Songwriting Part 2 - Speak Softly, & Carry a Big Metaphor

by SaskMusic

July 30, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

This part of Songwriting will discuss some of the nuts and bolts of lyric writing - i.e., language tools.

Every songwriter should own a dictionary, thesaurus and rhyming dictionary. These can save a lot of frustration and time when you’re searching for that particular word! If you’re on the web, these are great places to go…

An online rhyming dictionary -
Roget’s Thesauraus -

Re. the Internet…Some songwriter sites offer valid advice and some don’t. If you’re surfing to get critiqued, locate contacts and so on, be wary & check the source before you assume they’re credibile (bulletin boards, lyric and critique exchanges, so-called publishers who "shop" your songs for a fee, and various goods & services marketed to songwriters). If you are unsure of the security of a site, don’t submit anything. And if you’re seeking legal info, remember that the U.S. system is way different from ours.


"A great writer has the ability to perceive similarities in unlike things"

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity - a direct comparison. e.g. All the world’s a stage.

Simile: a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds (usually formed with ‘like’, ‘as’ or ‘than’). e.g. She burns like a fire; your eyes are bluer than the sea.

These tools carry the ability to transport us to another time or place, often by triggering a memory. This is why they have the incredible power to evoke emotion. Even though similes and metaphors often describe a very specific event, they can be interpreted to suggest different and personal things by those who hear them.

Tension and conflict are essential in creating effective metaphors.

Oxymoron: conjoining contradictory terms. e.g. deafening silence.

Adjectives qualify nouns; adverbs qualify verbs. Friction between these creates metaphors.

What is the real difference between a metaphor or simile?

Compare the impact of:

Her face shone like the sun (simile)
Her face was my sun (metaphor)

(Note that you don’t need to explain the "shining" part - that’s the main attribute of the sun. It’s assumed that you are referring to this quality.)

Be aware of what impression you are trying to put across. By using a metaphor such as "love is a prison", you literally mean love is a prison. Love then carries ALL of the qualities of a prison (i.e. cold, repressing, hard, hopeless). Whereas if you said "love is like a prison", this infers that love has certain characteristics which can be found in a prison - but perhaps not all of the same attributes.

Some examples to illustrate:

You’re like my yo-yo
That glowed in the dark
What made it special
Made it dangerous
So I bury it and forget
(Cloudbusting - Kate Bush)

She's black as coal but she burn like a fire
And she wrap herself around you like a well worn tire
(Island Girl - Elton John) - Combining simile & metaphor.
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head
(One - U2)

This love of yours
Was big enough to be frightened of
It’s deep and dark like the water was
The day I learned to swim
(The Fog - Kate Bush)

She's the dollars
She's my protection
She's the promise
In the year of election
(Desire - U2) - An unusual connection of love and politics.

"Expressed identity" is an identity between two nouns.
Try using different placements to fine tune your descriptions. If we take "love" and "river":

x is y (love is a river)
y is x (the river of love)
x's y (love’s river)

Of course, metaphors do not have to be self-contained within a single line or verse. Some of the greatest examples of writing have woven and created a picture throughout the entire song or poem, such as Robert Frost’s "The Road Not Taken". While the poem never even comes close to actually saying "this road represents my choices in life", we know at the end that this is what he’s referring to.

Our language is full of stale metaphors (e,g. "hit me like a ton of bricks"). Avoid them like the plague, unless you want to employ them as "friendly cliches" (see below). Be careful of your tools turning into comedy (unless that’s what you’re shooting for) as in "She looks like she’s been running a little too long on the treadmill of life."


confusing the listener
How are the items intended to be connected? Sometimes metaphors are more distracting than clever. e.g. "Her face was like an apple." Does you mean round like an apple, red like an apple, or shiny like an apple? The listener will be thinking more about apples than this person’s face.

far-fetched metaphors ('conceits')
(Think of romance novels). e.g. "Her heart pounded wildly, like a battered boat on a storm beaten dock."

over-extension/mixed metaphors
Getting carried away with an idea. Or, mixing figurative and literal ideas ineffectively. "the car appeared like a black stallion to carry her to her castle" is bad enough, but "the car appeared like a black stallion to carry her to her castle, its tailpipe gushing smoke as it surfed over the highway" is even worse.

It's common to go from simile to metaphor. Squeezing things too much, though, can lead to mysteries like "concave afternoons".

