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You don’t want to lay around waiting for inspiration to nip you in the butt, but at the same time you can’t seem to get your lyrical ideas onto paper.
If you’re stuck in a rut, or you just don’t feel the inspiration flowing through you…
you may need to take a step back and start considering your lyrics from a more top down level.
What I mean is, instead of saying “which words do I want to write”, take a step back, make it more broad, and then narrow it down later.
Don’t focus on the words first, but broaden it to say “what things do I want to write about?”
You can broaden further…
- “Which words do I want to write?”
- “Which things do I want to write about?”
- “What intrigues me in life, at this moment, and in general?”
- “What do I have strong opinions about?”
- “What interests me…period…”
If you start at the bottom of that list, and work UP, then you have a much better chance of writing lyrics. Lyrics are the last thing you write, after having done a fair amount of preparation.
But what is all that preparation called when you haven’t written any lyrics yet, but you have a strong idea of what you want to write about?
The concept is the idea in your lyrics, that is bigger than your lyrics.
Your concept might be an expression of:
- An emotion (Sadness, Anger, Frustration, Grief)
- An element (Fire, Earth, Wind, etc. See the Alchemy Index by Thrice)
- An event that happened.
- A social commentary on the way people see things (Try The Incident album by Porcupine Tree), or just satire in general.
- A fictional world that you’ve created (in the same way that a novel writer would create their own fictional world).
- A unified theme which all the lyrics contribute to.
- And any other idea’s or concepts that you can come up with.
It’s your interpretation, impression, or opinion on any of the above things.
Once you’ve created this concept, and worked through the background of it, you can see how it would be much easier to write the lyrics.
Rather than having writers block, where you don’t have enough words to write down, you would now have the opposite problem of having too many words to write.
Because you’ve created the concept, you now can turn on your analytical mind (rather than your creative mind) when writing the lyrics, because you now need to decide which words to not include (rather than deciding which words you want to create).
What is a Concept Album?
The idea of a concept song/album is nothing new at all. Artists have been doing it for years, and some of the most successful and critically acclaimed albums of all time happen to be concept albums.
Here’s just a few concept albums that I know of:
- Deloused in the Comatorium – The Mars Volta
- Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
- The Downward Spiral – Nine Inch Nails
- Crack The Skye – Mastodon
- Hotel California – The Eagles
- Plastic Beach – Gorillaz
- American Idiot – Green Day
- Panopticon – ISIS
- In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson
- Catch 33 – Meshuggah
- The Incident – Porcupine Tree
- Kid A – Radiohead
- Sufjan Stevens – Age of Adz
- The Alchemy Index – Thrice
Many of these are based on stories, idea’s, inventions, ideologies, commentaries on human reactions, actual events, mental health, and a whole lot more.
You can see how diverse, yet useful, a concept can be in helping you write lyrics.
Concepts draw people in. They get your visitors emotionally engaged with your message, make it relatable, and also make your writing feel like it has a direction, and a purpose, when you’re writing it.
How To Write A Concept Album
This article is going to mainly address creating your own fictional world in the same way that The Mars Volta did for Deloused In The Comatorium.
But if you want to try a different type of concept, then by all means do it! Just keep in mind that I’m not going to be addressing them in this specific series.
Part 1 – Planning Your Concept
Imagine the world that JRR Tolkien created for Lord of the Rings. There were maps, untold back-stories, ancient folklore (that the characters remembered even if they were never told to the reader), and even unique languages.
He created a world that existed in idea’s, and there were many parts of that world that were not even written about. These intricate facts about the world made it much more believable, and much more capturing for the reader. There’s a reason people consider that story to be a masterpiece (and why it’s one of my favorite movies ever made).
For your story, you will want to do a similar type of planning. You might not create something as intricate as LOTR, but it certainly should be deep enough that your listeners will feel the depth, and be emotionally captured by it.
Based on your skills, there are a few different ways that you can plan for your story. Here are just a few examples of planning tools that you can use to get your idea’s out.
#1. Visual Story-Boarding
If you are skilled in art, or just prefer a mainly visual medium, then try story-boarding to plan your story.
This involves creating images that represents scenes, events, and characters in your story to help you plan. It’s kind of like writing the comic-book version of your story!
If you come up with a cool idea for a place, you can draw it out and store it for future use. The same goes for any idea you come up with that you want in your story.
But why is this useful for writing lyrics? How will this be helpful for the end result of hearing my music?
Here’s an example for a song that I did. I created a picture in my mind of a concept. I then took that scene, and I wrote lyrics simply describing what the scene looked like when you examined the art.
