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Thinking Backwards From The Title, part 1

Many people who write and teach fiction, playwriting, screenwriting, etc., suggest that writers not go very deep into writing a particular piece without knowing their destination: the ending.  That is, don’t take a trip  (often a long one) without knowing where you’re going.

But just as some people like to take trips (or even walks) without knowing where they’ll end up, many people write that way too.  Sometimes it takes you creatively where you might otherwise never have gone… but sometimes the writing wanders, directionless.

I’d say that the Chorus (in a Verse/Chorus song), the Refrain, or the Title line (in an AABA song) are the songwriter’s equivalent of the ‘ending’ described above.

For me, personally – I often wander around looking for it, but once I’ve found my Chorus/Title, I want the song, as much as possible, to be leading up to it, supporting it, amplifying it, reflecting it…

The Chorus (if a song has one) or the Title line is by definition the most important thing in the song. It’s the thing that we want people to remember; it’s the ‘take-away’, the summary, the linchpin.  So to me the strongest songs are usually those where the rest of the song is firmly organized around the central idea – the Chorus/Title.  (This doesn’t have to be done in a simple-minded way – see the examples in Part 2.)

If you start looking at songs that really work – classics, modern or otherwise – it becomes pretty clear that this is usually the case.  Though some Choruses are so strong you can put almost anything around them (and some writers do), songs that really stand the test of time are mostly pretty focused.  I urge you to listen to some classic songs with this in mind and see if you agree.

(This applies to the melody and harmony too, but right now I’m mainly focusing on the lyric.)

All this said, one of the most common songwriting weaknesses/mistakes that I come across is NOT setting up the Chorus.

In Eric Beall’s most recent (excellent) book, an established Nashville songwriter says she thinks that the line right before the Chorus is the third most important line in the song (after the title and the first line).  I might even say it’s the second most important!

It sets up the Chorus – it tells the listener what the Chorus means, how to take it in, how to ‘feel about it’… Comedians will tell you that the timing and phrasing of the ‘setup line’ is as important as the punch line – this is similar.

And the whole Verse can be looked at that way – as something that is preparing you for the Chorus and making it as resonant and powerful as possible.

So my point is not just that it’s a good idea to use Verses to prepare for the Chorus… I’m also saying Take Advantage Of the Chorus.  It’s your big idea; use it, work it!

Think backwards from the Chorus… “The Chorus is where I’m going…  What’s the most interesting way I can get there?  How can I give my Title the most impact and resonance?”.

In Part 2, I’ll give some specific examples, from great songs, of Thinking Backwards From The Title.  But I think if you listen to the songs in your life with this idea in mind, you won’t have much trouble finding examples yourself.

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