A huge universe of song stories opens up to us if we understand how to combine primary and secondary plot frames. The primary plot frame is the topic we write about (sex, love, friendship, …). The secondary plot frame, on the other hand, is an emotion that we associate with the first plot frame.
Roughly speaking, if we are looking for a story that combines the theme of friendship with the emotion of hate, we have completely different possibilities. What do we have then? A story about disappointment. Or a story about betrayal. A plot about too close a friendship, where at some point you’re just annoyed with each other and so on. But the combination of friendship and love could lead to other stories. For example: “My boyfriend is as close to me as my brother” or “How mere friendship became love”. So let’s start by setting up secondary plot frames and then dive into the primary plot frames.
Secondary plot frames
These are the emotions. Such as the following:
- Bad luck
- Passion/ Passion
- Forgiveness (passive/active)
Primary plot frames
An eternal classic is sex. From the description of the love play in rather vague phrases (“Nights in White Satin”) to clear metaphors (“Candyshop” – “I let you lick the lollypop”): Sex sells. We can call “sex” everything that is not directly related to the topic of “love”. This means that sex is the materialized, physical expression of love based on animal instincts.
This includes as primary plot frames:
- Attraction of another person (with a focus on beauty and aesthetics)
- Sexual attraction of another person (finding someone sexually attractive and appealing)
- Lust (the description of lust and joyful expectation of sex)
- Sexual interaction (usually dressed in G-rated and ambiguous words)
- Sex against the background of the big picture (i.e. the consequence of sex, after the sexual act)
- All these situations can shape our song story. Let us take the eyes of a beautiful woman or a beautiful man as an example. Of course it is possible to fall in love with them immediately. Just as well the fire in them can make you want more and arouse your fantasy. And there we have a story for a song. Appropriate title: “How Your Eyes Make Me Want More”.
Good ideas for songs – from two plot frames
The mere description of the sexual act can be suitable for a romantic song (we light the candles, spread rose petals on the bed, an ice cube, champagne, passionate kisses, …), as well as for a rhythmic club or rap song based more on the act of copulation.
Combined with secondary plot frames we would have, for example: The unfulfilled (secondary plot frame) in combination with the sexual attraction of another person (primary plot frame), which could lead to an action that is about a person who finds another person so sexually attractive, but this desire remains unfulfilled for a certain reason or is not fulfilled in spite of everything. We have a plot as soon as we define the reason for the unfulfilled or “unfulfilled” desire. For example, “I don’t feel attractive enough”, “I have no self-confidence”, “You are too beautiful for me” or “I don’t know why I don’t dare” (all reasons why the desire remains unfulfilled). Or, in the case that the sexual attraction is not fulfilling, topics such as: “You don’t stand by me”, “You don’t love me, you only love my body” or “You don’t empathize with me enough”.
Conversely, we could also simply randomly combine lust (primary plot frame) with trust (secondary plot frame) and have, for example, the plot for a story in which someone can only really let themselves go and indulge their lust in the arms of that particular person.
Songs that deal with the subject of sex include
- What’s Love Got To Do With It
- I Want Your Sex
- Let’s Talk About Sex Baby
- Hey Mister Important
- sexual healing
One of the most frequent themes in songs was, is and will remain love. Love can take on very different meanings. Because the feeling of being in love is different than the feeling of love between two partners who have been in a relationship for decades. And it is again a different love relationship than the one between family members or close friends.
Primary plot frames:
Falling in love/being in love (having butterflies in your stomach)
Feeling love for a child (or other relatives)
Realizing that you really love someone, even though you didn’t even consciously notice it.
Here, too, the choice of the secondary plot frame is almost completely free. Almost everything is possible: falling in love + fear, having butterflies in your stomach and envy/ jealousy, loving someone + trust. And so on… all great initial plots.
Songs that deal with the topic love include
Just The Way You Are
She Loves You
Love And Marriage
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
The urge for independence
The urge to realise oneself and to stand with both feet firmly on the ground in life needs encouragement from time to time. What would fit there better than a song?
Wishes, dreams, hopes as well as disappointment, fear, confidence, trust, unfulfilled or fulfilled are suitable as secondary plot frames. Songs that deal with the urge for independence can be about how someone wants to achieve independence, how independence was taken away from someone, how someone recognized the independence of their life and now demands it, or how someone works to make the urge for independence a reality.
Examples of these plot frames:
It’s My Life
I Will Survive
Everybody Says Don’t
You’re Gonna Hear From Me
interruption or termination of a matter
Most of the time, of course, these are relationships, especially love relationships. It is not absolutely necessary that the songwriter talks about his own experiences. It can also be based on the experiences of another person or be completely invented. But it is important that you pull the audience into the song. So the audience must be able to identify with the song in some way.
The secondary plot frames can help us here to put the interruption or cancellation of the thing into an emotional context. The interruption (primary plot frame) could be due to hate, jealousy but possibly also love or an obligation (all secondary plot frames).
