Between the Rhymes: Flesh It Out Or Build Up To It?

In my many years of professional writing, I’ve noticed two patterns that are prominent in almost every really strong song that I write.  In my book, “Song Building”, I lay out the way I outline or blueprint my songs.  And, I’ve written about that in American Songwriter articles as well.  

As I have dived deeper into the blueprinting I discovered these two patterns within that practice and had a great “aha” moment.  In most of my songs that turn out great, I either start out with my big idea for that section of the song and then flesh it out or I build up to the big idea and use it at the end of the section.

For example, the big idea for my song “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right” in the first verse was “Women are hard for me to understand”,  So, we started out that section with the line:

 “A woman is a mystery, a man just can’t understand”

Then Jason Matthews and I started fleshing that idea out.  That verse wound up like this:

A woman is mystery, a man just can’t understand
Sometimes all it takes to please her is the touch of your hand
And other times, you’ve gotta take it slow and hold her all night long 
Heaven knows there’s so many ways a man can go wrong

So, we said a variation of our big idea right off the bat.  Then we explained what we meant.  Say it, then tell the listener what you mean.  That technique works time and time again.  

We continued that method in verse two.  The big idea in that verse was “Show me how to love you better”, so we wrote:

Anywhere you wanna go, baby show me the way
I’m open to suggestions, umm whatever you say
Tonight’s about giving you what you want whatever it takes
Girl I hope I’m on the right road, but judging by the smile on your face

That method of saying it and then fleshing it out finds its way into more than 75% of my songs.  I’ve just found that it works really well for most ideas.  At other times, I find that I have a hook that needs the other approach.  Many of these hooks are titles that are sort of a “punchline” that you don’t want to give away at the beginning of the section.  

I had a song recorded by country artist Craig Morgan called “Fish Weren’t Bitin’”.  The story in the song was about a guy who takes his girlfriend fishing and, because the fish weren’t biting, he got to rub sunscreen on her, make out with her and then maybe even more – I’ll ever tell.  The whole point of the song relied on the listen finding out something at the end of the section.  So, for example, one of our choruses goes like this:

So she took off her shirt, said “I’ll get a little sun”
Handed me the Coppertone, man I had me some fun
I rubbed it in real good and I didn’t miss a spot
I got to see that little pink bikini top
Cause the fish weren’t bitin’

The big idea of the fish not biting only worked because you heard that line at the end of the section. Imagine if we had said that line at the top of the chorus.

The fish weren’t bitin’
So she took off her shirt, said “I’ll get a little sun”
Handed me the Coppertone, man I had me some fun
I rubbed it in real good and I didn’t miss a spot
I got to see that little pink bikini top
Cause the fish weren’t biting

The whole joke is ruined.  Likewise, in our bridge, we had the idea that it would be REALLY funny if the listener finds out that the singer intentionally didn’t bait the hooks on purpose SO the fish wouldn’t bite and he could make out with his girl.  So, Jimmy Yeary and I wrote the bridge this way:

We still laugh about that fishin’ trip we took
To this day, she don’t know, I didn’t bait the hook

Again, that’s only funny because it’s last.  In each instance, we built up to the big idea and then it landed with a bigger (funnier) impact.  

Each day, when I write, I ask myself which of those two approaches works best with my title.  Do I say my big idea and then flesh it out?  Or, do I lead up to my big idea and drop it like a mic? Both are powerful techniques, but it’s important to decide which one to use before you start writing.  

Figuring out that approach in the beginning of the write helps you (and your co-writers if you have them) all get on the same page.  It also helps you craft your lyric intentionally.  You’re not trying to come up with just any old line, you’re trying to come up with a line that builds up to or fleshes out your big idea in each section.  That can be a game changer!

Marty Dodson is a seven-time, No. 1 hit songwriter who has had songs recorded in country, rock, pop, bluegrass, K-Pop, J-Pop and musical theatre.  His greatest songwriting achievement is knocking Psy out of the #1 spot in South Korea with his song “Bounce”.  He co-founded SongTown, the world’s leading songwriter education site, with fellow hit writer Clay Mills and is passionate about teaching people to write better songs. Visit SongTown.com for 10 free videos!

Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

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