Because the art I came up with was so intricate, the lyrics ended up being really fantastic, and I’m still very happy with them. And all they were doing was describing a scene that I had created using interesting metaphors.
You can listen to that song titled “The Ternative” here.
I’m definitely not suggesting that you need to take this approach, I’m just showing you that no matter how useless you think it is to come up with intricate details, you’re wrong!
#2. Mind Map
A mind map is where you put your main concept in the middle of a blank sheet of paper, and from there you branch up different idea’s for your concept.
A good piece of software to help organize your mindmap is Bubbl.us, though I find that using the old “pen & paper” approach can often spur more creativity. The computer has a tendency to mechanize your idea’s, rather than emotionalizing them, as it can force you to be more organized than you should be at this point in time.
Take a look at this more in-depth article on creating mind-maps. That article is referring to coming up with money-making idea’s, but you can just as easily apply those concepts to writing a story.
For some extra idea’s to spur on your creativity, I recommend 25 useful brainstorming techniques.
#3. Keep A Journal – (I do this)
Every time you think of an idea, write it down. After a few weeks you will start to have an world developed.
I keep my Journal beside my bed, and try to write at least 1 page worth of ideas before I go to sleep every night. Sometimes I will think of images, and creatures to go along with my story (more on this in part 2 of the series).
I do my best to draw in my journal too, despite my awfully smelly drawing skills.
It’s the consistent writing every day that really makes the difference. Because I only have to write a little bit each day, it’s a really goal to have! Then if I’m taking my time, I can look back on it after a year of writing, and see that I’ve come up with a thousand intricate idea’s!
What an advantage I have because of this patience. I recommend you adopt a similar attitude, unless you feel that you can write for hours on end. Slow and steady is how I choose to go though.
After You’ve Chosen…
Whichever brainstorming technique you choose, you need to make a point to take your time creating your story.
This should take weeks, if not months or years to create, depending on how in-depth you want your story to be.
After you spend the time creating the….background….no….creating your world, you will be ready to turn it into music.
Of course, this process of creating a world is much more complicated than I am letting on, and I will cover more aspects of it in part 2 of this article.
Part 2 – Characters & Universe
A narrative is a story; Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are both narratives.
I don’t think you will want to write a story quite as long as those, but how about a short story?
For “Deloused in the Comatorium” Cedric Bixler-Zavala wrote a 20+ page short story. After the story was complete, he wrote lyrics (a song for each chapter) describing what happened in the book.
So here’s the technique I recommend for writing a narrative concept album:
- Write a story, in all the glorious detail you can create.
- Then, write lyrics describing your short story. They will obviously be considerable shorter than the story itself, so you will need to be summarizing in as few words as possible.
When people hear this snapshot of your story in lyrics, it gives them the impression that your lyrics have a greater amount of depth to them, and for good reason.
Creating A Paracosm (Universe)
Creating a paracosm (universe) for your story helps you to decide exactly what your story is about.
I recommend taking a quick look at what a paracosm is if you aren’t familiar with the term first.
If everything in your story is non-fiction, then simply recognizing that, and being conscious of it is enough for this step, though I still recommend you check out some of the elements below so you can be aware.
Some of you would like to create a fictional universe (paracosm), in which case you would be required to consider many different characters and qualities of your world. Let’s take a look at some of the different elements that might be present in your fictional universe.
- The Protagonist(s) – the good guy
- The Antagonist(s) – the bad guy
- Creatures or Monsters
- World Powers/Government
- God (does God, or some version of God play into your story?)
- Aliens (& the unknown)
- Nature (if used correctly, things such as the weather can be used as a character in your story
- The 4 Elements
Depending on how “Sci-fi” your story is, some of these things will or will not apply. Example: if you are writing a romantic story, there will likely not be any aliens in your story.
You don’t have to feel restrained by any of the things I’ve suggested above. They are simply some idea’s to help you get started.
This “good guy” is the person you will position as the main character of the story. You might have a few main characters, but the key is that you are casting them in a good light.
Here are some examples of iconic, yet typical good guy protagonists:
- Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
- Most superhero comics (Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Captain America, etc.)
- Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, etc. (Lord of the Rings)
- Harry Potter (Harry Potter)
- Gordon Freeman (Half-Life – Video Game)
- Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
- Mario & Luigi (Super Mario Brothers – Video Game, not the awful movie)
- Maximus Decimus Meridius (Gladiator)
- Marty McFly (Back to the Future)
- Mal Reynolds (Firefly)
- George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life)
- WALL-E (WALL-E)
- Andy (The Shawshank Redemption)
- Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump)
- Indiana Jones (I can’t remember what movie he’s from)
One thing you want to remember is your protagonist doesn’t have to be “Clark Kent Superman, doing everything right and is always there to save the world“.
