20 / 28
Columns | Fall 2015

Pro Song

Strive to Surprise

I once read a book called Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by David Gerrold. One particular idea from that book stuck with me as a songwriter:

A great story is a series of surprises. Every chapter should have a surprise, every paragraph should have a surprise, every sentence should have a surprise. (12)

That last bit especially surprised me. I imagined writing like this:

My dog spoke to me this morning. He says he’s an international jewel thief. He buried the Hope Diamond in our backyard. He wants me to use it to buy him a telescope.

Silly! But Mr. Gerrold’s point was not to make every sentence a revelation or a non sequitur. What he was getting at is that every sentence in a great novel should be engaging. Little surprises will do. To test the theory, here’s a randomly selected paragraph from E. B. White’s engaging classic, Charlotte’s Web:

“Yes, indeed,” replied Templeton, who saved string. “No trouble at all. Anything to oblige.” He crept down into his hole, pushed the goose egg out of the way, and returned with an old piece of dirty white string. Wilbur examined it. (57)

Little surprises: 1) Self-serving, disagreeable Templeton says “yes” to Wilbur’s request. 2) He cheerfully agrees to supply some string. 3) Goose egg—watch out! 4) Wilbur doesn’t immediately reject the dirty old string.

Did I just get lucky when I chose this surprising paragraph? No. Next time you’re reading a good book, look for little surprises skillfully crafted into each sentence. They’ll be there. Some turn on the action of the story; others turn on clever use of language; all of them keep the reader engaged.

Now, if a novelist needs to surprise the reader with each of thousands of sentences in a novel, then it should be even more imperative for a songwriter to surprise the listener with every single line in a song. A great song, after all, will be heard over and over and over again. Every line of song lyric should contain a surprise! That’s the ideal to strive for, anyway, and your songs will turn out much more engaging for the effort. Let’s look at some techniques for packing your songs with surprise.

1. Set aside any ideas that come too easily and dig deeper.
Suppose I’m tasked with writing a song about imagination. I think, “Isn’t it cool how even a stick could become the greatest toy to a kid?” A few moments later these lyrics come to mind:

you can take it
you can shake it
you can pick it up and break it
it’s a stick

you can show it
you can throw it
you can water it and grow it
it’s a stick

Shall I proceed in this direction? I need to be honest with myself: break it, shake it, throw it? No surprises here. A kid listening could think up ten better ideas for what to do with a stick before the song was over. Fortunately, as the writer I have a time advantage. I can spend more than three minutes digging up compelling ideas. So I set that initial verse aside and do some brainstorming. Five minutes later, I have a list. A stick could be…

  • the gear shift of a Maserati
  • a Charlie Brown Christmas tree
  • a rocket ship
  • a gun (though we don’t condone that)
  • a musical instrument
  • a marching baton
  • a helicopter blade
  • a microphone
  • something used to pull someone out of quicksand
  • a hang glider
  • a trapeze swing

Can’t you just feel the tingle of possibility? Sure, it’ll take some serious effort to turn these items into rhyming lines, but every one of them will surprise the listener.

2. Second verse, different from the first.
It’s tough to surprise if your second verse is basically a retelling of your first verse. To avoid such a predictable pickle, give some thought to your plot.

Every song has a plot, even though not every song tells a story. The plot of your song is the way its ideas are arranged and presented. In musical improvisation class we were advised to make each verse more personal than the last. For example:

Verse 1: Describe the subject. (A spring breeze is blowing.)
Verse 2: How does it make you feel? (I long to travel.)
Verse 3: Become the subject. (I AM the breeze—I can go anywhere!)

Such a plot inspires the writer to reveal new and surprising details with each verse.

The plot of the Trout Fishing in America song “Six” is based on increasing complexity. The song poses a list of questions, each one followed by the refrain “I believe the answer is six.” The starting question is “What do you get when you add three plus three?” As the questions progress, each one surprises us with a new and different approach, growing more and more complex until we reach:

What is the dimension of the field of complex numbers over
The real numbers, times the order of
The alternating group on
Three elements divided by the
Definite integral from zero to pi
Over two of sine of X D X?
I believe the answer is six.

It may seem paradoxical that following an organizing principle can foster surprise. The pattern does indeed set up expectations, but surprise and delight come with how creatively those expectations are met.

3. Revise for surprise.
Suppose your first draft is finished. The story comes across and everything rhymes. But does every line deliver a surprise? Not likely. You’ve been too focused thus far on just getting the lyrics to work. That’s fine. Now take some time to revisit your language and mark any spots that sag. Use alliteration, fresh rhymes, hyperbole, metaphor, even just fun vocabulary to inject a little surprise where needed.

Here’s a verse from version 3.3 of my song “Take Me to Your Library.” Can you pick out the least surprising line?

Well that thing bounced toward me, waving five floppy arms like a wacky disaster.

Three stalky eyes reached out and looked me over while my heart beat faster.

I took a deep breath and I managed to stand,

I said, “Welcome to Earth” and I offered my hand.

But there was no friendly shake; instead he pointed what I took to be an alien blaster.

To convey a nervous reaction, I have the narrator breathe and stand. Anybody would feel nervous meeting an alien, and breathing and standing are pretty pedestrian ways of showing it. No surprises in that line.

Here is the same verse from the finished song.

He hit the ground bouncing with five arms flapping like a wacky disaster.

He planted his foot and waved a dozen eyes at me while my heart beat faster.

More nervous than a wiener in a hotdog stand,

I said, “W-Welcome to Earth,” and I held out my hand.

Did he shake it? No, instead he pointed what I took to be an alien blaster.

By using hyperbole and unexpected imagery in the revision, I convey the singer’s nerves in a hilarious (this line always gets a big laugh) and surprising way. This and many similar revisions helped make “Take Me to Your Library” an award-winning and often-requested song.

4. Construct a chorus or refrain that surprises every time.
Yep, that’s what I said. A really well-written chorus may be so rich in language and/or imagery that it surprises us every time we hear it. “Supercali­fragilistic­expiali­docious” does this for me. The rhymes in the chorus are so fun they remain surprising throughout the song.

On a deeper level, surprise can come from the way the chorus interacts with the various verses. Take for example the standard “The Cat Came Back.” Each verse describes an increasingly worse fate for the cat, so each time the chorus claims, “The cat came back the very next day,” it’s a surprise! Of course the listener cottons on to the premise pretty quickly, but within the universe of the song it’s always a surprise, and that helps keep the chorus humorous and engaging.

Another approach is to create a chorus that shifts or deepens in meaning as the song progresses, even though the words don’t change. In the Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler,” the first time we hear the chorus it seems like simple advice on how to play poker. On subsequent repeats the meaning deepens as we realize that the narrator is using poker as a metaphor for life.

Just listen for surprises lurking in the song lyrics you hear, and I’m sure you’ll discover many more ways to make them happen. It’s definitely a challenge, but if you strive to put a little surprise in every line of every song you write, you’ll take another great leap toward excellence!