You know that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door into Munchkin land? Remember how her black and white world is suddenly transformed into vibrant color? That’s the difference between using a generic verb and a dynamic one. Verbs are the doorways to the good stuff in a song. They tell us clues about the emotional feelings in a person or scene we’re describing. They’re the barometer for how we (as the songwriter) feel about a person or situation.
And sometimes, unfortunately, they are ignored in a song. And that is a terrible thing, my friends.
Here’s a lyric line:
She walks into the room.
Simple, straightforward, gets right to the point, yes? Some would even say it’s a “universal” verb so everyone could relate to it. That might be true, but you’ve got to admit, it’s bland. It’s a generic verb that doesn’t tell me anything about her.
SHOW AND NOT TELL! Your job as songwriter is to paint me a picture. Set me a scene so that I can be a part of your world for the 3 1/2 minutes while you have my attention. Show me how you feel. Don’t tell me. And verbs are the first way you can do this.
Back to our sentence with the bland verb in it, let’s substitute in some other verbs instead of “walks”.
She glides into the room
She waltzes into the room
She dances into the room
What do these verbs tell us about her? A woman who glides, waltzes and dances is graceful, feminine, delicate, coordinated. What does she look like now that we know these adjectives to describe her?
Now, let’s change it up:
She stomps into the room
She rages into the room
She storms into the room
Now, I’m seeing that she’s a force to be reckoned with. I see her with a red face and fists clenched. She’s angry about something. What?
GOOD VERBS LEAD TO GOOD QUESTIONS
Let’s use the same sentence and have some fun with it:
She stumbles into the room
She meanders into the room
She falls into the room
Now, let your verbs lead you to ask other questions about her. The verb choices above make me think she’s been drinking which leads me to ask these questions:
What is she drinking?
A light beer
Where is she coming from?
The wedding of her ex boyfriend
Her favorite local bar
Her high school reunion
What is the room she’s entering?
Her parent’s room
Why is she drinking?
Unwinding after a long dayx
These questions, once you’ve answered them, these specific details are the keys to the kingdom. The details reveal who she is, and more importantly how we (as the songwriters) feel about her.
Creative Exercise #1:
I call this my Madlib songwriting assignment. Try taking the sentence “She walks into the room” and come up with your own verbs. Now, answer the questions of what, where, and when. Hold off on answering the “why” question for a moment. Now, try combining a few of the scenarios and see if anything gives you a creative idea or direction.
If we use our example:
She is drinking a martini in her garage on the night of her high school reunion.
She’s drinking a beer in the hospital after coming from her favorite bar.
Now, answer how she is feeling. Interesting things happen when you start answering the key questions of who, what, when, where and why, don’t they?
Creative Exercise #2:
Take one of your old songs. Print out the lyric and circle each one of the verbs in the song. Now, put on your thinking cap and come up with dynamic substitution verbs for each line. See how your lyric is transformed.
Let your verbs speak for you. Don’t let Dorothy merely “walk” through that door into Oz ever again. Let her glide or stomp or stumble or jitterbug if that’s what you want her to do. You have the power to transform a song with your verb choice. Use it.
Susan Cattaneo is a Boston-based singer-songwriter who just released her fourth album Haunted Heart (buy it here). Her music has been played on country and Americana radio in over 30 countries, and she recently was a regional finalist for the New Mountain Stage contest. In addition to her performing career, Susan has been teaching Songwriting at the Berklee College of Music for 15 years.