Songwriters, Take Your Listeners To The Movies

Man vs Row

Brent is a hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, Gord Bamford, Ray Stevens, and more.  He’s written a top 5 hit in the US and a #1 in Canada… so far.

Imagine yourself in a darkened movie theater. The movie starts to play, but there is just sound… no picture. You’d be upset, right? Well, then, why do we sometimes write songs that way?

I think the movie analogy is an appropriate one for songwriting.

After all, don’t we basically write 3-minute movies?

Our job is to entertain, to move, or to make the listener think. Just like a movie. But because songs are an audio format, we sometimes forget about the pictures. But they are terribly important!

Take, for instance, “The Thunder Rolls” written by Garth Brooks and Pat Alger. Yes, it’s an oldie, but it’s a classic. This lyric is a movie all by itself. Let’s look at the first verse:

3:30 in the morning / not a soul in sight / the city’s looking like a ghost town / on a moonless summer night / raindrops on the windshield / there’s a storm moving in / he’s heading back from somewhere / that he never should have been / and the thunder rolls

You can SEE that verse. The ghost town, the dark night, the raindrops. Not only that, but you can HEAR it. The thunder rolls. While this lesson will focus on visuals, don’t forget that you have FIVE senses, and you should use as many of them in a song as possible. Let’s look at the second verse:

Every light is burning / in a house across town / she’s pacing by the telephone / in her faded flannel gown / askin’ for a miracle / hopin’ she’s not right / praying it’s the weather / that’s kept him out all night / and the thunder rolls

Again, you can SEE and HEAR that verse. Lights burning, pacing by the phone, the faded flannel gown, the thunder rolls. And the third verse is just as visual as the first two.

It is no accident that some writers refer to sensory details as “furniture.” An empty room is not very inviting. It doesn’t hold your attention very long. However, a room with a great big couch and great art on the walls INVITES you in for a while. It gives you something to look at.

I got this feedback from an old publisher when I didn’t have strong visuals in a song. He said it left him, as he called it, “floating around in space with nothing to hang on to. You’re just telling me how you FEEL.”

There’s a songwriting adage that says, “Don’t TELL me, SHOW me.” Visuals give you something to latch on to. A strong visual or other sensory image at the front end of a song really draws a listener in. It gives you a picture right off the bat.

Take these following first lines from some recent hit songs:

Doublewide Quick Stop midnight T-top Jack in her Cherry Coke town – “American Kids” sung by Kenny Chesney

Quarter in the payphone, clothes drying on the line – “Automatic” sung by Miranda Lambert

Those high heels with that sun dress, turquoise heart hanging ‘round your neck – “My Eyes” sung by Blake Shelton

Summer comin’ through a rolled down window, tearin’ down an almost two lane back road – “We Are Tonight” sung by Billy Currington

And now a few hits that are a couple years back…

Sun shines, clouds rain, train whistles blow and guitars play – “It Just Comes Natural” sung by George Strait

I’ve packed a cooler and a change of clothes – “Want To” by Sugarland

Driving through town, just my boy and me. With a happy meal on his booster seat– “Watching You” by Rodney Atkins

I can take the rain on the roof of this empty house– “What Hurts The Most” Rascal Flatts

She’s a yellow pair of running shoes, a holey pair of jeans– “She’s Everything” Brad Paisley

I could do this for days. Now, I know there are examples out there of purely emotional songs that do well. But if you look at the songs that are not written by the artist or by the producer or by an established hit songwriter, I think you’ll see a trend.

So good luck with your songwriting. Use lots of visuals, and keep at it.

What about you?  Do you tend to write with or without a lot of imagery?  Are there lines from some other songs you think have great imagery that you’d like to share?  I’d love to hear from you!

God Bless,

Brent

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11 thoughts on “Songwriters, Take Your Listeners To The Movies”

  1. I find I struggle with complexity and simplicity – always looking deep, but many songs that are popular are just simple fun stories about boy meets girl or twists on that theme. For instance – here is a simple verse that I came up with a day ago-

    I dreamed about you again last night
    The passing years cant delete
    Whats carved in stone
    Or comes in sleep

    I will see if I can convey the same message/meaning by using more imagery….

  2. “Tuesday night crowded bar
    Some guy lights a cheap cigar
    Bartender yells at him
    So he walks out and you walk in
    Right through then cloud of smoke
    Catcalls and dirty jokes
    Scan the room a couple times
    Find a seat right next to mine”

    One of the coolest verses I’ve ever heard in a song. Actually both verses are amazing and you feel like you’re sitting watching all of this go down.

  3. Here’s some first lines from some songs I’ve written lately.

    Through the rusty gates,between a row of stones/At least a mile of headlights following you home

    Feel the heat rise off the motor/Gainst the hood I wanna hold her/Closer since the nights are colder…..Fall

    I could see more clearly hangin’ upside down/When my old truck rolled off the bluff just outside of town

    Halfway to heaven there’s a cheap hotel/On the side of road on the way to hell

    He ain’t never been a part of no church/The closest thing to holy about him is his shirt
    They call him Deacon and I don’t know why/I’ve never seen a more dispicable guy

    Me and Jennie, two of many, who parked on Miller’s road
    It’s dark out there, man I swear, you just never know
    Who might be hidin’ in the trees, just across the fence
    It changed our lives, that summer night, we ain’t been out there since

    In the beginning out of nothing, God made the earth and sky
    Then he reached into the dust and formed a man
    The man could hear the rythm in the bird’s wings as they fly
    But he sat there with his head in his hands
    God saw the man was lonely and he needed one more thing
    So he made for him a woman, and the man began to sing

  4. “Show, don’t tell” – always good advice. In my freshman English class in college, the professor did a whole essay project on this. We had to pick a memorable family story (more like family legend – you know what I mean – “the time grandma stole the neighbor’s cat,” “the Christmas Day cat fight of 2012,” etc that you tell over and over) then write the story with lots of imagery.

    “Jasper scratched once the rusty back door…then again…and again…and again, and again, and AGAIN before finally bellowing his especially pitiful howl meant for anyone who would listen. The autumn air was cool & crisp. The leaves crunched outside. Whatever he liked best, the sounds, smells, or just the feel of the cool, fall dirt under his gray paws, one thing was clear, he wanted out bad…”

    It was a great exercise.

    Another thought as I read this, my sister was a screen writing major in college. On summer, she was explaining story arcs to me. How the inciting incident usually happens in the first 20 minutes of a movie, definitely not more than 30 minutes in; stuff like that. It just recently dawned on me that similar formulas can be applied to songs. It’s a little different, but it’s true how songs are really just very short stories. It can be tricky b/c sometimes you’re just trying to capture a feeling or moment in time (“That’s my Kind of Night”), other times, the a song might take place over several years (ie. “Don’t Take The Girl.”) I still notice, though, many intros are not longer than 15 seconds, the chorus usually arrives around 50 seconds in, etc. Timing is important as is making sure the story at least kind-of has a beginning, middle, & end (or, a clear idea, support for the idea, and a conclusion.) I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else but I think it helps me stay on track. Another way of saying, everything in the song relates back to the hook/title.

    That’s a little scattered. I’ll blame the fact that it’s Friday but thank you, again, for posting! This makes me excited to get home and look over some lyrics. See where I can maybe show more instead of just telling 🙂

  5. Great insight from everyone! I’m still working on improving imagery when I get stuck on lines and especially on re-writes. This blog has helped me see some of the “finer” points in writing. Great stuff, hoss. Two of my favorite examples of imagery in songwriting are “Me and Bobby McGhee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. Here are few descriptive lines from a song I wrote a little while back, but I’m no Kristofferson. 😉

    “The daylight’s hidin’, over the horizon
    As the sun’s last hand it’s dealt.
    There’s a new moon somewhere over Texas
    As our last gasp is felt.
    The highway moans, its ramblin’ song
    From the wheels that keep rubbin’.
    And the signs fly by that abandoned purple sky
    Like the dreams that don’t mean nothin’

    This is how it feels when you feel like movin’ on…”

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