While doing peer reviews for the Pat Pattison coursera.org songwriting course, I find myself saying the same thing repeatedly.
Strive for more imagery.
When I was first told this, I thought it sounded vague and unattainable, until I found that I could do it. Here’s how I do it (I’m an amateur, so YMMV):
Pick a metaphor for the song. One is enough. More than one leads to “mixed metaphors”. Let’s take the metaphor “walk the line”. (You can use a title, too).
As soon as I said that, some kind of image formed inside your head. Your “movie”.
Hold that image in your mind, don’t let it drift away. Now, examine it in finer and finer detail. Describe what you see, using the senses. How does it smell? How does it feel? Taste? Texture? Sound? Colour?
I’m currently seeing myself on a double-white line, paved single lane road, in the country, green hills on either side, the shoulder is gravel, in the distance the road disappears down a slight hill and there’s dark, shady forest far away at that end, it’s overcast but not raining, no sun, slight autumn-cool breeze on my cheeks, but it’s not autumn because the leaves are green, I feel like I’m slogging down the road, tired but not exhausted, my mind is filled with worry(?). I’m wearing leather boots, light yellow, scuffed, dark brown soles. The laces are leather, loosely tied up…
Write a scene — it actually helps to write it out — until you’ve sucked it dry. You will have a cornucopia of imagery available to you. Then, pick ONE detail and write it into your song.
Here’s an example:
Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been.
Do YOU see the church? Do you see the rice? Is it a complete scene in your mind? Are the lights on or off in the church? How does it smell? Is it an old church or new? Describe the windows.
This line seems to be too simple to evoke imagery. It contains a small trick. Most people clean up rice with a broom or a vacuum cleaner. Eleanor is picking it up. Grain by grain. With her fingers. I can feel the rice, I can see that each grain is white, I can feel the futility and despair of wasting my time picking up single grains of rice. The carpet is dark red, somewhat worn. The lights are off, there is multi-coloured, dim light coming in through the stained glass windows. The pews are dark-stained oak, the shellac is old and slightly sticky. The place smells like ancient dust.
All that — from some rice lying on the floor…
Pat also speaks about putting the imagery in the very first line of the song. That way, it oozes down through the rest of the song, like dye running down a page.
Garth Brooks’ Thunder Rolls does something similar. They (there were two co-writers) chose the metaphor of thunder to represent worry, then anger. Then they used most of the first verse to set up imagery of a storm brewing in the wee hours.
Do that to your listeners.
I’ve often found that as I write my first verse (usually after I’ve written the 2nd verse, see below), that I have a good line with some imagery in it, but it’s nearly the last line of the verse. There’s a simple solution to that — take the line with the best imagery and make it the first line.
Now, all that remains is to rearrange the remaining lines so that they make sense and respect the language. In fact, what usually happens, is that you notice that the remaining lines weren’t as good as they could be, after all, and the image as the first line gives you new inspiration.
A song is about real-estate — you get one chorus of approximately 4 lines, and about three verses of approximately 4 lines each. 16 lines. You have to tell a whole story in roughly 16 lines.
Second-verse hell: you’ve written the first verse and the chorus. The first verse says it all, there’s nothing left to write.
Pat showed us one trick — break that verse into 3 boxes.
Another trick is: make that verse the second verse. Then, ask yourself “how did I get here?” and “where am I going?” — V1 and V3 respectively.