The use of metaphors can be an incredibly powerful tool in lyric writing. Pat Pattison has a great description of metaphors in his book Writing Better Lyrics. He says “In its most basic form, a metaphor is a collision between ideas that don’t belong together.” This is the simplified description of a metaphor your English teacher has always been looking for.
In other words, good metaphors tie together the essence of two otherwise separate ideas. For example, in the Bravery’s song, “Believe” they open the song with the line “The faces all around me they don’t smile they just crack.” The idea of someone whose face is so rigid, that even if they attempted to smile, their face would start to crumble is a great new way of looking at this. It’s a collision of two ideas that don’t otherwise belong together: 1. people who don’t smile, and 2. the cracking of something rigid. It found their common ground and tied them together nicely. As a result, we get a very visual line, which is crucial when writing lyrics, since it’s an audible-only medium.
Another line that works well in this same way is from the song “Shake it Out” byFlorence+ the Machine. It opens with the line “Regrets collect like old friends.” I’ll let you do your own analysis of that one.
Being Original vs. Being Cliché
What’s cool about these lines is that they’re giving us a brand new way of looking at something which we would have never considered before. Some metaphors are so good, they end up being overused by everyone. As a result, they lose their meaning. Probably the mother of all cliché metaphors in songwriting is the phrase “broken heart.” We all know what it means, because we’ve heard it so many times, but since it’s so familiar to us, we don’t stop to think about the metaphor that’s there. The idea of an actual heart being torn in half would be a pretty cool visual if it wasn’t so damn familiar.
Sometimes we just can’t ignore using cliché phrases. Heck, I just used the phrase “the mother of all…” in the last paragraph. So I’m guilty of it sometimes too. But when writing songs, you want to include fresh ideas to keep your listeners interested in what you’re saying.
Think about the movie Inception. [*Spoiler Alert* - skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie] Watching a movie where you find out the end might be a dream is certainly a cliché by now. The idea has been done countless times in films. But you could argue that Inception built an entire movie around making the idea of a possible dream ending completely work. It put a cool twist on an old idea.
Similarly in songwriting, if you’re compelled to use cliché phrases in your lyrics, I’d recommend giving them new meaning. “Well how do I do that?” you ask. Let’s look at how it’s been handled in a hit song.
“Breakeven” by the Script
Like I said the idea of heartbreak was once a cool image, but It’s been beaten into the ground (there’s another cliché for you… heh) by countless other songwriters, poets, movies, books, family members and loved ones. With that in mind, check out the first verse of the song “Breakeven” by the Script:
I’m still alive but I’m barely breathing,
Just prayed to a God that I don’t believe in,
‘Cause I got time while she got freedom,
‘Cause when a heart breaks no it don’t break even
Her best days will be some of my worst,
She finally met a man that’s gonna put her first,
While I’m wide awake, she’s no trouble sleeping,
‘Cause when a heart breaks no it don’t break even
It’s clearly established in the first three lines of each of these sections that our lead singer is the one who’s suffering throughout this breakup and his ex-girlfriend is not. Then we’re presented with the remodeled cliché in the last line: “when a heart breaks, no it don’t break even”
What happens there is very cool. They took that old phrase “heartbreak,” which typically has no imagery associated with it these days because of it’s overuse… and they put back the imagery by adding the line “it don’t break even.” All of a sudden we picture a heart broken in two pieces with one much bigger than the other. We have a visual again because of a clever twist on an old worn out classic. And it’s set up nicely by the verse lines preceding it, as they carefully spell out that he’s been hurting more than her.
Had the first three verse lines not established that this is in fact an uneven breakup, the “uneven heartbreak” idea wouldn’t make much sense. But since the lyric was cleverly crafted and well positioned, we end up with a fresh new look on an old idea.
It should also be noted there’s a double meaning happening with the whole “breaking even” concept. We talked about the main idea already, but keep in mind “breaking even” can mean neither coming out ahead, nor losing. So when he says “when a heart breaks, it don’t break even” he’s also referring to the fact that he didn’t break even, but he lost. Added points for double meaning.
I recommend you write out a list of five to ten cliché phrases. Then see if you can come up with a new way to spin them, by setting them up differently with the lines you add before or after them. At that point you can craft your favorite one into a song, if you’d like. Give it a shot, and see what happens.