Pat's Lyric Tips

Point of View and Verse Development

Who are you talking to, and why? Without making a decision on POV, it’s sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to see how your ideas might develop from section to section -- to build your boxes so they will grow and gain weight. (See Chapter Six, Writing Better Lyrics, 2 nd Edition.)

 

At a Toronto weekend workshop, Jim Brand, a good writer and the organizer of the workshop, asked if he could bring a song that he was stuck on to the Sunday afternoon critique session. “I don’t know where it should go next,” he said. “Sure,” I said, “Anything is fair game.”

 

Here’s what he brought:

When She Plays With Fire (Original Version) - Jim Brand
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When She Plays With Fire - Jim Brand

 

Verse 1

 

Troubles are gathering over my head like blackbirds on the wire

Waiting for seasons to change

Dark-winged silhouette notes for an unheard choir

Washed away by cold relentless rain

Words like smoke from smoldering autumn leaves

Burn the truth from my eyes

It's not great revelation just a lesson never learned

When she plays with fire I'm the one who' burned

 

Verse 2

 

Breath so soft keeps me locked in the eye of the storm

A whirlwind of golden fragrant hair

...

...

Hypnotized, mesmerized, a moth to a flame

Draws me ever close and ever near

It's not great revelation just a lesson never learned

When she plays with fire I'm the one who's burned

 

After listening, I saw why Jim was having trouble looking ahead for the next idea. I was having trouble too. It forced me back to the most fundamental questions you can ask of a song:

 

Who is talking?

To whom?

Why?

 

Right now, in this 1st Person Narrative, you, the singer, are talking to the audience. You’re telling the audience about your relationship – how everything she does burns you. So, why are you telling them that? Because you want them to know about you and your troubles? Do you want them to pity you? Be revolted by her? And why should they care? What’s in it for them?

 

A 1st Person Narrative is at its most effective when there’s a reason for telling the audience the story. There’s something in it for them. Take, for example, Don Schlitz’s “The Gambler:”

 

Listen: "The Gambler"

 

On a warm summer’s evenin’ on a train bound for nowhere,

I met up with a gambler; we were both too tired to sleep.

So we took turns a starin’ out the window at the darkness

‘Til boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.

 

He said, “Son, I’ve made my life out of readin’ people’s faces,

And knowin’ what their cards were by the way they held their eyes.

 

So if you don’t mind my sayin’, I can see you’re out of aces.

For a taste of your whiskey I’ll give you some advice.”

 

So I handed him my bottle and he drank down my last swallow.

Then he bummed a cigarette and asked me for a light.

And the night got deathly quiet, and his face lost all expression.

He said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

 

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,

Know when to walk away, know when to run.

You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table

There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

 

Now ev’ry gambler knows the secret to survivin’

Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep.

‘Cause ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser,

And the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”

 

So when he’d finished speakin’, he turned back towards the window,

Crushed out his cigarette and faded off to sleep.

And somewhere in the darkness the gambler, he broke even.

But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep.

 

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,

Know when to walk away, know when to run.

You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table

There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

 

Pretty neat. And a big hit as a 1 st Person Narrative. (Note the word “narrative.” It means “story.”) The story has a point, a lesson, a reason for telling the audience what you’ve learned – they can USE the information. Therefore, the song is about THEM, not about YOU! The audience doesn’t care about you, the singer.

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They want the song to relate to their lives somehow.

 

Remember that. The song should, somehow, always be about them!

 

The problem Jim was facing is, if the song is 1 st Person Narrative, how to make the song apply to the audience – how to make it about them. What kind of idea could come next that might be useful to the listener? Otherwise, it feels a bit like well-written whining. It’s pretty hard to see where to take the idea next. 1 st Person Narrative seemed to be the reason for the blockage.

 

“What would happen if you were talking TO her rather than ABOUT her?” I asked. After all, this isn’t a song about FACTS. It’s more about FEELINGS. And when you’re talking about feelings, the camera should come in for a close-up. So you can see Brad Pitt’s lip quivering and his raised eyebrow. Jaws tightening with stress. 1 st Person Narrative is a middle distance shot. Direct Address is a close-up.

