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What tricks can writers learn from songwriters? Bob Dylan

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | Songbook

Derek Flynn

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A couple of weeks ago, I asked the question, “What can the great songwriter’s lyrics teach us about writing?” and I used Bruce Springsteen as an example. This week I want to look at one of the greatest songwriters of all time: Bob Dylan.

There are, of course, as many sides to Dylan as there are albums. There’s the traditional “rhyming couplet Dylan”, from the bizarre and almost child-like imagery of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

“Better jump down a manhole

Light yourself a candle

Don’t wear sandals

Try to avoid the scandals

Don’t wanna be a bum

You better chew gum

The pump don’t work

’Cause the vandals took the handles”

to the deep symbolism of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (both songs taken from the same album):

“Disillusioned words like bullets bark

As human gods aim for their mark

Make everything from toy guns that spark

To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark

It’s easy to see without looking too far

That not much is really sacred”

But there’s also the “expansive song lyric Dylan”, in songs that oftentimes come across more as short stories than actual songs. One of the most famous examples of this is the song “Hurricane” about the boxer Rubin Carter who was imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit:

“Pistols shots ring out in the barroom night

Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall

She sees the bartender in a pool of blood

Cries out ‘My God they killed them all’”

Another example is the song “Tangled up in Blue”:

“She was working in a topless place

And I stopped in for a beer

I just kept looking at her side of her face

In the spotlight so clear”

Both of these songs read less like the brief snatches of imagery that we get in normal song lyrics and more like a fully-fledged story, filled with characterisation, plot, and attention to detail. Dylan has touched on this in interviews:

“What I do that a lot of other writers don’t do is take a concept and line I really want to get into a song and if I can’t figure out for the life of me how to simplify it, I’ll just take it all, lock, stock and barrel, and figure out how to sing it so it fits the rhyming scheme. I would prefer to do that rather than bust it down or lose it because I can’t rhyme it.”

Writers who want to write tight and concise short stories, where every word matters, could do a lot worse than read the lyrics to these two songs, amongst others.

The most striking thing about Dylan is the way he never gives you the next line you think he will. No matter what you think is coming next, it never is. It’s in this way that Dylan can teach a writer a lot about the use of similes and metaphor. Dylan is never one to go for the easy metaphor. If a writer was to try to think of a metaphor for crying (as in “crying like a …”), what might they use? Here’s the metaphor Dylan uses in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”:

     “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun

Crying like a fire in the sun”

Or how to describe someone who has been beaten down and is at the end of their tether? Here’s how Dylan does it in “Shelter from the Storm”:

“I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,

Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail,

Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.”

Once again, he never goes for the obvious metaphor or image. You think you know the image he’s going to use, but he always uses something different. Finally, I’ll finish on perhaps my favourite Dylan line, one that I think shows just how extraordinary his use of imagery and metaphor is. From the song, “Visions of Johanna”, one simple line that tells us everything we need to know about the person he is describing:

“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”

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