Old school outlining can really help your songwriting
Remember in school when your teacher would make you do an
outline? Outlines are helpful in songwriting too. Especially when
you know you will be coming back to your song after your writing
5 ways to outline your song
From Flypaper (edited) – Ramita Aurora
Outlining is such a great way to make sure your song progresses
throughout the verses and hits satisfyingly at the chorus. The message
of the lyrics become clear, you can imagine how you might want the
chords to change and fit the sections and the overall arc of the song is
easier to write.
You don’t need to outline the whole song,, especially if you’re
freewriting, it’s extremely helpful for time crunches or when you get
stuck. . Try these suggestions on how to outline a song before you get
into the throes of writing it.
1. A Traditional Storyline
Probably the easiest and most intuitive way to outline. If you’re a
- Outline your verses like you would a plot.
- Make sure it develops through the sections
- Hits a peak point in the bridge.
Think of the settings and characters and how they change over the
course of the song, starting from the beginning and working towards a
For example, in a traditional three-act structure, characters move
through their storylines in the following model:
Act I: Set up and exposition, who are the characters and what are their
lives like. Something happens to break their normal cycle or lifestyle.
Act II: Tragedy overtakes the character’s life, things fall apart and
the characters need to start figuring out ways to improve their
Act III: Characters discover themselves in the process of dealing with
adversity, and triumph over disaster. There’s a return to the status
quo, but now the character has completed a journey of empowerment.
Think about how you might be able to develop a plot line across the
three verses and repeated choruses in your song, in order to elevate
the flow of your narrative.
2. Chorus-First (or Writing Backwards)
If you tend to write choruses (or hooks) first, try outlining your chorus
first. Write down the main idea that should be expressed and get really
clear on what your song is about. After that, you can work backwards;
now you can decide the events or phrases that will smoothly lead to
your chorus. You can outline your verses and make sure each line
leads to your hook.
Let’s say your chorus goes something like this:
I’ll give you a break,
If you want me to,
But say the word,
And I’ll stay with you.
Assuming the main idea of the song is, “But say the word, and I’ll
stay with you,” you now have a direction for your verses. You can
try to have each line of your verse relate to your hook so that
everything ties together:
- I know things have been tough lately – > But say the word, and I’ll stay
- with you,
- And it’s different than before – > But say the word, and I’ll stay with you,
- A distance has grown between us – > But say the word, and I’ll stay with you,
- It’s getting hard to ignore – > But say the word, and I’ll stay with you.
While you wouldn’t repeat the hook after each verse line, by testing
your verse lines this way, it’s a great way to keep things precise. While
writing backwards isn’t necessary for every song, it can be helpful to
build out an outline.
3. Emotion-Based Sections
Many popular songs have moved away from the traditional storyline.
Instead of events or stories, think of the emotions you want
associated with each section. You can still use that conflict-
resolution model found in storylines, or write backwards by
establishing the main emotion in the chorus.
Or…take the emotional feel for the entire song and write a few phrases
for each section, making sure you have one emotion per section so
that the meaning remains clear.
Here’s an example emotional outline for a verse-chorus song:
- Verse: sad and frustrated about situation, afraid, full of doubt
- Pre-Chorus: finding hope, things turning around, reflective
- Chorus: motivated, determined, excited
This way, things move smoothly as the emotions develop through each
section. In this example, there is a clear emotional conflict in the
verse that resolves in the chorus, much like a traditional storyline.
Listeners won’t be shocked to hear sadness in the verse and sudden
excitement in the chorus because you’ve taken the time to progress
through the emotions.
4. Images for Each Section
If your inspiration regularly comes from Pinterest and the like, perhaps
the form of outlining you need is simply to find images that
correspond with the sections of your song, and take it from there.
Try to find a few that work together and make notes on what kind of
storyline or emotions they evoke.
Using the last example, let’s find some pictures to animate each
- Verse: Sad and frustrated about situation, afraid, full of doubt.
- Pre-Chorus: Finding hope, things turning around, reflective.
Chorus: Motivated, determined, excited.
5. Divide and Conquer
When your thoughts are scattered, go ahead and brainstorm, write
freeform poetry, collect images, etc. Create the world of your song this
way, like a song scrapbook, and come back to it later. This is when you
can start dividing your ideas into sections, and narrowing down your
main idea and song progression.
If you want to write a song that’s beach-themed, here’s what a
brainstorm might look like:
Try it out!
One of these might work out every single time and you’ve found your
ideal songwriting outline strategy — or you may have to try a few out
and switch them up according to the song and how you’re feeling that
One thing’s for sure, trying new techniques and ways of outlining your
song can definitely lead to interesting ideas you wouldn’t have come