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To write good lyrics is the same as being able to tell great stories. With as few words as possible, you need to capture the essence of an atmosphere, a mood, or a feeling. Most all great stories begin with an exciting, mysterious, unusual - in some way interesting start. The first sentences must capture the attention of the listener. This is often done by using "new", interesting or "textured" words - or by describing an interesting setting or interesting people with great imagery and metaphors. As the story progresses, some unexpected twists and turns keeps the listener interested enough to listen all to the end.
It's hard to explain how to write a good lyric, so I have tried to analyze one - to show how the writer has used his words to convey images and emotions to us, to maintain an atmosphere and to carry the story forward.
Tim Mcgraw - Grown men don't cry
1. I pulled into the shopping center
2. And saw a little boy wrapped around the legs of his mother
3. Like ice cream melting they embraced
4. Years of bad decisions runnin' down her face
5. All mornin' I'd been thinkin' my life's so hard
6. And they wore everything they own, livin' in a car
7. I wanted to tell 'em it would be ok
8. But I got just got in my suburban and I drove away
My thoughts on the first verse, sentence by sentence:
1. Setting. The framework for the story - where are we?, what time, place, universe and so on.
2. People. Who is this story about. Don't forget that the observer (singer) is also a character here.
3. Texture, imagery. This sentence really says it all, doesn't it? You can picture two people embracing like they were melting together. The writer is activating our imagination - getting the mind interested..
4. More texture and imagery. Without saying straight out that "the mother is crying because she's made some wrong choices in her life", the writer is able to transmit both a feeling and an image of hopelessness in the same sentence, still leaving our minds to "solve" the metaphor - making the lyrics more interesting than if the situation was simply explained..
5. Change of focus to keep the story interesting. Back to the main character (singer) - and his relation to these other characters.
6. More imagery - again, without saying directly that these people are poor.
7 / 8. Moving away from the situation. Changing focus. This enables the listener to be prepared for a new setting, a new sidestory - something new.
Also notice that we're not getting really personal with anything here in the first verse. The singer is mostly describing a situation that he is observing, not something he is actively involved in - this lets the listener join in on the observation and attach his/her feelings to the situation - instead of getting attached to the characters (which would be a bad idea, since we dont even know the characters properly yet, and it would be hard to feel anything for them at this point..?)
It's interesting to see the songwriters use of "senses" in his choice of words.. SEE, HEAR, SMELL, FEEL, TASTE.
(1. First we get the setting. )
2. Then we SEE the people.
3. And you know the TASTE of icecream (metaphor: sweet embrace?).
4. You know the FEELing of tears on your face.
and so on..
1. Keep having this dream about my old man
2. I'm 10 years old, and he's holding my hand
3. We're talkin' on the front porch watchin' the sun go down
4. But it was just a dream - he was a slave to his job and he couldn't be around
5. So many things I wanna say to him
6. But I just placed a rose on his grave, and I talk to the wind
1. New setting - a little more personal now, since we have gotten a little bit more attached / used to the singer character.
2. FEEL: most people know what it feels like to hold your fathers hand. Observe that we begin with the sense FEEL - which is the closest and most personal one to us all.
3. New senses... HEAR, SEE, - we are moving "away" from our person. HEAR is the third closest sense to us, and SEE is the one furthest apart.. So by describing "talking.. watching the sun go down".. - he is moving our focus away from the FEEL sense, step by step.
4. Now the twist in the story, and the reason for why the writer begun to move us away from the FEEL sense in the previous sentence. We are taken away from the "idyllic" father/son relationship and brought down to earth by the cold hard facts.
5. Back to the HEAR sense ("..say to him.."), moving closer to something more personal again?
6. FEEL. The touch of a rose - thorns = pain, but beautiful to look at.. - perfectly describing the singers "broken" relationship with his father.. And again back to HEAR (talk to the wind), and then to FEEL (the sensation of wind on your skin).. Moving to something more personal again.. The writer is pushing and pulling us back and forth between different senses, causing tension and expectation..
1. I'm sittin' here with my kids and my wife
2. And everything that I hold dear in my life
3. We say grace and thank the Lord
4. Got so much to be thankful for
5. Then it's up the stairs and off to bed and my little girl says
6. "I haven't had my story yet."
7. And everything weighin' on my mind disappears just like that
8. When she lifts her head off her pillow and says,
9. "I Love You Dad"
1. Even more personal and serious.. Now we feel we know the singer character - and we are introduced to his family. Observe how the words and images get more "simple" and down to earth now. Instead of using clever imagery and "textured" words - the writer is taking the story "down to earth", describing with the most simple and easy words...
2. hold dear in my life (FEEL)
3. say grace (HEAR)
4. Conclusion sentence.. Afterthought.. A little breathing room in the story. We get ready for something new..
5. New situation / setting / atmosphere.. another little twist in the story, and we are moving away from the tension/seriousness..
6. Goodvibes are coming back as you picture the little girl asking to hear a bedtime story
7. The good vibes are back indeed! Forgetting about the past and all the worries, focusing on the present.
8. More simple imagery, leading our imagination up to the final payoff sentence.
9. PAYOFF! What could be more good-vibe than this?
As you see, the writer is taking us on an emotional rollercoaster. We begin with observing a sad situation.. Then we are brought to the memories of an even more sad situation (poor relationship with his father).. And then a bit back up to a melancholic and personal situation where we get an afterthought - an "ending" of the sadness. And then back to the happiness of the present.
By using clever and unusual images:
"And saw a little boy wrapped around the legs of his mother
Like ice cream melting they embraced"
The writer grabs our attention, and takes our imagination on a journey. And as we progress in the song (story) it gets deeper and more personal - but also more simple and down to earth. So, the beginning seems to be "clever" to catch our attention - and then the story is made more and more simple to make it easy to remember and relate to..
The combination of a lyric that is interesting to listen to, easy to remember, and makes you feel something is what makes this lyric work. And there is the music - that with its mood-setting choices of chords and melody makes it even more interesting and memorable. And makes you feel even more for the words and the story...
Even though these are my thoughts, I hope you got something out of them. Perhaps you begin to focus on how you build your story - and how you choose to tell it, and try to make it more interesting, memorable and heartbreaking/positive/"feelworthy"..