The Case For Adjectives: Fighting Clichés And Saving Nouns

Carly Simon’s “You’re so Vain” paints the scene of a narcissist walking into a party with an “apricot” scarf.

How many times have you wanted to say broken heart in a song you are writing?

Maybe your heart is broken, or you want to say someone’s smile is beautiful or that you feel it in your soul.  Then, you have noun shame.  You wouldn’t dare let those over used words drip out of your lofty pen.  These are every day nouns you feel comfortable hanging out with at home on the couch, but would never been seen out with in public because “deep in your soul”, at the bottom of your “broken heart”, you know you’re better than the banal list of the most often used words and the typical context they come in:

Smile
Heart
Soul
Eyes
Hair
Body

But what do you do when you’re out of body parts to confess your love or pain or to describe the person you love? These words have been overused for a reason.

Remember the cliché “you are the company you keep”?  Surround your noun with the cool crowd, and change it’s perception.  Remember when Ashton Kutcher married Demi Moore? 

Use these words, they are words that belong to you and deserve a place in your songs but instead of using them in the same context that everyone else does, think about the words you place around it, and twist the cliché.

A great way to resuscitate your nouns is to find an interesting adjective to attach it to.

In Jason Mraz’s song Beautiful Mess, instead of saying:

Broken hearts, or reversing it: hearts broken, he writes:

Hearts disfigured

Now, hearts is sitting at the cool table with the cool kids and is interesting again.

Adjectives can wake up your writing and make what you say more interesting.

Here are two ways you can twist the cliché:

  1. Use a thesaurus.  Look up the expected adjective you want to use and find something unique:  

You want to say beautiful smile. 

Look up the word beautiful in a thesaurus and you’ll get a list of words and maybe you from that list you choose Graceful.  Next, look up graceful and maybe you choose delicate or muted, which might lead you to tender or unbreakable.  Already, we’ve got muted smile or unbreakable smile, which is so much more interesting than beautiful smile or sad smile.  Maybe you want to say crooked smile but after some time with the thesaurus you end up with: slanted smile or empty smile or haunted smile. 

New adjective searches can bring more depth to the character.  By not settling for the first adjective you think of: crooked, you could use haunted and now the new word is leading you to a story about your romantic interest not being over the person they loved before you so when they smile, you know they still miss their last relationship and they have a haunted smile.

2.  Let’s say you want to talk about someone’s eyes and to you describe them as having blank or dark eyes.  Or maybe your first instinct might be to go with tired eyes (which offers assonance) but if you take the time to find an image that could show the empty eyes you could end up with sharecropper eyes like Jason Isbell does when describing his friend with cancer and how her eyes look tired and empty in his song “Elephant”.

3.  Sit with your noun and think of an adjective that offers either alliteration or assonance.  When you choose your content for their sonic offerings, you come up with unusual pairings ending up with a sonic thesaurus.

Find an adjective that offers alliteration:

Heart:

Heavy heart /haunted heart / hovering heart.

Smile:

Sober smile/simple smile/slow smile/southern smile/surface smile

Next, search for words that contain the same shared vowel inside the words using assonance:

Smile:

Wild smile/child smile/night smile/tight smile/slight smile/sunrise smile

Darkest heart/ old barn heart /carved out heart /unstarted heart / guarded heart /discarded heart /scarred heart /starved heart /guitar heart/

You can also search for words that bring both alliteration and assonance: 

Harmful heart/ Harshest heart/ Hardened Heart/ Harnessed Heart/  

Adjectives as storytellers:

Adjectives not only describe nouns and wake up the cliché, they can do double duty in your song by helping to paint the scene and tell the story.

If your friend buys a pink couch, we don’t know much about them by their color choice.  But if they are referring to it as their salmon couch or their white kitchen paint color as white whisper, it paints the character as a refined and uppity Frazer Crane.  

In Carly Simon’s song You’re so Vain, she is painting the scene of a narcissist walking into a party.  She picks a great noun to describe what he’s wearing: a scarf.  Who wears a scarf? Warren Beatty might (although she’ll never tell).  She could have said he was wearing a blue scarf but the color blue doesn’t tell the story that apricot does. Apricot is the color choice of the vain yacht owner and captures his character perfectly in one well-chosen adjective His scarf it was apricot.

Scarlet Keys has been a full-time professor of songwriting at Berklee College of Music since 2003, teaching songwriting, lyric writing, performance, and upper-division songwriting courses. She is a former staff songwriter for Warner/Chappell Music and the author of The Craft of Songwriting: Music, Meaning and Emotion.

Curtis Mayfield, “Move On Up”

Mavis Staples: We Get By