Writing a Killer Second Verse

2019-09-05 Essay


by Alec Plowman

I used to hate second verses. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the hardest part of a song to write. I don’t have a problem coming up with choruses, and the first verse usually follows soon after. But verse number two was always a major stumbling block.

The challenge with a second verse is creating something that’s as impacting as the first, but different enough that it advances the narrative, or the emotional mood of the piece. If it’s too close to the first verse, you repeat yourself. But, if it goes in a completely different direction, it can feel completely out of place.

I’m a prolific lyric writer… of choruses and first verses. For the longest time, I put off writing the second verse of a new song until the very last minute. In fact, I often scrawled those words in the vocal both, literally minutes before recording.

A few months ago, I decided enough was enough; that it was time to tackle the second verse issue head on. And, by forcing myself to sit down and really work on it, I’ve developed a few tricks to make the writing it a straightforward process.

To show you how it works, I’m going to take you step-by-step through how I write a second verse, using a set of my own lyrics as an example.

The words are from a song called “I Choose Violence,” which my band, Monster City, is about to record.

So without further ado, let’s dive in to technique number one…

Map out syllables

One of the biggest problems I had with second verses was getting them to fit the structure I’d established in the first. I could come up with words, but when I came to sing them, I couldn’t fit them to the music. I’d be cramming too many words into a line, or excessively stretching syllables to make them fit the pattern. These were words that looked fine on the page, but came apart at the seams in practice.

On “I Choose Violence,” though, my approach became more methodical; I sat down and worked out how many syllables were in each line of the first verse, and then marked those syllables out on a page in my notebook.

The first line of the first verse, for example, is:

“I take it back, the things I’ve said, this demon I have made.”
Mapping that out into individual syllables, it looked like this:

“- - - -, - - - -, - -- - - -“
Knowing that I had fourteen syllables to play with in the first line made things much easier; I was no longer overwhelmed by a blank canvas. Suddenly, I had boundaries. Some people argue that limitations stifle their creativity, but they really make me focus.

Within a short space of time, the words “RE-TAL-I-ATE, SO-FULL-OF-HATE, THE-PILLS-I-DID-N’T-TAKE” were down on the page, and I had a start to a second verse that fit the structure of the first. With that, I was well on my way.

It may seem overly analytical, but syllable mapping is a great way to set the boundaries for your second verse. And, once you know your limits, you’re no longer overwhelmed by ideas.

Recycle strong lines

As I mentioned in point one, starting with a blank canvas is challenging. So it goes without saying that thinking about the second verse as a blank canvas is a mistake.

One of the traps I used to fall into when writing second verses was disregarding everything I’d written in the first. I was hung up on the idea that my second verse needed to be completely different. It’s true that your second verse needs to advance the story, but throwing your first verse out of the window:

a) Gives you more work
b) Usually means your second verse doesn’t fit the rest of your song

When writing “I Choose Violence,” I came up with a way around this problem. I wrote out verse number one, highlighted the lines that I thought worked the best – the most impacting phrases that summed up the feelings of the song – and carried them over to the second verse:

“I take it back, these things I said, this demon I have made,
It was my first mistake, a last mistake, which brought you here.
I’ve seen this room; I’ve walked this floor, the confines of my cell,
Now I’m a bitter man, a broken man, but I am better than this.”
From here, I applied my syllable mapping technique, but left those lines from the first verse intact. I ended up with this:

“Retaliate, so full of hate, the pills I didn’t take
It was my first mistake, a last mistake, - - - -,
- - - -, - - - -, the confines of my cell,
Now I’m a bitter man, a broken man, - - - - - - -“
Now, I had a much stronger sense of what my second verse was going to look like. My first line was locked in, and I knew which lines from verse one I wanted to repeat. From here, it was more-or-less a case of filling in the blanks until I had a first draft of verse two… then a second. And then, in a couple of hour’s time:

“Retaliate, so full of hate, the pills I didn’t take
One more mistake that seals my fate, I’m gripped with fear.
Here in this room, I’ve locked the door, the confines of my hell.
But still a broken man can make a stand, my fists are clenching.”
You’ll notice that the lines I recycled from verse one changed a bit by the final draft. This brings me on to point number three…

Riff on what’s already there

Unsurprisingly, given that I recycled several lines, the first draft of my second verse ended up pretty similar to verse number one. In the past, I would have panicked at this point, junked what I’d written and started again. I’m glad I didn’t, because there was actually plenty to work with.

The trick to creating a compelling second verse that advanced the narrative of my song, it turned out, was through subtle variations on the motifs that I’d already established. Take the second line, for example. In the first verse, it goes:

“It was my first mistake, a last mistake, which brought you here.”
I carried over “it was my first mistake, a last mistake” to the second verse, changing the final part of the line to “I’m gripped with fear.” Redrafting, I realized that referring to a “first” mistake in the second verse didn’t make sense: you don’t make a first mistake twice. So I changed that part of the line to “one more mistake.” It wasn’t a mammoth effort, and created a logical sense of progression. From there, the phrase “that seals my fate” came pretty naturally – it escalated the sense of desperation from the first verse, which I liked – and, hey presto, line number two was locked in.

I repeated this process for the two remaining lines. For line number three, “the confines of my cell” became “confines of my hell” – once again, escalating the desperation – and I worked backwards from there. “Here in this room, I’ve locked the door” was effectively a repurposing of the original words from verse one, but having our protagonist “lock the door” was distinct and moved things forward. For the final line, I added “and now my fists are clenching.” I liked the image – this character finally fighting back against this hell of their own making – but the whole line felt clunky. I ended up with “still a broken man can make his stand, my fists are clenching.” It was much tighter, and having the character “take a stand” really brought home the clenched fist image that followed.

So there it is, my tried and tested method for writing a killer second verse. It served me well on “I Choose Violence” and has worked time and time again on the songs I’ve written since. It ain’t rocket science or divine intervention, but then, most good writing isn’t.