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What can writers learn from Gotye's songwriting in Somebody That I Used to Know? Write simply, about something knowable in a unique way, slap the reader with a surprise (in plot or tone), and include other people's perspectives. (Photo credit: eastscene)

THE LYRICS HAVE been paddling through my mind for four days.

Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.

Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.

In fact, I’m not a jump-on-the-bandwagon kind of gal. The entire time I lived in Thailand, I never bought a pair of Crocs. I still don’t have a Facebook page. When I smoked, I smoked Player’s Light, Filter, when everyone else had switched to Export A Gold. On the whole, I resist anything everyone else is suddenly doing.

Since Belgian/Australian singer-songwriter Gotye appeared on Saturday Night Live last week and performed Somebody That I Used To Know, the music video has had 175 million hits on YouTube and more than 500, 000 iTunes downloads. Radio stations have sandwiched the hit song into their hourly playlists. People everywhere are humming the lyrics.

It’s a hit. (And still, I like it.)

Why? And what can writers of other genres learn from Somebody?

1) Contrasting tones make the big event more striking.

The song starts with a xylophone solo. I imagine muppets dancing in the dark. The beat is quick, but light, and the xylophone’s echo evokes a playful feeling. Enter Gotye. His voice isn’t much more than a whisper. Now and then I think of when we were together. Still, the listener could be fooled into thinking this might be a song of bittersweet nostalgia. A swim in the past.

And then we’re thinking maybe things will lean more towards the melancholy. Gotye’s voice and his lyrics crawl: You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness. Listener taps her toes and thinks, Yeah.

Even when his voices pipes up in the next verse, even when Kimbra enters with her own side of the story in a hush, the listener thinks they know what kind of song this is. And then bam. Kimbra cries out at the top of her lungs: Somebody that you used to know.

Her volume and her idea catch us off guard, and catch us all the more.

Horror writers tend to manage this technique pretty well. They draw us into the setting, a night on anywhere street where families are washing dishes, and the lovely characters, a wheel-chair bound brother who plays guitar. And then we hear a scream.

Balance the beautiful with the horrible. It reels the reader in. It jerks them. It makes them part of the story.

Balance the beautiful with the horrible. It reels the reader in. It jerks them. It makes them part of the story.

Writers of any genre can achieve this affect with the volume, the pacing, and a quick twist in the plot.

2) Write about a topic your reader can relate to, but offer a unique perspective.

Unless you grew up a colony, you’ve probably had at least one experience similar that which Gotye sings about: A lover, who had something but not enough, and finally you said goodbye.

Somebody That I Used to Know

Somebody That I Used to Know captures the broken heart story in a contemporary, cutting and new way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So many songs are about broken hearts. So many love songs are really, really bad songs because they are riddled with cliches that make me too queasy to list here.

Gotye manages to capture an experience that is so knowable in the guts of humans, and expresses it a new, true, and simple way: Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.

For me, it’s the story of my relationship with Brian, with John, with Nung, with Tommy. One way or another, they all ended with this sentiment–that we were once together all the time and now we’re strangers–and I suppose most relationships do.

Like Gotye, writers should aim to tell their readers how they’ve been feeling as if you’ve actually crept into their minds and memories.

3) Simple lines are best.

I’ve always tried to adhere to the Strunk & White Style Guide’s rule to never use a three-syllable word when a one-syllable word would do. Writing with Plain English (hurts instead of experienced pain) is more effective because humans can relate to the concrete (a slap) rather than the vague (an act of physical abuse).

So I’m nowhere near the first to suggest writers strip their ideas bare, as Gotye did.

I don’t even need your love, but you treat me like a stranger/ And that feels so rough.


But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember.

Write honestly, and simply.

4) Lastly, consider more than one perspective.

Humans feel the same things, but in different ways, and it’s both a pleasant surprise and it makes a story come to life when an event is validated by two (or more) people.


The other side of the story, sung by Kimbra (Photo credit: Marms RTT)

Somebody first offers Gotye’s voice and recollection. From this, we think she must have been shitty. And then, a few lines later, Kimbra enters the scene. And she tells us he was shitty too.

This is real. Two people tied together, getting something but not enough, blaming the relationship’s flaws on him or her, and having little awareness about their own misgivings.

Even memoir writers telling their personal stories need to consider how an event would have been seen by someone else. All characters live in a world inhabited by other humans, some of which they hate and have slept with, and others.

What do you love about Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know? Anything else you think creative writers can learn from his songwriting?

(Lyrics from Gotye’s song Somebody That I Used to Know, from the album Making Mirrors, released in July, 2011)