Here are some examples of the above problems, using a really horrible metaphor to illustrate!

When he saw her, his heart coasted the downslope. (confusing)

When he saw her, his heart rose in his chest as if he were on the downslope of a mammoth roller coaster. (far-fetched)

When he saw her, his heart rose in his chest as if he were on the downslope of a snaking roller coaster, while his hands were clammy dead fish. (mixed metaphors)

She gave him rollercoaster heart. (over-compressed)

When he saw her, his heart came off its tracks. (comic)

Don’t overdo simile and metaphor in your songwriting. A little can go a long way.


Personification: A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is represented as animated, or endowed with personality or human characteristics. e.g. "The wind cries Mary;" "Love Bites." Also what I’ll call "reverse personification", or referring to a human characteristic as if it were an object. e.g. "I am a rock"; "I am music."

The clouds are having a convention
They’re sick and tired of making rain
They’re wondering when they’re gonna see the sun
(We Got Time - Bob Wiseman)

The city streets were breathing
A hot bed for a million refugees
I could feel something was coming
Midnight struck and it was calling me
(Wild Summer Night - Lawrence Gowan)

I hope she knows I won’t go
I’ll be there with grey hair
And a pair of scissors sharp
Cutting down the telephones that grow in our park
(Stay Untraceable - Bob Wiseman)

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
(Love - George Herbert)


ClichÈ: A stereotype; a trite or obvious remark. e.g. All’s well that ends well.

ClichÈs crop up everywhere: movies, television, books, language. You are only responsible for keeping them out of your songs.

Problem: How to say the same thing in a new, creative way. This is especially hard in love songs, where phrases like "oooh baby", "true to you", "all my love", "when I first saw you", and "dream come true" crop up with annoying regularity.

Cliches can be used effectively in certain cases (see below) - but more commonly we use standby lines or phrases because we haven't been able to say it in a new way. This isn’t to claim that clichÈs don’t appear in hit songs every day - they do, thanks to a strong vocalist or melody, groove, etc. But why would you want to write Spice Girls quality when you could shoot for Joni Mitchell? Fresh and emotive lyrics can carry a song on their own.

The biggest problem with cliches is that they carry no emotional impact. Often they don’t mean anything close to what they originally did. Take "Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth." We all know what it means; but we’ve heard it so often that we no longer mentally picture someone inspecting the molars of a gelding. It gets the point across, but doesn’t make you feel anything. Our job as writers is to create an image so real you can smell, taste and see it.
Songs should be universal - but not generic. Sense and emotion are universal. When you push these buttons in your listener, they generate their own personal pictures. Whereas generic language will make your listener tune out.

Poor old grandad, I laughed at all his words
I thought he was a bitter man he spoke of women’s ways
They’ll trap you and use you and before you even know
Love is blind and you’re far too kind
Don’t ever let it show
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger
(Ooh La La - Rod Stewart)

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
(When I Was One-and-Twenty, A.E. Housman)

Both express roughly the same sentiment. They both repeat a conversation, but the second (classic) version does it without using cliches like "love is blind" and "don’t let it show".

ClichÈs are assembly line tools. Using other peoples' words is like learning your hero’s guitar licks - an excellent way to learn, but then you must break away and find your own style. ClichÈs are other peoples’ licks. They don’t come from your own emotions.

Using cliches in writing doesn’t require effort. You can probably tell a whole story using just cliches, avoiding any personal connection or real thought…but who’d listen?

Some clichÈ phrases…

deep inside
take my hand
side by side
hurts so bad
rest of my life
set me free
safe and warm
O baby

Getting good stuff is harder work. Though clichÈs are useful in a first or second draft as place markers for something better, don’t mistake them for the real thing.

Write a list of every clichÈ you can think of. Once you recognize them, make a conscious effort to avoid them.

ClichÈ Rhymes

When you hear one of these, you know what’s coming next.

hand/understand/command walk/talk
kiss/miss forever/together/never
love/above/dove touch/much

ClichÈ rhymes are often perfect rhymes. So try an imperfect rhyme instead - it’s fresher, and listeners don’t care if you cheat.

ClichÈ Images

flowing hair
soft (smooth)
warmth of…
lying in bed
a slamming door
cuts like a knife

One cure for clichÈ images is to remember specific things about the story you are telling. What did your boyfriend say? Where were you at the time? What was the weather like? And so on.

