All art forms are connected. Creativity is the common denominator. Good art has good structure. Great art has either great structure or unique (new or groundbreaking) structure. Whether the art is visual, audio, written, spoken, tactile, or imagined, it has a structure that is innately pleasing and satisfying to us humans. We think of our favorite song, our favorite novel, our favorite painting or photograph, our favorite live performance, our favorite movie, and we sense that something powerful has taken hold of our senses and captured our imagination.
I’m a writer and have learned much about story structure in the past few years, thanks mainly to Larry Brooks and Randy Ingermanson. Other experts have also supported the generally accepted thesis that a good story has a basic structure. That structure can be graphed by a slowly rising line from left to right, with increasingly higher peaks and valleys, then shooting upwards into a parabolic curve, only to zoom back down and land gently at the end of the story. Brooks advocates a four-part structure. It’s merely a variation on classic theatrical three-part structure- same difference except theatrical part 2 is a combination of the literary parts 2 and 3.
Translation: The story starts at a “low point”, builds upward and intensifies until the climax, then explodes in the final act to a resounding conclusion, then glides back to earth with the tieing up of loose ends in a short coda. Sounds like the formula for great sex, too. So what does this have to do with Eva Cassidy, a singer?
Those who follow me know that I believe she is the greatest singer who ever lived (male or female). Why, you ask? Because she told a great story with every song she ever sang. The greatest story she ever told is her version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She recorded a live version as well as a studio version. Both are fantastic, but I favor the studio version because I feel she got it perfect. The live version is beautifully flawed with a couple of shaky notes and guitar “twangs” but is an equally special experience.
When I envision writing a great story, I listen to “Over the Rainbow” to see exactly how to structure my story. The song’s structure is A-A-B-A, a standard musical form meaning the A sections are based on one chord progression, the B on another chord progression (sometimes called the bridge), and back to the A section again. The ending is a 8-bar coda that ties up the” loose ends” of the song much like a good novel does.
Here’s how I see the structure of the “Over the Rainbow” story:
- Opening four measures of guitar chords set the mood. Here it’s wistful and reflective.
- First A section–Lyrics start ” Somewhere over the rainbow…”Part one of the story. Our protagonist is showing us her emotional level–wistful, wondering what else might be there. Her “normal” state that’s about to be changed. This equates to the first section of a novel. Showing the protagonist’s normal world, but also showing a need, a goal, a desire for some sort of change or improvement
- Second A section–Lyrics start again “Somewhere over the rainbow…” but end with “…really come true.” She’s thinking maybe I can get to that better place, reach that goal, but it might be challenging. Second part of a novel.
- First B section–Lyrics start “Someday I’ll wish upon a star …” Part two of the story. Conflict enters (the antagonist). All the forces working against her achieving her goal, mood intensifies, she is going to try to get to that better place even though it’s a big unknown.
- Third A section-– guitar interlude- contemplating the possibilities, making the decision to go for it, no matter what the odds, something has forced the issue, compels her to action.
- Second B section–Lyrics start “Someday I’ll wish upon a star …” Repeated lyrics in this section. Part three of the story. Things get complicated. Obstacles are put in her way. She discovers she’ll need more resolve this time in order to reach her goal. Much more intense, emotions and conflict ramp up. Music slows here for a measure, final preparation, deep breath, this is the moment of truth.
- Fourth A section–Lyrics start “Somewhere over the rainbow…” Part four of the story–the climax. The final battle with her antagonist. Joy, exhilaration, doubt, fear all bundled into this section, resolution is achieved, her goal has been reached … or has it?
- Coda- final 8 bars–Lyrics are “If happy little bluebirds fly … why, oh why can’t I?” So we aren’t sure if she’s gotten over the rainbow or not. Maybe only in her imagination. But it was a hell of a good story no matter how it ended.
I suggest listening to the video in a dark, quiet room with your eyes closed. (The pictures are a scenic slide show that evoke some of the lyrics, but don’t necessarily tell this story.) Follow along with your mind, imagining your own story and hearing how magnificently Eva tells the story of this song.
Note: this song is awesome with high-quality headphones.
What song or songs–or other art, for that matter–inspire you to create great stories, or other art?