Productive Repetition in Lyric Writing

 

Look at this from Joni Mitchell:

 

In sorrow she can lure you where she wants you
Inside your own self-pity there you swim
In sinking down to drown her voice still haunts you
And only with your laughter can you win
Can you win? Can you win?

 

Look at:

 

And only with your laughter can you win
Can you win? Can you win?

 

By simply repeating a portion of the line, “can you win,” we move from a declarative sentence into a question, creating new energy, and adding a new idea- in this case, the character’s uncertainty whether winning (laughter) is possible.

 

Think of it as hunting for hidden treasures: learn to start looking at sentences as not just for meaning, but for little pieces of meaning that can be isolated and repeated, giving additional information or emphasis with a new grammatical type.

 

Here are some ways to create productive repetition:

 

 

1. From Questions that use interrogative pronouns (who what where why when how) and auxiliary verbs (did, do, does, will, could, would, etc.). Drop the interrogative pronoun, which isolates a phrase inside the original sentence, in this case, the auxiliary verbs: “do” (present), “did” (past), and “will” (future):

 

Who do you love? Do you love?
What do you try? Do you try?
When do I know? Do I know?
Where do you go? Do you go?
Why do you laugh? Do you laugh?
How do you see? Do you see?

 

Who did you love? Did you love?
What did you try? Did you try?
When did I know? Did I know?
Where did you go? Did you go?
Why did you laugh? Did you laugh?
How did you see? Did you see?

 

Who will you love? Will you love?
What will you try? Will you try?
When will I know? Will I know?
Where will you go? Will you go?
Why will you laugh? Will you laugh?
How will you see? Will you see?

 

It also works when you use the subjunctive (can, could, should, would) with the interrogative pronoun. Simply delete the pronoun:

 

Who can you love? Can you love?
What can you try? Can you try?
When can I know? Can I know?
Where can you go? Can you go?
Why can you laugh? Can you laugh?
How can you see? Can you see?

 

Who could you love? Could you love?
What could you try? Could you try?
When could I know? Could I know?
Where could you go? Could you go?
Why could you laugh? Could you laugh?
How could you see? Could you see?

 

Who should you love? Should you love?
What should you try? Should you try?
When should I know? Should I know?
Where should you go? Should you go?
Why should you laugh? Should you laugh?
How should you see? Should you see?

 

Who would you love? Would you love?
What would you try? Would you try?
When would I know? Would I know?
Where would you go? Would you go?
Why would you laugh? Would you laugh?
How would you see? Would you see?

 

2. Isolate the verb to create a command: Deleting the subject of a present tense, second-person declarative sentence creates a command.

 

“Sometimes you tell me that you want me.”

 

Delete the subject, isolating the verb, and presto, you have a command:

 

“Tell me that you want me.”

And even:

 

“Want me.”

 

Note: This example is in 2nd person, but it will not work in 3rd Person, since 3rd Person adds an “s” to the verb. It creates only simple repetition- no command is created: She tells me that she wants me. Tells me that she wants me. Wants me.

 

Try it with:

 

You give me everything I need.

It even works with questions, for example:

 

Why can’t you rely on yourself?

Whenever you are working with present tense verbs, look for the opportunity to repeat from the verb on to create a command. Remember that this technique only works in First Person and Second Person, not Third Person.

 

 

3. Using the Infinitive: When in past or future tense, use the infinitive (“to”) form of the verb so the verb can be isolated, creating a present tense command:

 

Did you want to win my heart? Win my heart.
He loved to walk alone. Walk alone.
Could you love to walk alone? Walk alone.

 

In general, simply be alert to the smaller grammatical units in your lines. Sometimes they can do something really special.

Do something really special.

 

Would you like to be a better writer?

Be a better writer.

 

About Pat Pattison

Pat Pattison is a Professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches Lyric Writing and Poetry. In addition to his four books, Pat has developed five courses for Berklee’s online extension school. For more information on Pat, please visit: http://patpattison.com/