 

Something like:

When You Play With Fire (Version 2) - Jim Brand
00:00 / 00:00

When You Play With Fire - Jim Brand

 

Troubles are gathering over my head like blackbirds on the wire

Waiting for seasons to change

Dark-winged silhouette notes for an unheard choir

Washed away by cold relentless rain

Your words like smoke from smoldering autumn leaves

Burn the truth from my eyes

It's not great revelation just a lesson never learned

When you play with fire I'm the one who's burned

 

Your breath so soft keeps me locked in the eye of the storm

A whirlwind of golden fragrant hair

......

......

Hypnotized, mesmerized, a moth to a flame

Draws me ever close and ever near

It's not great revelation just a lesson never learned

When you play with fire I'm the one who's burned

 

(Note that we’ve also added “your” in lines 5 and 9.)

 

Hmmmm. I thought it’d have more impact. It’s close, but something still isn’t hitting home… Aha! Take a look at the line,

 

When you play with fire I'm the one who's burned

 

The melody gives it this emphasis:

 

When you play with fire I'm the one who's burned

 

The 2nd Person pronoun “you” is very flexible:

 

First, English is the only major language on the planet that doesn’t distinguish between 2nd Person singular and 2nd Person Plural. “You” could refer to an individual or a group.

 

Second, “you” can be a substitute for “one,” as in “You get what you pay for.” “One gets what one pays for.” “You” can even substitute for “I,” as in, “C’mon Pat, you can be clearer than this, can’t you?”

 

In this case,

 

When you play with fire I'm the one who's burned

 

sounds like...

 

When one plays with fire I'm the one who's burned

 

Try this: simply say the line like you mean it, 3 or 4 times aloud, without listening, then slow it down, you’ll hear:

 

When you play with fire I'm the one who's burned

 

Since there’s a contrast implied between “you” and “I,” the pronouns are stressed. Because “you” is stressed, it needs to go on a strong beat, on the downbeat, like this”

When You Play With Fire (Changed Ending) - James Brand
00:00 / 00:00

It's not great revelation just a lesson never learned

When you play with fire, I'm the one who's burned

 

Now let’s listen to the whole thing:

 

Troubles are gathering over my head like blackbirds on the wire

Waiting for seasons to change

Dark-winged silhouette notes for an unheard choir

Washed away by cold relentless rain

Your words like smoke from smoldering autumn leaves

Burn the truth from my eyes

It's not great revelation just a lesson never learned

When you play with fire I'm the one who's burned

 

Your breath so soft keeps me locked in the eye of the storm

A whirlwind of golden fragrant hair

......

......

Hypnotized, mesmerized, a moth to a flame

Draws me ever close and ever near

It's not great revelation just a lesson never learned

When you play with fire I'm the one who's burned

 

That’s better. Now it’s a conversation between “I” and “you.” Now we’re in a much stronger position to decide what might come next.

 

I’m telling you about the trouble you’re causing me, and how helpless I am to escape the damage – how attracted I am to it. So what do I say to you next? Where can this conversation go?

 

Now we can start thinking more clearly. Why am I telling you all this? What’s my point going to be?

 

Asking you to straighten out?

 

Asking you to treat me better?

 

Telling you I’m leaving?

 

Telling you I’ll stay no matter what?

 

Lots more choices, I’m sure, many more than I’ve listed, but the direction that the options lie in is clear. The scales fall from your eyes with the change from 1 st Person Narrative to Direct Address.

 

I’ve often told my students that they should do a point of view check every time they write a song: to try all four points of view before they put the song to bed. But this example has a deeper lesson: finding the right point of view as early as you cancould be crucial to understanding where the song needs to go; that figuring out your point of view can precede verse development, and indeed, in many cases, should precede setting up your boxes.

 

Armed with the new point of view, here’s where Jim took it:

When You Play With Fire (Final Version) - Jim Brand
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Nice job Jim.

© 2019 Pat Pattison