Have you ever noticed how some people can describe a simple, everyday event and make it sound hilarious or tragic or just plain interesting, while another person can tell the same story and have you snoring with boredom in an instant?
If the language you use to tell a story is vivid and fresh even a familiar experience or idea can come to life, but if you’re talking in overused, predictable phrases – in other words, if you’re using clichés – the most exciting story can become dull. It’s all in the words you choose.
People Often Speak in Clichés
A cliché is a phrase that’s been used so often it has become a kind of shorthand communication. It’s usually the first phrase that comes to mind. It doesn’t require much thought and you can be pretty sure that everyone knows what you mean. For example, here’s a description of a workday that’s filled with clichés. (They’re underlined.)
“I guess I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Nothing seemed to go right. I took the bus to work; it was so crowded people were packed like sardines. I was late getting to the office and the boss was hopping mad. The day seemed to drag on and on. I thought six o’clock would never come!”
While this paragraph gives you an idea of what the speaker’s day was like, it doesn’t make you feel the boredom and frustration. Familiar phrases such as “packed like sardines,” “hopping mad” and “seemed to drag on and on” have been used so many times they’ve lost their emotional impact. Listeners no longer picture the images or notice the comparisons.
1. Use a fresh or unexpected comparison. Comparisons are a great way to add energy to a description. There was a time when “packed like sardines” was vivid, fresh, and funny. Listeners really pictured it when they heard it and it made them react. Eventually, so many people liked it and used it that the idea became stale and listeners stopped reacting.
You can create new comparisons that associate one idea with another in ways listeners haven’t heard before. For instance, you could describe a crowded bus like this: “People were wedged together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.” Or you could express exhaustion by saying, “I felt like a balloon that was losing air. Floating an inch off the ground, being kicked around.”
2. Give it a character. When you give human characteristics to an inanimate object, it brings it to life for listeners. Try personifying an object in your story: “Some days are criminal. They ought to be locked up.” Of course days are not criminals and no one can literally “lock up” a day but listeners are able to understand that this is what the day felt like.
3. Twist a cliché. You can use a cliché if you surprise the listener by creating a different payoff or explain it in a way that offers a new insight. Instead of “the day dragged on and on,” you might try, “the day dragged on and dragged me down.”
You don’t need to make every single line an ear-catcher. Try mixing vivid, fresh images with conversational language to create a mix. To hear good examples of lyrics that express universal ideas while avoiding or reworking clichés, listen to “Cannonball” by Damien Rice, Sarah McLachlan’s “World on Fire,” and John Mayer’s “Gravity.”
The Cliché Game
Rewrite these clichés using any or all of the techniques listed above.
– I depend on you; you’re my ace in the hole.
– You think you’ve got it made, but soon you’ll change your tune.
– We fight like cats and dogs but things work out in the end.
Find more clichés online. Practice rewriting them to get in the habit and exercise your creative muscle. Keep a list of your rewritten lines and refer to it next time you’re looking for a song title or idea. Use one of your rewritten clichés as the basis for a song lyric.
About Robin Frederick
This post is based on Robin Frederick’s Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV available at Amazon.com. Each book includes over one hundred useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to write songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.
Robin Frederick has written and produced more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R at Rhino Records, Executive Producer of over 60 albums, and the author of Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV used in songwriting courses at top universities and schools in the U.S. Visit Robin’s websites for more songwriting tips and inspiration: www.RobinFrederick.com and www.MySongCoach.com.
Copyright Robin Frederick. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.