I’ve Got Rhythm, I’ve Got Story: Using a Popular Musical Form to Structure Your Story

“Music Note Bokeh” by all that improbable blue is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For part of college I lived in a big house with a bunch of musicians. This came with pros (free shows, sweet music, good times) and cons (band practice, angry neighbors re:band practice). But something one of the band members taught me, a specific form of song, stuck with me. Today I’m going to show you how to take a musical form found in everything from “My Funny Valentine” to “Over the Rainbow” to “Hey Jude” to “Friday, I’m in Love” and use it to either inspire and guide a new story, or to help restructure and reimagine a story whose form needs a little extra jingle.

THE FORM

The AABA form, also sometimes called simply 32 bar form, is a widely known popular song form consisting of four sections of eight bars. It is the most common form in “Great American Songbook” and most popular through the 1960s. It was succeeded by the Verse/Chorus form in pop music, but that form is much more repetitive and harder to apply to story structure.

The four sections of the AABA form are two verses, a refrain (also called a bridge), and then a final verse. Illustrated below:

A section (A1)

A section (A2)

B section

A section (A3)

For those of us who haven’t studied music, what does all this actually mean?  Well, here’s a straightforward example in action from George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” (1930).

A section (A1)

I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man

Who could ask for anything more? 

A section (A2)

I got daisies in green pastures, I got my man

Who could ask for anything more?

B section

Old man trouble, I don’t mind him

You won’t find him ’round my door

A section (A3)

I got starlight, I got sweet dreams

I got my man

Who could ask for anything more?

Who could ask for anything more?

I’m sure you noticed that the last section was longer than form-dictated length. Scandalous! Well, as with all things artistic, knowing the rules gives you the power to break them for effect.

There’s more I could go into around terminology and complications/expansions of the form but for our purposes I’ll leave it there. For more information I highly recommend checking out this link http://musictheory.pugetsound.edu/mt21c/AABAForm.html   but beware that it very clearly covers a lot of music theory and if you’re prone to rabbit holes, this could be nearly as dangerous as tvtropes.org!

One final thing to note about the form itself, though, before we move on to how to apply it. You may have noticed in both the layout of the sections and in the example given that every time the A section is repeated, it’s a little different. Likewise the illustration has the sections listed as A1, A2, and A3. They are not simple repetitions, but developments.

APPLYING THE FORM TO WRITING

By now you may be saying “Well, that’s all very interesting, RJ, but I’m trying to write a novel here, not a song! And now I have ‘I Got Rhythm’ stuck in my head! What does all this have to do with writing?”

Like the classic Hero’s Journey or Seven-Point Story structure, the AABA form can serve as a useful model for looking at the structure of your story. It can be applied to either your novel as a whole, specific scenes, or short stories.

It is an incredibly simple, clear way of thinking about story structure. In the first section you establish a verse: the world as it is, the characters and conflicts and situations. In the second section you reinforce, deepen, and complicate what has been established. In the third section the world goes topsy turvy, the conflict comes to a head, the characters’ secrets are revealed. The final verse is an echo of the beginning but different again for all that has happened.

A section (A1), Setup

A section (A2), Buildup

B section, Twist

A section (A3), Resolution

This is actually quite similar to the Kishōtenketsu form I only recently heard about which also uses a four-part structure.  Here the parts are roughly  1) introduction 2) process, action, or hardships 3) turning point or reversal and 4) conclusion and results.

BEGINNING, MIDDLE, MIDDLE, END

Another way of thinking about this structure is just an expansion on the very basic “beginning, middle, end” structure of storytelling often taught to children, with a couple differences.

The first difference is the “middle” is broken up into “middle build up” and “middle twist.” So it could be imagined like this:

(A1) Beginning

(A2) Middle build up

(B) Middle Twist

(A3) End

This can be helpful for those of us prone to getting stuck in “the murky middle”. The middle in this model isn’t just where things happen between the beginning and end. Instead it consists of two distinct movements: one a complication of that which has come before, and the second a twist or reversal.

The second difference is that “beginning” and “middle” and “end” are three separate ideas.  In the AABA form, only the twist is completely distinct. The beginning, build up, and resolution are all developed repetitions of each other. A2 builds on and complicates what was established in A1.  A3 echoes A1 but shows what has changed through the course of the novel.

EXAMPLE

Here’s an example to give a clearer idea of how this form can show the big picture of a novel.

Watership Down

A1: Their warren is threatened and they must flee

A2: They face threats finding and establishing a new warren

B: They help other rabbits escape another warren

A3: Their new warren is threatened and they defend it

Hazel and the rest of the rabbits face threats throughout the book but all through the A parts they are being attacked. In the B part they are the attackers. The final A part (A3) is a repeat of the first section, but this time instead of fleeing they stay and defend their new warren.

FINALLY

As with all forms, this model isn’t going to work perfectly for all stories all the time. Think of it more as a tool of inspiration or revision more than any sort of hard and fast blueprint.

I am primarily a pantser (meaning I don’t outline and tend to write “by the seat of my pants”) and so I find these more big-picture structures particularly helpful. If I can come up with basic ideas for my A1, A2, B, and A3 sections, I can pants away without feeling too restricted, but with enough direction that I won’t get completely lost in the weeds.

Give it a try. What are you setting up in the first motion of your novel? What are you complicating and developing? What happens to twist or reverse the story? How is the resolution an echo of the opening?

And finally, what other forms or structures from other art forms could inspire your writing: principles of composition in painting, choreography from dance….? You never know where you might hear a great idea, if you listen for it.

2 comments

  1. RJ–I love this!! What a simple and catchy way of thinking about story structure, and yes, I won’t be able to get “I’ve Got Rhythm” out of my head now. Hope all is going well with your life and writing!

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