ClichÈ Metaphors

Storm to mean anger, including thunder, lightning, dark clouds
Fire for love or passion (including burn, spark, heat, flame)
Cold for indifference (including ice, freeze, frozen etc.)
Rain for tears
Drown in love
Broken heart
Prison for love (includes chains etc.)

Friendly ClichÈs

ClichÈs can be made to work for you - try using the literal meaning, put it in a new light, or twist it. Country writers are great at utilizing these techniques. Be careful - the effect of "twisting" cliches may convey a lightness that would not be suitable for certain songs, such as a dramatic love ballad.

You can make room in the bed for me
I can’t lie with you, I can’t lie
(This line by Meryn Cadell infers two meanings - the physical "lie" and mental "lie")

Change the wording very slightly, or expand on it, and bring a whole new meaning.
"break my heart" into "Unbreak My Heart" (Toni Braxton)
"What’s Love Got To Do With It?"
"That’s The Way Love Goes"
"You’re Easy on the Eyes (Hard on the Heart)"
"Hurts so Good"

A New Spin
Change the meaning/context without changing the words
I'll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places...
(normally means goodbye, but now it implies goodbye and "I'll see you everywhere".)
"Don’t Take the Girl" - in the first verse it means "don’t bring her along with us," then changes to mean "don’t take her away from me"

Without a terrific set-up, run from clichÈs. They come with no thought required. Your own senses and experiences are your best protection. So is brutal rewriting.


Make a list of ten verbs and ten nouns. Match them together in different combinations and see if any trigger your creativity.
For example:

verbs nouns
writhing table
struggling tuba
sobbing walls


Alliteration: The repetition of an initial consonant sound in two or more words of a line to produce a noticeable artistic effect. e.g. When to sessions of sweet silent thought…
"Wine into Water"
"Where the Green Grass Grows"
"Sugar Shack"


The formation of words in imitation of sounds; a figure of speech in which the sound of a word imitates the sound of the thing it represents; e.g. the buzz of bees; the crackle of fire. (Some philologists believe that all primary words, especially names, were formed by imitation of natural sounds.)


Hyperbole: An exaggeration; a statement that something has either much more or much less of a quality than it truly has. e.g. My belly is as cold as if I had swallowed snowballs for pills to cool the veins. (Shakespeare)

Use with caution - hyperbole can have the same effect as clichÈ, being unbelievable and therefore not triggering emotion. "I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles"


Antonym: A word of opposite meaning; two words that express opposing concepts.

Antithesis: The juxtaposition of contrasting words or ideas to give a feeling of balance; to set against.

Contrasts are easy to grasp and easy to listen to. Make a list of all the opposites you can think of, and try turning them into song titles. e.g. "A Hard Day’s Night"
"Ebony and Ivory"
"I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)"
"If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right"


Zeugma: Using a word to govern two or more words, though appropriate to only one. e.g. He took his hat & his leave.
He wore a hat and she wore a frown.
He stole her heart but she stole his wallet.


Metonymy: A trope in which one word is put for another that suggests it. Use it when oblique is preferable to blunt. e.g. "erase the years" (wrinkles)
"Pour myself a cup of ambition" (9 to 5, Dolly Parton)

Make two lists of ten nouns. Cross match into different combinations and see if they trigger a cool metaphor.

nouns nouns
earth music
water hands
sky fence


Homonym: Words that are pronounced or spelled the same way, but have different meanings.

Be careful using them in songs, since the listener only hears the word and does not see them. e.g. "For Years" may be heard as "four years"; "solo" may become "so low". And you may not recognize this until you’re performing it for someone else and they look confused.

Homonyms might be the single biggest cause of "misheard lyrics". "Total Eclipse of the Heart" becomes "Totally Clips", "I don’t wanna lover" becomes "I don’t wanna love her". This problem is also caused by not enunciating carefully when singing - again, a good reason to test your songs before recording them.


These have proven to be memorable when used in your titles.
"Ruby Tuesday"
"November Rain"
"Saturday Night’s Alright for Fightin"
"Midnight Train to Georgia"
"Monday, Monday"

Make a list of ten adjectives and ten verbs. Cross match.

adjectives verbs
wrinkly stuttering
soft dancing
simple chase

Make a list of ten adjectives and ten nouns. Cross match.

adjectives nouns
feeble chair
crisp letter
pathetic day

Copyrights to all lyrics or prose printed in this article belong to their respective owners, and infringement is not intended

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published February 1999.

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