Springsteen, who often writes with the precision of a screenwriter.  It’s all laid out. But here’s the trick. Every time you come back,  you rebuild the scenes a new, because the writer puts a projector and screen into your mind.

I am fascinated by the narrative song – from traditional ballads to today’s rock, rap, folk and/or Americana.   And there is more than one way to  tell a story

Arguably the real test of a story song is whether or not the listener feels inclined to hear it more than once. Give away too much, the song could be like a joke that isn’t funny second time round.

Here some songs – on a spotify playlist – that I feel have stood the test of time – along with a couple of mine.



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