Driving Around the Road Cones: Two Easy Strategies for Moving Beyond the First Verse
By Keppie Coutts • July 27, 2016
Almost all songwriters I know experience a type of road block in the process of writing songs. Paradoxically, this block seems to happen when you have a really good idea that you are particularly excited about. Put your hand up if you’ve ever written a verse and a chorus…and can’t seem to write a second verse! (Okay - hands down.) You labor for the next hour, week, month, but everything that comes out feels like you are simply dressing up the same idea in different clothes. Or worse - you are taking off the ball gown and putting on the jeans.
You must be a bad writer, huh? You must have no ideas, right? You should probably give up and leave it to better writers…let me stop you right there. The all-too-common experience of this type of stagnation needs redefining. In my experience, it’s not writer’s block at all, but almost always a symptom of two process errors in lyric writing, that are thankfully easy to get past once you know what they are.
1. VERSED OFF THE BLOCK
Just because you wrote it first, doesn’t mean it’s the first verse. I know, I sound like the Cheshire Cat trying to trap Alice in some phonetically-driven mind warp. But, I’ll say it again, because it’s important: Just because you wrote it first, doesn’t mean it’s the first verse. A lot of my students get caught up in linear lyric writing, assuming that songs “start at the beginning.” They don’t, nor should they.
In fact, a lyric that leaps from the swell of a good idea will almost always start somewhere other than the beginning! If you have a good idea, a strong feeling or an experience that has provoked a deep contemplation, those intense events will generally be the first ideas that make it to the page (or into your voice if you are writing on an instrument or computer). However, those kinds of intensities are really the climax of a song, not the starting point.
If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. You start in the place of your most intense feeling, because that is often what is exciting, inspiring and compelling. And then you try to build on it, but every idea seems to deflate in comparison. I’ll say it one more time for good measure: Just because you wrote it first, doesn’t make it the first verse. And now we can add one more important detail to this point: If you wrote it first, it probably isn’t the first verse!
The solution: try moving the verse you are stuck on into the position of the second or third verse, leaving open terrain for the first and possibly second verses. Consider this section you wrote first as the culmination point of the song, and now ask yourself: what needs to happen in order to get here? What context needs to be provided to make this feeling or idea relatable and believable?
A great example of this is in Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” The bridge contains these exquisite lines:
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse?
It’s a profound idea, a complex thought, and just a sensational lyric. But if he had used it in the first verse, it would be hollow. It might ring a bell of interest, but it would not shift the tectonic plates of our souls the way it does after hearing three verses and two choruses describing the slow decay of a relationship burdened by hardship and responsibility.
You have to earn lines like that, and honor them by giving them enough context and development to let them resound deeply. Your big thoughts, ideas and emotions are your points of climax, not your openers.
2. THE PLOT CLOT
This type of block happens when you feel you have nothing more to say, because, well, there is nothing more to say. You’ve told the whole story in the first verse. Instead of going deep, you’ve gone wide, and consequently blocked up the first verse with a barrage of ideas or story, finishing the song before it has really begun.
Each verse should contain one main idea, one plot point, and go deeply into that. With this in mind, I often find that the individual lines of these “plot clot” verses make excellent opening lines for individual sections - the lines themselves are like the headings that outline the plot points to a whole song, rather than being lines of one section only.
This should come as a great relief! You have just outlined your whole song! You know what it’s about, where it starts, how it develops and where it will go. Now you can simply set about the task of fleshing out those sections by diving deeply into each one. Lean on imagery. Immerse yourself (and your listeners) in the individual scenarios that each plot point now allows.
The lines you started with could make great opening lines, or even think about putting them in the position of the last line to a new section - the target line that a new verse needs to build up to, and then land on.
An example of a “plot clot” verse might look like this:
The summer sun kissed you on the other cheek
But shadows crept into your eyes
Until you were all closed doors and missed calls
Without so much as a final goodbye
This is a reasonably evocative lyric, and even though the lines flow grammatically and sensibly from one to the next, they carry the fatal flaw of telling the entire story in four lines. We have the whole trajectory of this relationship in one hit. Nowhere left to go.
Let’s take the same lines, and pair them with the plot point of each line:
The summer sun kissed you on the other cheek (the relationship is going well)
But shadows crept into your eyes (the relationship starts to go downhill)
Until you were all closed doors and missed calls (the relationship has broken down)
Without as much as a final goodbye (the other person has left)
Now that we can see the “hyperstory,” we can see that these would be good outlines for entire sections of their own, rather than jamming up one section and preventing any further development.
A related point here is to be weary of being overly attached to the chronological order of lines as you’ve written them, particularly if they rhyme. It can be easy to fall into the trap of keeping a section the way it is because you’ve added the glue of rhyme, and the ordering becomes sticky. Particularly when a song is in early stages like this, keep your attachments casual at most, and think more in terms of the function of lines and sections (as the “hyperstory” approach does) in the bigger scheme rather than adhering to the way things are because of sonic connections, or because it seems to make sense the way it is.
In the case of having written one or two sections with nowhere left to go, you now know that this is signaling one of two issues: the section either belongs further into the song structure, or the section itself needs to be broken up into separate units.
Try out these strategies the next time you feel stuck, and you’ll find that often the experience of writer’s block is not really a “block” at all - more like a road cone that you can easily drive around if you know what it is signaling.
Keppie Coutts is an Australian singer-songwriter, music educator, founder of KC Song Studio and alumna of the ASCAP Lester Sill Songwriting Workshop. For more songwriting insights, visit Keppie online at www.kcsongstudio.com.