There is power in finding images that go deeper than the obvious or cliche images.
I had a publisher tell me once, “write about the truck from the INSIDE THE CAB, not from the OUTSIDE.”
“The truck,” of course, is a metaphor for the situation of the song- the song’s emotion and story. (Funny how I’ve always remembered that metaphor- it’s probably because it’s wrapped in an image. Hmmm…)
Too many writers (and I was obviously guilty of this) write about “the truck”- the situation in the song- from the outside. They describe it using imagery and details that anyone who isn’t IN that situation could use. It’s the obvious ones. And, usually, it’s the cliche ones.
Our job is to dig deeper.
We need to use our memory, our imagination, research, and whatever we have at our disposal (including our cowriters), to write from the inside of the truck.
That’s what I tried to do with my Alan Jackson cut, “Monday Morning Church,” and it made a big difference.
Once the situation was decided- the man had lost his wife, who was the more spiritual of the two and his anchor- the trick was to figure out “what does this look like from the inside?” The results were the opening lines:
You left your Bible on the dresser so I put it in the drawer
‘Cuz I can’t seem to talk to God without yelling anymore
Yes, the part about yelling at God is a bold, raw, and real way to start off a song. But the first line is really important, too. “You left your Bible on the dresser so I put it in the drawer,” balances the big, bold statement yelling at God by giving the listener something small, real and believable. Plus, the Bible sets up “God” in the second line.
Use inside details, but be sure and use details that make sense to the listener. Be inside but not too inside. In our truck analogy, write from inside the cab, which people can understand. Don’t write from so far inside the truck that you’re in the carburetor and only a mechanic knows what you’re talking about.
Also, keep the images relevant. They should add to our understanding of the characters or story, not just be filler. In our “Monday Morning Church” example, the fact that she left her Bible on the dresser is very telling. It’s HER Bible. She reads it often enough that she keeps it out where it’s handy. The next lines show the listener, in pictures, that the singer’s putting it out of his sight because he’s too angry at God. If I’d started off with something like…
“You left your makeup on the counter, so I put it in the drawer
And I can’t seem to talk to God without yelling anymore”
…the first line wouldn’t be nearly as useful. Yes, it tells us that she left her makeup, but it doesn’t set up the spiritual aspect of her character or of the song. It’s just a random image that doesn’t “point to the point” of the song.
So next time you write, take your time. Close your eyes and imagine the situation. Then climb into the truck.
What are some songs that do a good job of writing from inside the “truck?” Do you find that this comes naturally to you, or is it a struggle? Please leave a comment- I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Since strong imagery is such an important part of professional-level songwriting, I’ve put together a course on imagery. It’s called, “Use Imagery To Supercharge Your Songwriting (Like The Pros Do)” and it’s available now!
By the end of the course, you’ll have the basic skills to:
- Effectively use both literal and figurative imagery.
- Make your story come to life using imagery.
- Prove your character’s personality using imagery.
- Make your listener connect to your character’s emotions using imagery.
- Hook your listener in the song’s first few lines using imagery.
- And to begin more songs (more easily) using imagery exercises as the start of your songwriting process.
Brent Baxter is a hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, Gord Bamford, Ruthie Collins, Ray Stevens, and more. He’s written a top 5 hit in the US and a #1 in Canada… so far.