Aristotle said, “the ability to see one thing as another is the only truly creative human act.”
As a songwriter or any form of writer for that matter, you have the power to invent an entire world for your listener or reader. With a stroke of your pen you can scheme up wild images to give life to your story. One of your most powerful tools when writing song lyrics is the usage of metaphor and simile to create stories or experiences that the listener can taste, touch, feel, smell, and of course hear. Let’s take a closer look at what these are and how you can use them in writing song lyrics.
Metaphor – an object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol of something else
Simile – a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g., as brave as a lion, crazy like a fox )
Although these sound the same, the implications of using them are very different as you can see in the examples below.
Examples of metaphor:
- She was a hovering storm cloud
- They drowned in a sea of grief
- His mouth is a soft summer day
- Happiness is warm gun
- Fear is a shadow
These metaphors can flipped around and used in three ways which are known as expressed identity metaphors:
- “x is y” (fear is a shadow)
- “the y of x” (the shadow of fear)
- “x’s y” (fear’s shadow)
There are also qualifying metaphors which use adjectives to qualify nouns and adverbs to qualify verbs.
- tired eyes (adj, n)
- swiftly moving (adv, v)
And there are verbal metaphors which are formed by conflict between the verb and its subject and/or object.
- clouds sail
- he tortured his clutch
- frost gobbles summer down
The basic difference between metaphor and simile as you will see is the usage of the words “like” or “as” in simile:
- She was LIKE a hovering storm cloud
- The sea was AS grief and they drowned in it
- His mouth was AS a soft summer day
- Happiness is LIKE a warm gun
As you you’ll notice right away, saying the same thing using metaphor and simile adds a very different feeling to the imagery.
When using metaphor the listener or reader in their imagination is seeing the morphing intermingling of two objects.
In the first example of metaphor, she was a hovering storm cloud, the mind wants to picture the girl as the storm cloud. You actually see her become the cloud, hovering above the situation and creating anxiety or depression.
In the similar example of simile, she was like a hovering storm cloud, there is a sense of distance between the girl and the cloud. She is like it, but she is not it. You are making a comparison between them to add weight to what you are saying, and in the mind of the listener there are two images: a girl and a storm cloud. Whereas in metaphor there is only one image, which is the merging of the girl and the storm cloud to create wild and exciting imagery for your story.
I doubt The Beatles would have had as much success with the song if the lyric was happiness is LIKE a warm gun. To me it doesn’t pack the same punch. Happiness becoming or morphing into the gun creates some great content for the imagination.
This is not to say that simile is a lesser tool. It can be equally effective. It just depends on what image you, the songwriter want to paint.
A great exercise I learned in Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison (I HIGHLY recommend this book by the way) is to come up with a bunch of nouns and assign each of them an arbitrary adjective that is different or weird or uncommon. You can do the same with verbs It can really help you create some wild metaphors and images that can make your songs more exciting and dynamic.
For example (taken directly from the book):
- smoky conversation
- refried railroad
- decaffeinated rainbow
- hollow rainforest
- understated eyebrows
Say More with Less
At the end of the day what we want to do when writing song lyrics is create compelling stories. Metaphor and simile allow us to do this creatively and keep from boring our listener.
Referring back to the examples above, if you were to say plainly, she was getting on my nerves and making me anxious and depressed, this may be true, but its not nearly as interesting OR as simple as saying, she was a hovering storm cloud.
You’ve now said WAY more with half the words you used in plain speak, and you’ve left room for the listener to imagine what that means as well. You know what it represents to you because you wrote it. It may mean the same thing for the listener, but it may mean something different, which is a great and exciting possibility.
If you find yourself looking at your song lyrics and wondering why they’re not exciting or interesting, try using metaphor or simile to say thing you’re already saying, but perhaps with a more vivid or interesting imagery.
Hopefully this helps you while learning how to write song lyrics and helps you become a better songwriter.
If you have any questions feel free to email me!
Read Part One of this How to Write Song Lyrics series.
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References: Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison