Inside A Songwriters Toolbox

If you’ve been writing lyrics long enough, you’ve been working with some basic things like color and detail, language, and painting a picture for a listener. Things like moving the action forward throughout the lyric and especially object writing become tools in your toolbox.Pat Pattison writes about object writing much better than I can, worth brushing up on).

The better you get and the longer you write, the more these tools become instinctive and the better your lyrics become. The idea has always been to make a listener see and feel what you do while still giving them room to make it their own.

In coaching and speaking at workshops the past few years, I’ve sometimes used my own songs to illustrate a few important points. The elements of good storytelling and some of the other practices I teach come into play with one song in particular.

A quick history: I love to walk down book aisles and see if titles stick in my head. I usually don’t open the books during these trips, just see what catches my eye and write it down for later. On this day I did open a book about British film, flipped the pages and a few things stuck out. One was the title of a 1985 film, Dance With A Stranger. I wrote it down and moved on.

I keep all these thoughts, lines, and potential titles on one long list and keep it close during writing sessions just in case something inspires me. It was the early 90’s and I was writing on my own for a few days, just trying to come up with a groove. My publisher had mentioned Tina Turner was looking for a couple of new songs to go on her upcoming greatest hits album. With no solid idea yet, I started playing feels that reminded me of her. A rough melody was working its way in there…but no more than that for awhile. 

I kept going back to my list of lines; and on a new day I sat down at the keyboard, let a loop play, and stared at the lines I’d collected. Dance With A Stranger just fell in there and began to turn into a story. I started to envision a woman, probably from the South, wanting to get away from a bad relationship. Maybe she’d go somewhere she could just get lost, listen to the sounds of a foreign city, stay in a hotel, go out at night and dance. Not looking to replace the guy or to have an affair…just human touch to help her get through the pain.

I was thinking New Orleans in the summer with those big old windows you could leave open and hear the sounds in the street. Along with adding color words and action phrases, I tried to paint a picture of the freedom in being alone and the need we all have for a human touch with no strings sometimes. Below, I’ve added some notes in a few places within the lyric that illustrate some songwriting basics; use of imagery and action, places I tried to use a common phrase a bit differently, and even a line in the pre-chorus to ground the lyric (in case the listener isn’t sure exactly what’s been going on).

Most of these tools were not ones I was conscious of at the time, but when I became more aware of them I tried to go back and be objective with my lyrics (and make sure I was really showing and not telling). I hope to get to the point someday where it’s just second nature like some unbelievable writers I’ve worked with who are true storytellers. Until that time I’m keeping my ‘toolbox’ handy! 

Torquil and Sting

Torquil and Sting

P.S.  My buddy Torquil Creevy (with Bugle Songs at the time) was a real champion of this song, and we did get it on hold for Tina’s greatest hits. Went out to lunch that day and celebrated...too early. At the last minute they didn’t record it. A few days later we got a call that Taylor Dayne loved it, wanted to record it, and would be calling me to change one line. Back in the game! The album was released in 1992—my first gold. Thanks Torquil!

Mark Cawley
Nashville, Tennessee

Top Image: Goggle Images


Dance with a Stranger
(words and music by Mark Cawley)

On a warm summer evening  (detail)

I'm dancing to the radio alone (makes you wonder, ‘who’s singing’?)

Don't need no conversation  (language, this is how the subject speaks)

Just the sound of a lonely saxophone (object writing, imagery)

Throw the window open (action)

Let the breeze take me away (action)

Ya see I gotta lose this ol' heartache  (keeping the language the same, staying in character)

Before the sun comes back to stay (different way of saying ‘before sunrise’)

I've been doin' my best to forget you (lead-in, grounds the lyric to draw listener in)

But I can't do it on my own


I need to dance with a stranger

Hold him in my arms

Close my eyes, make believe he's you

I need to dance with a stranger

To take my hurt away

Before I'm over you

Hear the city hummin' (object writing, language)

Grab my shoes and go downtown (action)

Won't need no invitation  (language, staying in character)

Just to hear the sweet, sweet sound (object writing)

And I don't want no man to ask me (language)

"Where you been all my lonely life?"  (twisting a common pickup line) 

Just wanna move real slow  (action)

And have somebody hold me tight

I've been doin' my best to forget you

But I can't do it on my own


BRIDGEI hear the heart is a lonely hunter (mix in a more poetic phrase, introduce something different)

And I believe it to be true

This heart is learning to forget

I ever fell in love with you