A theme that would include the secondary plot frame of joy would be, for example, a song about how much one is happy to get back together after a break-up (for example after a day at work). Take as another example a song about a soldier who has to separate from his beloved to go to war. Or as another example the situation in which a former lovers now have nothing more to say to each other and therefore draw the consequences.
Example for songs of this topic:
You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
How Am I Supposed to Live Without You
Where Do You Start
Last Night When We Were Young
Infidelity is also a primary plot frame. Through the secondary plot frame, we can capture the emotions: hate, jealousy, surprise, love, or hurt into the primary plot frame.
Examples would be catching your partner in flagrante delicto or being affected because you didn’t notice the infidelity for so long. Another example would be the pure hate that has been created by the infidelity of the partner or the love that is still there despite the infidelity.
The feeling of jealousy and the fear of infidelity is something most people know very well. Chances are therefore relatively good that they show empathy for the song and feel addressed by it.
Some of the songs that deal with the subject of infidelity are
Stranger in My House
Cheatin’ On Me
Talkin in Your Sleep
Me and Mrs Jones
Reunification is also a good primary plotting framework. Suitable secondary plot frames are for example joy, forgiveness or distrust. So the story boils down to putting something back together that was separated. What probably interests the listener the most is the question of motivation: why is it being reunited? Under what conditions and premises is it reunited? What are the emotions and reasons that lead to reunification? Another secondary plot frame to this topic could also be hope. For example, a song could deal with the fact that the protagonist hopes for reunification or asks for it.
Reunification is dealt with in these songs, among others:
Just One More Chance
Come Back to Me
Love Will Lead You Back
Don’t Give Up On Us
The parent-child relationship is a good primary plot frame. On the one hand it offers the chance for conflicts (secondary plot framework: hatred, ingratitude, forgiveness, …). On the other hand, it is also very well suited for plots that bring together gratitude, love or insight. Since all listeners are in some way in a parent-child relationship, it can be assumed that there is a high degree of empathy.
Examples of songs that take up the parent-child relationship:
Father and Son
Cats in the Cradle
Friendship is also a very good primary plot frame. In connection with secondary plot frames like joy, the positive aspects of friendship can be emphasized. Also hate and disappointment can generate interesting songs about broken friendships and disappointed trust in connection with the plot frame of friendship. If you use the secondary plot frame love, a story could be created in which love grew out of a friendly relationship. Whether or not it was reciprocated could be incorporated into the song through another secondary plot frame such as fulfillment or disappointment. Friendship is also a very general, universal theme for which many listeners show empathy.
Examples of songs that have friendship as their theme:
That’s What Friends Are For
Bridge Over Troubled Water
Thank You for Being a Friend
Songs, music and dance
Music, songs and dancing are often used as metaphors. “The same old song” – “the same old song” in song lyrics, for example, usually does not stand for a song, but for a situation that is often repeated and is usually disappointing. The same is true for the song “Make Your Own Kind of Music” sung by “The Mamas & The Papas” where of course the music is not meant literally but rather metaphorically that you should live your life the way you want to. George Michael has described with his song: “Careless Whisper” the situation in which he dances with a partner to whom he is pretending and therefore feels guilty and never wants to dance again.
Apart from these songs, the words dance, music and songs can animate even those songs that are meant to make the audience dance. The primary plot frames can be joy, love, hate and many others.
Possible stories: The protagonist loves to dance, the protagonist hates to dance, a certain song always reminds the protagonist of a special situation and so on and so forth.
Examples of songs that are about songs, music or dance:
You Make Me Feel Like Dancing
Dance, dance, dance
Save the Last Dance for Me
Escape from everyday life
To escape the dreary, grey everyday life is another need of most people. Songs can help us here. The secondary plot frame here is mostly the longing for freedom, joy or other positive emotions. The aim is to trigger a “holiday feeling” or a feeling of freedom and self-realization in the listener.
Examples of songs that help to escape from everyday life:
Over the Rainbow
Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay
Like Ice In The Sunshine
Another plot frame is the musical drawing of a portrait. This can be, for example, a portrait of a famous person or of existing clichés. Here you draw a picture of a person. This person can exist in reality, be invented or be based on typical clichés.
The secondary plot frame naturally defines which story is created and whether it is positive or negative. A portrait about the typical self-made millionaire who already drives a Porsche in his mid-20s can therefore be ironic due to the secondary plot frame, be truthful, express the joy and happiness that the protagonist has achieved his goal or let the protagonist fall deep into the pit by a high-flying success man during the song.
Examples of portraits:
Bad Bad Leroy Brown (cliché)
Vincent (Portrait: Vincent van Gogh)
Candle in the Wind (Portrait: Marilyn Monroe/ Lady Diana)
Big Time (cliché)
Find your own plot frames
Of course the list of primary and secondary plot frames is not exhaustive. Find the situations people know and connect them with the emotions people know and you already have two spicy basic ingredients for a good song story. Remember that a song should only tell one story line. Unlike, for example, a story that is told over several hundred pages in a novel or that can take two hours to tell in the cinema, in a song we have to get the story “to the point” within three minutes and within two to three verses. A single emotion (secondary plot frame) and a single basic situation (primary plot frame) are therefore completely sufficient to write good lyrics that the listener can put himself in the position of the story. Remember to write down situations every day. If it’s hard at first, don’t worry: it gets easier with practice.
