Bring Your Lyrics to Life with Imminent Imagery (It’s About Showing Not Telling!)
The definition of the word imagery is “visually descriptive or figurative language.” The only thing I would add to this definition is that it is often missing from the songs we’re trying to write. Using great imagery is one of the most challenging aspects of our songwriting and I come back to it over and over with the writers I coach.Master songwriting teacher, Pat Pattison, talks about writing towards “territories of meaning,” as he refers to the often vague references the writer assumes his or her listeners will understand. Failing to give clear, specific, irrefutable images of what the writer is saying is like telling a story with no details. “She went somewhere and did something with somebody” is about as clear as mud. When it’s changed to “She drove her old blue Chevy to to the levee with her steady” we start to see the story (remember ‘show don’t tell’) and we’re there with her in the car.
I shared an example of my song called Prodigal’s Lament in an earlier module, but I want to return to it again because it’s a concise example of imminent imagery.
First, read again the sample version aiming vaguely into “territories of meaning.”
We’ve all done bad things from time to time
Things we regret, things we wish we could leave behind
But I know God loves me and forgives all my sins
I wish I could hear Him say He loves me again
Notice that the first two words in this verse refer to a generalized group of people who may or may not agree they’ve “all done bad things from time to time.” It’s not a good idea to start a song insulting people and shaming them. The second line is vaguely referencing “things” we regret and want to leave behind. The third line is trite, cliched, and impotent and the fourth line is completely disconnected from the first three.
I’m reprinting my entire lyric here for you to follow the story line and look for the imminent imagery it uses to tell the story of the prodigal.
I’ve lived my life on the edge of the storm
I’ve walked through the valley of death
I’ve huddled my soul in the shadows so cold
I’ve cradled some lasting regrets
I’ve walked away from my lover’s sweet arms
I’ve crushed all my loved ones with pain
I’ve traded my heart for a prison so dark
I’ve given my life up to shame
But Love, o Love, You’re calling me
It brings me to my knees
I hear Your voice in the air tonight
In the sound of the wind through the trees
I’ve cried alone in the depths of the night
I’ve felt burning tears on my face
I’ve cherished my sins and I’d do it again
If it weren’t for your sweet love and grace
I see you there at the end of the road
With your heart and your arms open wide
I could never deserve half the love that you give
Or count half the tears that you’ve cried
“Prodigal’s Lament” by John Chisum © Copyright 2015 by Donnaluv Music/ASCAP. All Rights Reserved.
Notice that almost every line has a visually descriptive phrase:
edge of the storm
valley of death
huddled soul in shadows so cold
cradled lasting regrets
walked away from lover’s arms
crushed loved ones with pain
traded heart for prison so dark
given life up to shame
cried alone in the night
felt burning tears on my face
see you there at the end of the road
heart and arms open wide
In the chorus, you can hear “Love” calling in the sound of the wind through the trees. You can almost see the prodigal trudging through the dark night, the winds whispering the call of love to come home.The entire song is visually descriptive and blends figurative language with emotional word pictures to tell the prodigal’s story and lamenting his sins, but the chorus turns a hopeful note with love still calling and bringing him to his knees. That’s imminent imagery.
Notice also that the song is in first person singular and makes the experience very present for the listener. The listener automatically inserts his or her own shameful moments into the song and “hears” love calling, too. That’s the power of imminent imagery. When it’s done well, the listener becomes part of the story and isn’t locked outside of it wondering what the story even is.