On Songwriting: Coming Up with Unique Metaphors

Coming up with a great metaphor seems tricky, but it’s simpler than you think.

At the end of the day, a great metaphor is you showing the listener how two things they hadn’t thought were very similar are actually very much the same. You might think the good ones are already taken, but that’s because you’re focusing on the ones you know. The ones that haven’t been taken are usually the ones right in front of you, in your own life.

The other day I was watching my son and the neighbor kid on the tire swing. I started thinking about old tires and how they’ve been down so many roads. I let my mind wander on that thought for a while. Then I had this funny idea about two tires on a car having a conversation about the afterlife. It occurred to me that a tire swing is kind of like heaven for a tire. After all the years toiling on hot roads, they finally get to kick their feet up under the shade of a tree in the company of children laughing and singing.  

I’m not saying that’s the greatest metaphor in the world. But up until that point, I’d never thought of heaven and tire swings as being similar. This is a simple example of paying attention to what’s going on around you––keeping your songwriter antenna up for unique metaphors happening in front of you.

You’re probably doing something today that you think is mundane. But that’s a great litmus test. The stuff that makes you bored is probably because you know it so well. But do others? Think of it from their perspective. Be surprised by the little details. Maybe you’re an electrician, and you’re very familiar with the attics of people’s homes. What’s it like up there? Write a song called “Attics” or “Insulation” and tell us how they represent some aspect of everyone’s life. Maybe you work the drive-thru window at McDonald’s. What do you notice people doing? What is it that you’re constantly doing that feels similar to something else in life. Are the same people coming through each day? Are there coworkers who get on your nerves? Tell us how a drive-thru is a metaphor for life in some way.