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Verse Development
by Pat Pattison

In its simplest form, this is the basic rule of songwriting: keep your listener interested all the way through your song. Get them with you from the beginning with a strong opening line, then keep them with you the rest of the way. Whether they stay or go is up to you.

Your verses are responsible for keeping listeners interested. They develop your idea; they are the basic tool to advance your concept, plot, or story. They get us ready to hear the chorus -- they control the angle of entry and the way we see the chorus. Like the paragraphs of an essay, each one should focus on a separate idea.

Say we had a song whose only elements are verses, and the verse summaries went something like:

Verse 1. The sheriff is the toughest man in town.
Verse 2. He is very strong and has a fast gun.
Verse 3. Everyone in town knows the sheriff is tough. They are afraid of him.

The ideas don't move much. These verses say pretty much the same thing in different words. Obviously, they could be improved by more interesting language, images, or metaphors, but no matter how you polished the language, it would only disguise the fact that something important is missing. The only real fix is to take the idea new places.

Verse 1. The sheriff is the toughest man in town.
Verse 2. He is obsessed with a beautiful woman.
Verse 3. She is married to the weakest man in town.

The language is still bland and imageless. Yet now we want to know what happens next. We had no such curiosity about the first sequence.

REPETITION

When you add a repeating section to the verses (a refrain or chorus), development is even more important. Stagnant verses turn repetition stagnant too. Watch.

Verse 1. The sheriff is the toughest man in town.
Beware, beware. All hands beware.

Verse 2. He is very strong and has a fast gun.
Beware, beware. All hands beware.

Verse 3. Everyone in town knows the sheriff is tough.
They are afraid of him.
Beware, beware. All hands beware.

The Refrain suffers from the same disease as the verses -- stagnation. Boredom is amplified. You can't fix stagnation by adding more, you have to change what's there. You have to develop the ideas.

Nor will it do to change the Refrain every time. Then it isn't a Refrain, but simply additional material. Remember, you don't fix stagnation by adding to it. You do the same thing you did when you had only verses -- you develop the idea. Like this.
Verse 1. The sheriff is the toughest man in town.
Beware, beware. All hands beware.

Verse 2. He is obsessed with a beautiful woman.
Beware, beware. All hands beware.

Verse 3. She is married to the weakest man in town.
Beware, beware. All hands beware.

Now each Refrain is a different color. It takes its color from what it attaches to. When it attaches to verses that mean the same thing, the Refrain gets boring. When it attaches to verses that develop the idea, it dances.

Don't waste your verses. Don't let them sit idle waiting for the HOOK to come around and rescue them. Too often there won't be anyone around to witness the rescue.

Look at this lyric by Jon Jarvis and Gary Nicholson:

FATHERS AND SONS

My father had so much to tell me
Things he said I ought to know
Don't make my mistakes
There are rules you can't break
But I had to find out on my own

Now when I look at my own son
I know what my father went through
There's only so much you can do
You're proud when they walk
Scared when they run
That's how it always has been between FATHERS AND SONS

It's a bridge you can't cross
It's a cross you can't bear
It's the words you can't say
The things you can't change
No matter how much you care
So you do all you can
Then you've gotta let go
You're just part of the flow
Of the river that runs between FATHERS AND SONS

Your mother will try to protect you
Hold you as long as she can
But the higher you climb
The more you can see
That's something that I understand

One day you'll look at your own son
There'll be so much that you want to say
But he'll have to find his own way
On the road he must take
The course he must run
That's how it always has been between FATHERS AND SONS

It's a bridge you can't cross
It's a cross you can't bear
It's the words you can't say
The things you can't change
No matter how much you care
So you do all you can
Then you've gotta let go
You're just part of the flow
Of the river that runs between FATHERS AND SONS

What a nice lyric. For me, it really hits home, especially in the first chorus. It touches both the son and the father in me.

Fathers and Sons is made up of two large units, or systems. Verses 1 and 2 plus the first chorus make up system one. Verses 3 and 4 plus chorus 2 make the second system.) Let's look at the first system.

My father had so much to tell me
Things he said I ought to know
Don't make my mistakes
There are rules you can't break
But I had to find out on my own

The speaker looks back at his father's attempts to help smooth the way ahead, and his own unwillingness to listen. Stubborn kid. Had to do it for himself when all that help was available.