Finding inspiration for your songwriting
One of the most important aspects of songwriting is inspiration. What do you write a song about? What can many people identify with? In another article we have already learned how to find good song themes. And we also showed an approach how to write good songs via titles. And in this article we will now look at some other ways how we can find inspiration.
Songwriting Tip: Common problems in life
We want as many people as possible to identify with our songs. Therefore we should orient ourselves on their problems and their everyday life. Hardly anyone will have a problem with whether they should rather buy a Ferrari or a Porsche. So if you write a song about it, relatively few people will be able to identify with the problem. Songs, however, are often listened to to strengthen your own emotions (for example when you are heartbroken) or to counteract them (for example when you feel bad and hope that the song will motivate you). In the following you will find a list of problems that frequently occur in everyday life. Of course this list is by no means complete. Nevertheless, it can help you to find new song ideas.
Known problems in people’s lives are:
- Living an unsatisfying life
- Living a lie
- Hate his job
- Can’t live his dreams
- Feeling treated unfairly
- Feeling isolated and lonely
- Feeling trapped in your life
- Feeling rejected by friends, family or others
- Have a fight with friends, family or others
- Reconciling after an argument
- Want to help someone but can’t
- Being dependent on someone / being a supplicant
- Feeling disrespected
- grow old
- be afraid of failure
- Being around people you can’t stand
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling misunderstood
- Want to be in love
- Being unlucky in love
- be afraid to start a new relationship
- Fear of terminating/breaking up an old relationship
- Unplanned pregnancy
- Feeling unloved
- Feeling hurt
- Divorce, separation
- Receiving bad news
- Puberty: Rebellion
- Problems with growing up and cutting the cord
- Not knowing what to do with your life
- Not have enough money
- Feeling poor or in debt
- be the victim of crime or violence
- Processing a trauma
- Remembering old times
- Seeing time rush by
- Have to make a decision and do not feel ready to do so
- Days when nothing works as you expect it to
Songwriting Trick: Human qualities
Let’s look at what “people can do” to bring the characters in our songs to life. Of course this list is by no means complete. So just add your own characteristics that you notice and that you might find helpful for your future lyrics.
- Feeling empathy for others
- Remembering the past
- Want to forget the past
- Being torn between two lives
- Being ready for new challenges
- Cooking good or bad
- Lying, cheating or stealing
- Going over others
- Making others feel calm
- hide your feelings
- reveal your soul
- Wealthy or becoming rich
- Surviving a disaster
- Change your characters
- Achieving a goal
- Being helpful and nice
- Have unusual hobbies
- Knowing that what you’re doing is wrong
- Living alone
- Dreaming of a better life
- be loyal
- Feeling rejected
- Being involved in a war
- Preventing a war
- fight among oneself
- Become envious or jealous of others
- Love or hate others
- Surviving traumas
- be unfriendly
- Playing with the emotions of others
- Be strong or weak
- Be trapped
- Be brave
- be young or old
- Be shy or scared
- Be industrious or lazy
- be proud
- feel ashamed
- have ambitions
- disguise facts
- Being stupid, crazy or strange
- Being funny
- be lonely
- want to be lonely
- To be famous
- Wanting to be famous
- Go deep
- Travel by car, plane or ship
- Running away from problems
- Facing up to problems
- Leaving home
- Watching the parents fight
- Lying to yourself
- make mistakes
- play games
- Being attracted to others
- renege on promises
- be bullied
- make things clear
- Have good memories
- hide your mistakes
- Learning from their mistakes
- Be nervous or anxious
- want to exercise control
- be ill
- feel pain
- Possibly die
- keep secrets
- keep secrets
- Giving away secrets
- be a criminal
- catch criminals
- Be generous
- Being a thief
- Being a murderer
- Helping others
- Working in restaurants or bars
- Be lazy
- Working in an office or factory
- be fired
- be on the dole
- Have horrible families
- Have great families
- Go to jail
- Being homeless
- make things up
- Protecting others from harm
- Other damage
- Pretending to be something they’re not
- Stand in the shadow of another person
- Being happy
- To be happy
- hate kids
- Children love
- be noisy
- Keep it down
- get scared
- feel bored
- be hungry
Songwriting topics about places
As we have already learned in the last point, places are also suitable for drawing people towards an emotional identification. An exemplary list can be found here. For each of these places, ask yourself what experiences and emotions you associate with them; think of a story about them.
Small retailer/ Aunt Emma shop
indoor swimming pool
The idea lists in this article can serve as good suggestions in the songwriting process and can give you new ideas. But it’s up to you if and how you use them. Even the best idea lists are useless if they remain unused. For this reason, why don’t you use these idea lists as an opportunity to transfer them into your own songwriting notebook and add to them whenever you come across a new place or another interesting word.