Can Songs Teach Us Something About Writing Novels?

Claire Gallagher

Claire Gallagher | April 20, 2024

Can Songs Teach Us Something About Writing Novels?


Rules and Commonalities

I’m not a musician but even I know that songs have a structure, verses and a chorus, that they often have a beginning, middle and end, that they can build to a crescendo, explore a narrative, evoke deep emotion and stay in our hearts forever. But just what is the magic ingredient that sets a great song apart from a merely good one?

Like novels, it seems there are ‘rules’ to follow – but do all songs conform to them? Do all books?

Of course not.

Yes, we need to understand the rules of each, but I think that’s so that we can make the right choices when we want to break them for impact.

I recently listened to I’m Ready by Bryan Adams. It’s a beautiful song and I love it, but as I listened, I realised that some people could consider it boring. It’s repetitive, it doesn’t build to a huge climax, it’s pretty quiet from start to finish. But the combination of the music and lyrics resonates with me. Is this a case where breaking the ‘rules’ works? For me, yes. What do you think?

In terms of books, it can be fun to experiment with the ‘rules’. I’ve tried writing using lots of points of view – which some authors, like Bernadine Evaristo, do really well, but which has its limitations. Some writers experiment with timelines, style and blending genres. Some handle transgressive subjects. Risk can be daunting, but it can be rewarding.


Emotional Aftertaste

Agent Pete used this phrase once and it stuck with me. It’s debatably the most important aspect of a song or novel. An example I can think of off the top of my head which evoked such emotion in me was the story Fractured by Dani Atkins (called Then and Always in the USA). I was an emotional wreck by the end of it! Likewise, The Giver by Lois Lowry totally flawed me. There are many songs which leave me experiencing strong feeling by the end of them – too many to list them all but one that immediately stands out is Who Wants to Live Forever by Queen. Gets me every time.



I’ve written an experimental novel (in terms of style and structure and its difficult subject matter) which is currently on submission to publishers. I think it’s unlikely to sell and I’ve been working on more traditionally-crafted books. But, it’s the one that a literary agent took notice of, so I don’t regret taking a risk in the writing of it. Also, it’s a book which has personal meaning to me, and it was cathartic to write it. I learned a lot from it. No writing is ever wasted.


Final Thoughts

If you’re a musician, can you expand on my simplistic understanding using your knowledge of songs and their structure?

Which songs/books left you with an emotional aftertaste?

Which songs can you think of that can teach us about writing – in a good way or bad?

Which books/songs ‘conform’ in your opinion and which break the ‘rules’? Are they effective? Why/why not?

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ of song writing and novel writing? How do they overlap/differ?

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