Exploring The Idea Of Self-Imposed Limitations In Your Songwriting, Part 2

Let’s wrap up our overview of the principle of Limitation and Economy in Narrative Songwriting with the following:

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(Read Part 1 here.)

Functional-vs-Decorative Similes & Metaphors

Functional similes and metaphors give you “more bang for your buck” than merely decorative ones by adding texture and description to your story. So, if you’re gonna use rose as a simile or metaphor for something, make sure the lyric has something to do with spring, or flowers, or love, or red, or thorns!

An original stanza to an early song went like this:

They ought’ a forward my mail to this parking lot,
Got to get back home before my name’s forgot,
I been so long workin’ these county fairs,
Feels like I aint been livin’ nowhere’s,
Stuck here like a jet plane on the ground,
When Will I Ever Get Out’ A This Town?

The image of the singer being stuck like a jet plane that’s been grounded is pretty consistent with his frustration in needing to “get out of this town,” but here’s the rewrite:

They ought’ a forward my mail to this parking lot,
Got to get back home before my name’s forgot,
I been so long workin’ these county-fairs,
Feels like I aint been livin’ nowhere’s,
Stuck here like a tent peg in the ground,
When Will I Ever Get Out’ A This Town?

“Stuck here like a tent peg in the ground” is more specific and related to carnival tents in county fairs. It sounds truer.

Objective Correlatives

Related to functional similes and metaphors, objective correlatives are objects or a set of objects that embody a particular emotion.

I went down to Crosby’s to fix my radiator,
I said, “The damn thing’s been runnin’ hot and cold.”
That’s when he told me you’ve moved back from Phoenix,
And a far-off feelin’ that I thought was gone,
Hit a little Closer To Home.

The singer feeling agitated without knowing why, goes down to the local repair shop to have his car looked at. Radiators don’t generally run hot and cold; the radiator is a functional metaphor for how he’s feeling: “Ah, no wonder I’ve been feeling out of sorts… she’s back in town after all this time!” The radiator is the objectification of his subjective state.

Another economical narrative device is starting with place:

Once upon a California summer,
Two young lovers in each other’s arms,
I was just a kid from Indiana,
Who never thought he’d ever go that far.

Starting with action rather than background is another way to jump-start your lyric. It can also make for a compelling and memorable first line:

On a warm summer’s eve on a train bound for nowhere,
I met up with The Gambler we were both too tired to sleep

These economical narrative devices can be imagined on the vertical rather than the horizontal promising, “More than meets the eye.” Hemingway called this the “Iceberg Effect.”

Say more with less.

Steve Leslie is a professional songwriter and publisher in Nashville, Tennessee. He teaches songwriting at www.songassembly.co

Nashville songwriter Steve Leslie

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

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