Top 5 Exercises for Coming Up with Great Song Lyric Ideas—#2: Metaphor Collisions

This exercise is one of my all-time favorites. It is the fastest way to show yourself that you are capable of coming up with totally original, unique ideas and ways to express yourself that no one has ever uttered before.

More importantly, this exercise trains your brain to see the world like a songwriter—to make novel combinations between seemingly unexpected things; to refract the familiar through a prism of new light.

Let’s get to it.

What is a Metaphor Collision?

Metaphor Collisions is an exercise that takes two small lists of random nouns; we then make random collisions between a noun from List 1 and a noun from List 2, and then very quickly spend 2-3 minutes expanding on the collision, developing the new idea that emerges when we compare one thing to another (that has never been compared before!). 

How it works.

Step 1. 

Create 2 lists of random nouns, each with 5 nouns in it. [Remember, a noun is a person/place/object/thing. We know it’s a noun because we can put the words ‘the’, ‘an’, or ‘a’ before it: The ocean. An idea. A collision.]

List 1 can contain any noun at all, concrete or abstract—and works well when there is a smattering of both!

List 2 should exclusively contain concrete nouns—tangible things or objects that you could actually hold, touch, smell, see or hear (as distinct from abstract nouns, which are concepts or ideas. For example: a conversation, personality, freedom). 

Why? Metaphors come alive with imagery, and concrete nouns are the stuff of imagery. When one side of the metaphor is guaranteed to contain imagery, your efforts will generate great rewards.

Here’s an example of 2 lists:

List 1: hospital, haircut, conversation, history, cancer

List 2: river, canyon, ferrari, church, violin

This is a brilliant random word generator. It has a concrete noun generator, as well as a general noun generator (as well as all sorts of other categories which are extremely fun to play with once you’ve got the hand of the basic form of Metaphor Collisions). 

Step 2.

Make a ‘THIS is THAT’ collision, by picking one word from List 1 and one word from List 2. 

For example: “His history was a canyon.”

Note that I’ve added in the pronoun ‘his’, and also picked a tense, ‘was’. This gives the metaphor a sense of character and story. You can pick your pronouns, and experiment with tense. The essence here is the metaphor collision between ‘history’ and ‘canyon.’

Here comes the important bit, where all of the action happens. You’re now going to spend 2 minutes expanding on the metaphor that you have just created. Write a sentence or two that explain and describe how one thing is like the other. 

For example: His history was a canyon—As we got closer, I started to get dizzy at the edge of everything I didn’t know about him.

Tip: remember that a metaphor is when we say ‘x IS y’; a simile is when we say ‘x is LIKE y’. Metaphor is a much more potent and intense kind of language. For the moment, stick with metaphor. 

Step 3.

Continue making random collisions and expanding them for 10 minutes. See how many you can do. Aim for at least 3. 

More examples from these lists:

Her haircut was a church; her natural joy became burdened by the weight of its seriousness.

The conversation was a river; and I was drowning in the undertow of the private jokes I didn’t understand.

The hospital was a violin; a cacophony of high-pitched sounds, but with a highly composed orchestration of doctors, nurses, and machines, every component coming together in the end. 

A few things to notice.

  1. Notice that I am using novel combinations. I am deliberately avoiding any combinations that I have heard before. It’s possible you might get the word ‘love’ in List 1, and the word ‘flame’ in List 2…for the moment, avoid those tropes. 
  2. Notice how I am using words and phrases in the sentences that relate back to the original metaphor image. With ‘river’, I am very deliberately using the words ‘drowning’ and ‘undertow’. With ‘violin’, we have ‘cacophony’, ‘high-pitched’, and ‘composed orchestration’. Using words related to your metaphor is where a metaphor really comes to life. 
  3. Notice that I am not mixing metaphors. When I am expanding the metaphor collision using language related to the metaphor image, I am deliberately avoiding dipping into other metaphors. Mixing metaphor tends to feel chaotic, and ultimately dilutes the power of a single, strong, well-developed metaphor.
  4. Notice in the sentences that I am always coming back to the ‘target idea’—what the sentence is really about. When I say ‘the conversation was a river’, this sentence is really about the conversation. That’s the target idea. The ‘river’ is my metaphor, which is to say, it’s the color that I am using to paint the sentence, but ultimately the most important idea is to describe the ‘conversation’. With the last example, I have deliberately referenced ‘doctors, nurses, and machines’ to make sure that the target idea is never lost inside the metaphor. 

If I had instead written something like:

The hospital was a violin; a cacophony of high-pitched sounds, but with a highly composed orchestration of melodies and rhythms, every component coming together in the end…

…we would lose sight of what the target idea is. We get so tangled up in the metaphor that it starts to sound like we are simply describing a musical performance, not a hospital. Metaphor collisions (and metaphor is general) works best when we apply the metaphor language back to specific elements of the target idea.

How to Use Metaphor Collisions in Your Lyrics

  1. You will find that you come up with ideas and expressions that translate very quickly into lines of lyric. Just like with Sense Writing, you can collect the gems in a separate document, and use them later. You don’t need to take the whole collision, either. Often I like to jettison the actual ‘x is y’ statement, and just keep parts of the expansion; ‘drowning in the undertow of the private jokes’; ‘burdened by the weight of seriousness.’
  2. This is a brilliant brain training exercise, that attunes your perception to see and develop novel combinations in unexpected ways. Even when the individual collisions don’t yield specific lyric ideas, sometimes the most ridiculous ones are the ones that have strengthened this ability the most! ‘The burrito was an aeroplane’. Figuring out the connection creates incredibly strong neural pathways!
  3. Once you have practiced Metaphor Collisions with truly random inputs, you can also start to lightly curate your lists, to direct the results to more emotion-based ideas. The random word generator also has an ‘emotion’ filter. If you fill List 1 entirely with emotions, then you get something like this:

List 1: sorrow, remorse, disappointment, love, anticipation

List 2 (random concrete): sweater, bulb, desktop, flower, hair

Love is a sweater.

Sorrow is a bulb.

Disappointment is a flower.

It truly makes the mind hum with possibility.

Many thanks to my teacher, friend, and mentor Pat Pattison for introducing me to this exercise.

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