Now when I look at my own son
I know what my father went through
There's only so much you can do
You're proud when they walk
Scared when they run
That's how it always has been between FATHERS AND SONS

Now the speaker is the father, going through the same things with his own son. He understands what he did to his father, but understands that it was necessary, perhaps even inevitable.

That's how it always has been between FATHERS AND SONS

I love the structure of the verse: how it tosses in an extra line (line 3), refuses to rhyme lines 4 and 5, then extends the last line to focus our attention on the title. Lovely moves. Now the chorus:

It's a bridge you can't cross
It's a cross you can't bear
It's the words you can't say
The things you can't change
No matter how much you care
So you do all you can
Then you've gotta let go
You're just part of the flow
Of the river that runs between FATHERS AND SONS

So far, very effective stuff. I've been interested the whole time. What a nifty chorus. I love the play on cross:

It's a bridge you can't cross
It's a cross you can't bear
and You're just part of the flow
Of the river that runs between FATHERS AND SONS

The river is a divider of generations, but it's also the connector of generations. "Between" means "separation," but also means "from one to the other." The pattern repeats from father to son to father to son to father... Neat word play. Both the message and the fancy dancing sweep me along. Now look at the second system:

Your mother will try to protect you
Hold you as long as she can
But the higher you climb
The more you can see
That's something that I understand

This sounds familiar. Not that I've seen things from the mother's perspective yet, but I have seen the father, in fact both fathers, trying to protect the child. I've also seen the child trying to go beyond the parents. Not that this information isn't interesting, it's just not new. The ideas (if not the exact perspectives -- she and you) have been covered. This doesn't bode well for the second chorus. We'll need development rather than restatement to keep repetition interesting.

One day you'll look at your own son
There'll be so much that you want to say
But he'll have to find his own way
On the road he must take
The course he must run
That's how it always has been between FATHERS AND SONS

Oops. I know I've been here before. It's verse two with I changed to you. No need to try to universalize verse 4 with "you". The idea was already universal. The second chorus is a goner. It can't help but say exactly the same thing as the first chorus.

It's a bridge you can't cross
It's a cross you can't bear
It's the words you can't say
The things you can't change
No matter how much you care
So you do all you can
Then you've got let go
You're just part of the flow
Of the river that runs between FATHERS AND SONS

It isn't so much that there is no advancement of the idea in verses three and four, there just isn't enough to give us a new look at the chorus when we get there. The power of this lovely chorus is diminished rather than enlarged the second time around, and we leave the song less interested than we were in the middle. Let's see if we can fix it.

The song contains two perspectives: a son looking at his father; and the son-as-father. If the first system could focus only on the son looking at his father, saying

My father had so much to tell me
Things he said I ought to know
Don't make my mistakes
There are rules you can't break
But I had to find out on my own

V. 2 idea (in prose): "I kept him at arm's length.
I didn't want him interfering with my life.
He kept trying, but I wouldn't let him."
That's how it always has been between FATHERS AND SONS

Now move into the chorus:

It's a bridge you can't cross
It's a cross you can't bear
It's the words you can't say
The things you can't change
No matter how much you care
So you do all you can
Then you've got let go
You're just part of the flow
Of the river that runs between FATHERS AND SONS

We see the first chorus from the son's point of view, colored only by the son's eyes. Now the second system is free to look from the other side of the river:

Now when I look at my own son
I know what my father went through
There's only so much you can do
You're proud when they walk
Scared when they run
That's how it always has been between FATHERS AND SONS

It's a bridge you can't cross
It's a cross you can't bear
It's the words you can't say
The things you can't change
No matter how much you care
So you do all you can
Then you've got let go
You're just part of the flow
Of the river that runs between FATHERS AND SONS

The father's perspective colors the second chorus. It becomes, for me at least, more interesting than the first chorus. Here is a simple principle for division of labor: PUT SEPARATE IDEAS IN SEPARATE SYSTEMS.

The problem in Fathers and Sons is that both ideas are in the first system, leaving the lyric no place new to go. Separating the ideas into separate systems makes both systems fresh.