You may want to make him a more realistic protagonist, or you might want to make him a morally appalling character.
The point is not that he is an upstanding fellow, but that you have the audience see from his perspective and relate to him.
Remember the movie “Despicable Me”? The protagonist of the movie was…
…an evil mastermind!
Okay, maybe that’s not an amazing example seeing as though he turns out to be a pretty decent guy in the end (he just THINKS he’s a really bad guy), but I wanted to illustrate the point in a very easy to understand way.
Here are some other more appropriate examples of protagonists from movies who are morally reprehensible:
- Cptn. Jack Sparrow – “Pirates of the Caribbean“
- Alex DeLarge – “A Clockwork Orange“
- Patrick Bateman – “American Psycho“
- Nick Naylor – “Thank you for Smoking“
- Michael Corleone – “The Godfather“
- Tony Montana – “Scarface“
- Daniel Plainview – “There Will Be Blood“
- Swanson – “The Comedy“
You can think of these types of protagonists as the “anti-hero”.
Also you want to keep in mind that you might have multiple protagonists, such as in the show “Arrested Development” (check it out, it’s one of my favorites.)
Two things to know about the antagonist:
- This is your villain.
- Almost every story has one.
The purpose of the antagonist is often to give conflict in the story, making it more interesting, and giving the protagonist hurdles to overcome.
Some stories, instead of a living villain (Antagonist), have life-situations that act as the conflict.
An example of this would be in the show “Arrested Development”, where George Michael (Michael Cera) has a crush on his cousin, Maebe.
The moral dilemma frustration, and tension this causes between him and his cousin is the conflict. This type of conflict is known as “Man VS Himself” (more on this in a moment.)
You can see how situations can be your main sense of tension, rather than the simple “bad guy taking over the world” scenario.
Arrested Development, The Office, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men are all examples of shows that often have slightly more abstract conflicts (more than “You bad, I kill you”).
There are 4 different types of conflicts. These are:
- Man VS Man
- Man VS Society
- Man VS Nature
- Man VS Himself
Creatures are often for the fiction fanatic, and can play a wonderfully adventurous part in your story.
I personally love creating them, as I get the opportunity to doodle and create beings that I can only dream of. It’s incredibly fun and often involves some very unadulterated creativity.
I can only doodle though; I’m a terrible artist. Luckily I can simply hire an artist to turn my amateurish doodle into a professional drawing with deep detail. And I recommend you do the same if you can’t draw.
Here are some narratives that have awesome creatures for you to pull inspiration from:
- Where the Wild Things are (Book/Movie)
- Alice in Wonderland (Book/Movie)
- Deloused in the Comatorium (Duh!) – Album
- Cabin in the Woods (Horror Movie)
- Star Wars (Movie)
- Half Life 1 & 2 (Video Game)
- Narnia (Book/Movie)
- Dark Souls (Video Game)
- Homer’s “Odyssey” (Greek epic poetry)
- King Kong (the Peter Jackson movie)
- Final Fantasy VII (Video Game)
- Zdzislaw Beksinski’s art (Polish artist)
For me, the bottom line when it comes to creating a creature is just this fun and fluid creativity. I’m able to have almost no limits on what I create, and it’s just a lot of fun.
That may be different for you, but that’s how I view them. They are also great opportunities to interject metaphor and social commentary into your story if you use them right.
Example: In Narnia, C.S. Lewis uses the lion “Aslan” as an allegory for God.
This is especially a relevant topic if you are writing some sort of political thriller, or a story involving political commentary. “System of a Down” is especially good at interjecting politically-charged lyrics into their music.
Perhaps you are writing historical fiction (Tarantino’s movies “Django Unchained” and “Inglorious Basterds” are great examples of this); the political state of the world becomes very relevant in this case.
Here’s a few more examples of politically charged stories or lyrics:
- Watchmen (Graphic Novel/Movie)
- 1984 (Book)
- Resident Evil (Video Game)
- A Clockwork Orange (Book/Movie)
- Django Unchained (Movie)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Book/Movie)
- Skyrim (Video Game)
- A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Book/Movie)
- Mezmerize (Album) – System of a Down
- Half-Life 2 (Video Game)
- Inglorious Basterds (Movie)
- V for Vendetta (Graphic Novel/Movie)
- Final Fantasy VII, VIII, IX, X, etc (Video Game)
- IP Man (Movie)
I would also include religion in this category, as most storylines involving religion (as opposed to spirituality) are mostly politics and organizations fulfilling motives.
