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A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Metaphor Into Lyrics

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Adding metaphorical language into your lyrics can make your songs and your songcraft stronger and tug at more listeners’ heart strings.

But when done poorly, unfortunately, it may only serve to confuse them. By definition, metaphor masks the meaning of what you’re saying behind linguistic creativity so the last thing you’d want is for your audience to lose track of the point of your song. That said, the payoff of getting it right can help your song stand out as one in a million.

So let’s dive in. If you’re a beginner at using metaphor in your lyrics, we’ll help you get started.

Firstly, it’s important to make sure the metaphor makes sense in the way you’re intending. If for example, you’re trying to say that your partner can be “hard to manage” sometimes but “they’re worth it,” you might not want to use words that convey an absolute negative, like “trash.”

Instead, you’ll have to find a word or sentiment that conveys more subtlety and complexity in how people respond to it. So, using an image like “a diamond in the rough” might better suit the concept, with the idea that the hardship you’re currently facing will be worth it in the end. Rather than conveying an absolute negative, your song will evoke a positive reaction to your listener.

Once you’ve picked a metaphor that conveys the same feeling or emotion as your subject matter, this is where it gets fun! Think about all of the associated ideas that your imagery brings to mind; you’re going to make a list of words and concepts that fit the image, and these will eventually become fodder for your lyric-writing.

Let’s take this process apart a bit more closely using the song “Smoke” by A Thousand Horses, to see how they’ve managed to utilize metaphor extremely effectively. Here’s the song:

If we were going to start our metaphor worksheet with the word “Smoke,” it might go something like this:

Step 1: Make an associations list.

List out some of the things that smoke, as a concept, makes us think about. It’s okay to be vague and general at this point, we’ll get more specific next.

  • Addiction
  • Fog
  • Taste
  • Smell

Step 2: Extrapolate those associations into verbs and adjectives.

Now that we’ve got some umbrella terms pertaining to the word “smoke,” let’s get into a bit more specificity. What do each of the words above make you think when you hear them?

  • Addiction: Habit, can’t quit, nicotine, drug.
  • Fog: Disappears, floats, illusive, dances around you, plays with light.
  • Taste: Bitter, on your tongue, sweet, ephemeral.
  • Smell: Burnt, ashy, smoky, earthy.

Step 3: Sculpt, shape, and organize.

Continue to break down these columns until you have a great deal of imagery and thoughts that all point to, or revolve around, the metaphor of “smoke” to refer back to during your writing process. Then set this page aside. You don’t have to use all of the ideas that you come up with, but when you’re looking for something thought-provoking and colorful to add to your lyrics, this sheet will give you a great place to start.

Now we need to start writing out our actual lyrics, or at least a first draft. hopefully we’ll end up with something close to as masterful as A Thousand Horses’ song. Before we put it all into practice, let’s take a look at their first verse and chorus.

“She comes rolling right off the tip of my tongue so easy
She’ll be the first damn thing I want when I start drinking
I’m breathing her in, breathing her out
Once I pick her up I can’t put her down
She’s smoke.
I pull her in nice and slow
She’s a habit and I can’t let go
Blowing rings around my heart
The one she stole
Watching her sway and go
It’s killing me and I know
Can’t stop her once you start
She’s smoke.”

See? Many of the lyrics in the verse point toward the ideas in the chorus, so by the time the metaphor-revealing line: “She’s smoke” finally comes around, the listener feels immediately connected to it. It’s familiar because we’ve been conditioned to expect it, but it’s also new. And those are fundamental tenets to a song’s catchiness.

This song was written by some of the country’s most talented songwriters, sure, but it’s not all that difficult to spend a bit of extra time crafting metaphorical lyrics that dance around your subject matter, as opposed to telling your story in a linear fashion (which is also a functional songwriting technique).

Making lists and associations, then mapping those associations to your storyline, is an easy way to get started. But the key to using metaphor in lyrics is all about making it smoothly sync up with what’s already going on in your story; in other words you don’t want to surprise your listener or have different imagery come out of nowhere.

Why? Because your listener probably has a lot going on in their lives. When they hear your song, they’ll probably be at the grocery store with a screaming child on one hip trying to reach for a cereal box, or driving in the car watching out for their next exit. With all that going on, your song is going to have to be easily understandable if there’s any hope of a listener recollecting it later.

All-in-all, practicing working with lists, analyzing other songs, and making sure your metaphors convey the intended emotions are the best way to get fluent at using this linguistic tool until it becomes second nature. So keep writing! If you need a bit of help, our songwriting mentors can definitely help. Get in touch!

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Sammy Hakim
Sammy Hakim

Sammy Hakim is an up-and-coming young songwriter based in New York City. In May, 2018 she graduated from Berklee College of Music with a Major in songwriting and a focus in music business. These days she spends most of her time in songwriting sessions with artists all over the country.