This principle for the division of labor has practical applications. Say you are writing a lyric whose summary is: Our lives without each other are sad. We should be together.

It contains three perspectives: 1. I (me), 2. you, 3. we. This clearly suggests a division of labor for the verses:
Verse 1: I have become a monk in the Himalayas: the only way I can find peace.
Verse 2: You are seeking fulfillment working with the Sisters of Mercy.
Verse 3: We need to talk this over...

This is the old I-you-we formula for lyric development: each verse focuses from a different point of view. It's a nice guideline for dividing your verses' jobs. Sometimes it'll be just what you need, other times, like any formula, it will take the freshness out of your writing. Be aware of it, just don't make it a habit.

Figuring out where to go after the first chorus is one of the hardest (and most persistent) problems that songwriters face. You face it every time you write a song, unless your song is only one system long. It's called Second Verse Hell.

Look at this lyric by Pat Alger, Garth Brooks and Larry B. Bastain. The first two verses set up a clear situation:

UNANSWERED PRAYERS

Just the other night at a hometown football game
My wife and I ran into my old high school flame
And as I introduced them the past came back to me
And I couldn't help but think of the way things used to be

She was the one that I'd wanted for all times
And each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine
And if he'd only grant me that wish I'd wished back then
I'd never ask for anything again

Now comes the punch line:
Sometimes I thank God for UNANSWERED PRAYERS
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are UNANSWERED PRAYERS

With all the information we have so far, it's a little difficult to see how to develop the story much further. Here's verse three:

She wasn't quite the angel that I remembered in my dreams
And I could tell that time had changed me in her eyes too it seemed
We tried to talk about the old days, there wasn't much we could recall
I guess the Lord knows what he's doin' after all

Now follow it with the chorus:
Sometimes I thank God for UNANSWERED PRAYERS
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are UNANSWERED PRAYERS

Is there anything gained? Not much. We already knew, from the combination of the first two verses and the chorus, how thankful he was not to be with his old girlfriend. This verse just elaborates on the same theme, giving us a few more details, including the old girlfriend's attitude. And the final line, I guess the Lord knows what he's doin' after all, just repeats the idea, just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care.

In short, the second chorus is destined to die an ignominious death right there in front of everybody. Now the song moves into a bridge, followed by a third chorus:

And as she walked away I looked at my wife
And then and there I thanked the Good Lord for the gifts in my life

Sometimes I thank God for UNANSWERED PRAYERS
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are UNANSWERED PRAYERS

Much better. I had forgotten about the wife. The third chorus is interesting again; it changes color completely. Go back and read the bridge followed by the whole chorus.

The wife becomes God's greatest gift. A lovely payoff.

Two out of three choruses work great, but the song sags at the second chorus. There isn't enough new information in verse three to make the chorus interesting. Other than leaving it alone as good enough (two out of three ain't bad...), what would you do?

One possibility might be to re-introduce the wife in verse three and skip the bridge entirely, like this:

She wasn't quite the angel that I remembered in my dreams
And I could tell that time had changed me in her eyes too it seemed
As she turned and walked away I looked at my wife
And recognized the gift I'd been given in my life

Sometimes I thank God for UNANSWERED PRAYERS
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are UNANSWERED PRAYERS

Now the song is a simple three verse, two chorus layout with both choruses doing their work. Read the entire lyric and watch how each chorus changes:

UNANSWERED PRAYERS
Just the other night at a hometown football game
My wife and I ran into my old high school flame
And as I introduced them the past came back to me
And I couldn't help but think of the way things used to be

She was the one that I'd wanted for all times
And each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine
And if he'd only grant me that wish I'd wished back then
I'd never ask for anything again

Sometimes I thank God for UNANSWERED PRAYERS
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are UNANSWERED PRAYERS

She wasn't quite the angel that I remembered in my dreams
And I could tell that time had changed me in her eyes too it seemed
As she turned and walked away I looked at my wife
And recognized the gift I'd been given in my life

Sometimes I thank God for UNANSWERED PRAYERS
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are UNANSWERED PRAYERS

Very effective movement.
OK, I lied. The original version of the lyric that I gave you isn't the way the song was recorded. They did try to do it as verse/verse/chorus, verse/chorus, bridge/chorus, but it made the song, in Pat Alger's words, "feel too long." Another way of saying the song sagged; lost interest. And what did they cut out? Here's their solution, as recorded by Garth Brooks:

UNANSWERED PRAYERS
Just the other night at a hometown football game
My wife and I ran into my old high school flame
And as I introduced them the past came back to me
And I couldn't help but think of the way things used to be

She was the one that I'd wanted for all times
And each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine
And if he'd only grant me that wish I'd wished back then
I'd never ask for anything again

Sometimes I thank God for UNANSWERED PRAYERS
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are UNANSWERED PRAYERS

She wasn't quite the angel that I remembered in my dreams
And I could tell that time had changed me in her eyes too it seemed
We tried to talk about the old days, there wasn't much we could recall
I guess the Lord knows what he's doin' after all

And as she walked away I looked at my wife
And then and there I thanked the Good Lord for the gifts in my life

Sometimes I thank God for UNANSWERED PRAYERS
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are UNANSWERED PRAYERS

They left out the second chorus and went immediately to the bridge -- an unusual formal move, especially in commercial music. But it works: both choruses shine and we stay interested in the song all the way through.

Keeping the bridge gives the music a chance to breathe, since the verses lines are long and the tempo is slow. Creating a contrasting section helps the overall flow of the song. The formal risk pays off, creating interest and contrast at the same time. Put this move in your toolbox. It could come in handy.

Of course, there are no rules. The solution to the question "Where do I go now?" changes with every song. Sometimes it's even the wrong question. Just because you wrote a verse first doesn't mean it's the first verse. Instead of asking "Where do I go now?" it may help to ask "Where did I get here from?" Ge t used to juggling and trying new things.

Here's your assignment: write three verses, each one ending with the same line (call it a refrain) which includes the title. It's really a three system song: verse/refrain, verse/refrain, verse/refrain.

Each verse/refrain system should advance the story-line to the next place. One easy way is to create a story that moves chronologically through time, perhaps from past to present. Like this:

1. He volunteered to serve his country in the Great War.
2. In the trenches he suffered from shell shock and battle fatigue.
3. Back home he can't even hear a door slam without losing control.

You could work non-chronologically:

1. Back home he can't even hear a door slam without losing control.
2. He volunteered to serve his Country in the Great War.
3. In the trenches he suffered from shell shock and battle fatigue.

or even

1. Back home he can't even hear a door slam without losing control.
2. In the trenches he suffered from shell shock and battle fatigue.
3. He volunteered to serve his Country in the Great War.

In the non-chronological cases, "had" shows the earlier past. The distinction is also made by the acts themselves: first you volunteer, then you serve, then you feel the after-effects.

If I were writing this lyric, I'd do some research on World War I and life in the trenches. I'd look for image words that work not only for the trenches (verse 2) but for the other sections as well. Wherever these words appeared, they would connect ("cluster with") other parts of the lyric to create a continuity of tone and idea. Here are some possibilities:

Rockets exploding overhead
Layers of dust from rocket explosions covering everything in the morning
Hiding underground in caves during aerial bombardment
Gas masks, mustard gas, fog

You could do some Object Writing on each of these to get something from your own sense pool. You could also treat them as metaphors for something else. (Right now, I'm tempted to revise or eliminate the section about volunteering so I can go back to his childhood.)

Ideally, I'll end up with a list of words that evoke the trenches or their home-bound counterparts that I can use throughout the lyric. THE MORE SPECIFIC THEY ARE, THE MORE EFFECTIVE THEY WILL BE. Keep them sense-bound (7-senses; remember?).

Now, find a refrain that can appear productively in the same place in each verse. If I were to look for a refrain for the Great War idea that could work for all three sections. I would be attracted to something like ASHES, ASHES, ALL FALL DOWN.

It works for a childhood section, also for the ashen faces of the shell-shocked soldiers, the dust from the rockets and gunpowder. I'd have to find an angle for the third section, but it shouldn't be too difficult. He certainly could tumble like a child when the door slams.

Go ahead and write it. Remember that all your verses should have their own jobs to do. Use ASHES, ASHES, ALL FALL DOWN as your refrain. Above all, take your time. This is a process. Enjoy it.

Have some questions for the author? Feel free to drop by his web site.

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