The next section has to do with God & Spirituality, which I see as very different than religion.
God & Spirituality
Spirituality is an intriguing force for many people, so it would only make sense to write about it if it intrigues you as well.
Your story might involve a literal figure of God. For example, you might reach into the God’s of Greek Mythology (Zeus, Hades, etc.) to play a part in your story, or another religions viewpoint of God to use him as a character.
Rather than a character, you might wish to represent God as some sort of universal force (Star Wars anyone?) that plays a role in your story.
How you create this is entirely up to you, and the best I can do to help you here is to give you (yet again) more examples of art that have allowed the artists views of God & Spirituality to permeate their creations. Here are some examples for you to study:
- Lateralus (Album) – Tool
- The Tree of Life (Movie)
- Life of Pi (Book/Movie)
- Homer’s Odyssey (Epic Greek Poetry)
- Narnia (Book/Movie series) – is an allegory for the creation of the earth and the fall of man, and God’s eventual restoration of man.
- The Illead (Epic Greek Poetry)
- The Bedlam in Goliath (Album) – The Mars Volta
- Bath (Album) – Maudlin of the Well
- Star Wars (Movie series)
- East of Eden (Book)
Invaders from space can certainly be relevant for a lot of stories, especially those sci-fi ones.
There’s really not much more to say about the topic. If you feel inspired to make aliens a central part of your story, then let that inspiration carry you.
Some classic examples:
- Aliens (Movie)
- Scientology (The Religion)
- Avatar (Movie)
- Dead Space (Video Game)
- Star Wars (sorry to use this one again, I had to though.)
- Superman (Comic/TV/Movie)
- Halo (Video Game)
- Call of Cthulhu (Short story)
How does the natural world around us play a role in your story?
In the natural disaster movie “Dante’s Peak”, a volcano erupts, and melts a bunch of citizens leg’s off. In this movie, Mother Nature happens to play the antagonist of the story, causing the central conflict. I mentioned this type of conflict above, it’s known as “Man VS Nature”.
You might make a natural disaster the central conflict of your story, or you might choose to go the opposite route and make mother Nature a potentially good force, such as in the novel “On Stranger Tide’s”, where pirates search frantically for the Fountain of Youth.
This fountain has the obvious power to preserve life by making the consumer of the fountain younger.
As you can see, Mother Nature can play many different roles; it’s up to you to decide which role you want her to play.
Perhaps a catastrophe occurs, causing the entire modern world to end as we know it, making your story a post-apocalyptic one (or maybe even present-apocalyptic).
Let’s include zombie apocalypse in this category too (except for the book “Cell”, where the zombies are created through the technology of cell phones, and can think).
Animal attacks would also count for this one, such as “Cujo”, which is about a Saint Bernard with rabies that goes on a killing spree…
It’s a lot better (and more terrifying) than it sounds…
Here are some more examples of “Man VS Nature” stories:
- Pet Cemetery (Book)
- Hatchet (Book)
- Fallout (Video Game)
- Castaway (Movie)
- The Poseidon Adventure (Movie)
- Mad Max: Road Warrior (Movie)
- The Walking Dead (TV Series)
- Jaws (Movie)
- The Mist (Book/Movie)
A Final Tip
For my last point, I’ve saved the most important piece of information. This is that you need to be creative. Sound silly? It’s not.
I’m going to go all lame on you here, and point out what creative means (I’ve stepped up from Webster’s though, and am going to use Wikipedia instead).
“Creativity refers to the invention or origination of any new thing (artwork, literary work) that has value.”
Consider this earnestly while writing your concept. For something to be creative, it needs to:
- Be new
- Have value
It might seem like I’m insulting your intelligence, but when I see ridiculous amounts of music-playback-machines disguising themselves as “artists” or “musicians” and sending me their work, I wonder if they ever heard that definition in the first place.
Are you trying to copy someone that you really admire in music or novels? Well…that’s hardly creative isn’t it?
Don’t get “copying” confused with “learning a thing or two” either. If you learn new things from artists before you, well, that’s just common sense.
If you decide to emulate something from an artist you like, but in a different context, that can be creative too!
But if you go in with the goal of writing something “just like them”, you’ve got a problem. I used to do this sometimes; those songs always sucked.
Take everything I’ve said in this article, and all my examples, and realize that your story doesn’t have to include any of these idea’s. There’s no magic formula for creativity.
Instead, create your own idea’s. I’ve only given you some examples to get you started, so you take it from here using your own creativity.
Decide which elements you want to focus on, and then flesh them out until they seem believable to you.