Show—Don’t Tell: 3 Steps to Writing Better Lyrics
Our goal, when we share a song, is to evoke emotion in our listeners—to have them not only know what the singer is feeling, but to empathize—to feel the emotion. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is by bringing your audience inside the world of your song—showing them a scene unfolding—instead of simply telling them how the singer feels.
Writing lyrics that “show—don’t tell” is one of the basics of songwriting, and is one of the first things taught in almost every songwriting class. But for many songwriters, it’s easier to write lyrics that state how the singer feels. For example: “My heart is filled with happiness”; or, “I’m lonely and my heart is broken.” But while these statements clearly express what the singer is feeling, these types of statements don’t typically evoke emotion in the listener.
By incorporating three elements—action, imagery, and detail—into your verse lyrics, you can write lyrics that tell a story. Note that this tool is primarily intended for verse lyrics. In songs containing choruses, the chorus lyrics tend to be more general. Their function is to be a summation of the concept and to hammer home the title. Telling the story is the domain of the verses.
You might recall from elementary school that verbs are figures of speech that convey action or doing. By incorporating action words you ensure that you are avoiding simply stating feelings.
An easy way to include action is to identify the emotion you are hoping to evoke then ask yourself, “What would a person do if he or she were feeling this?”
Instead of saying, “I’m missing you and my heart is broken,” you might write lines that show what missing someone and being heartbroken looks like.
- I hug the pillow where you used to lay your head
- I clutch a tear-stained picture of you
- I drove to the club where we used to hang, but I couldn’t walk through that door
- I wipe the tears that keep running down my face
Note the action words—the verbs in the examples above: “hug,” “clutch,” “drove,” “walk,” and “wipe.”
Similarly, instead of saying, “I’m in love,” show what a person in love does by writing lyrics such as:
- I wrote your name and mine inside a heart
- I keep singing your name like a favorite song
- I read your text that said “I love you” at least a hundred times
The action words—the verbs in this example are: “wrote,” “singing,” and “read.”
Note that the first lyric examples never actually stated, “I miss you,” or “My heart is broken.” Nor did the second examples say, “I’m in love,” or “I’m happy.” They didn’t need to—because by “seeing” what the person in the song is doing the listeners are able to surmise how he or she feels.
To master the tool of incorporating action it can help to imagine you’re writing the script for a video, and the actors’ actions will be based solely on the words of your lyric. If you write, “my heart is breaking,” you have not told the actress what she is supposed to do to show this.
A listener cannot “see” what it looks like when a heart breaks. But if you write, “She fell to her knees as he packed his bag, and tears ran down her face”—this is something a listener can visualize. The actress knows that she is supposed to fall to her knees and cry.
Imagery refers to things that be can seen. Words that convey images are nouns. Note that some nouns—such as “heartache,” “sadness,” “happiness,” and “joy”—do not represent things that are tangible. They are descriptions of emotional states. Effective use of imagery entails including words that describe things that can be seen or touched.
While you cannot see “heartbroken,” you can see the images and actions that convey that a person is heartbroken. For instance:
- He falls to his knees and lays flowers on her grave
- She sits in his chair and wipes her tears with a tissue
- He kisses her photo
The images in the examples above include: “knees,” flowers,” and “grave”; “tears” and “tissue”; “photo” and “lips.”
The inclusion of these images help to show that the character in the song is heartbroken. The listeners are better able to empathize with the character’s emotional state because the lyric allows them to envision the character and the items around them, as well as the action taking place.
By including tangible items in your lyrics—things such as: furniture, clothing, a car, a house, a specific place, food, and other concrete nouns, you enable your audience to enter your song.
Detail is the third component that will help you to show what is occurring—instead of telling how the singer or character in the song feels. By including adjectives and adverbs—or adjectival and adverbial phrases—you further describe the scene, allowing your listener to visualize it more clearly. The inclusion of detail also contributes to making your lyric unique and distinctive.
By adding detail to the examples above we can further engage listeners.
- He falls to his knees and lays flowers on her grave – or – He falls to his knees on the cold, muddy ground and lays white lilies from her garden on her grave
- She sits in his chair and wipes her tears with a tissue – or – She sits in his old rocking chair and wipes bitter tears with a wet, crumpled Kleenex
- He kisses her photo – or – He kisses the photo he took of her laughing that weekend they went camping at Reelfoot Lake
Instead of using words like “pretty” or “beautiful,” provide a description. What interests you more?
She could turn every head when she walked in the room
She was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen
More beautiful than any words could ever say Like she’d stepped right out of my wildest dream
She had a jet-black ponytail
That curled around a butterfly tattoo
Black stilletto heels, white string bikini top And eyes that could make a sky turn blue
Incorporating Brand Names
Incorporating brand names (i.e., Ray-Ban, Levis, Calvin Klein) and the names of businesses (i.e., McDonald’s, Walmart, Dairy Queen) can be an excellent way to infuse details into your lyrics. For example, countless songs have mentioned brands of cars such as Chevy, Ford, Mercury, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz——but is it legal? No—but you won’t be sued as long as you present the product or business in a positive light. Your song essentially becomes a free commercial.
Additional Hot Tips: Establish a Time and Location
Specifying a time when the action is taking place can help you to tell a story—instead of telling how the singer feels. A line of lyric such as, “It was 3 AM on a rainy winter night” almost demands that you continue the story—to describe what happened next.
A time doesn’t have to be exact. It could be:
- The hottest day of summer
- The September sun was right above my head
- It was the middle of the longest night of my life
Placing the character in a specific location is an additional tool that can help you to tell a story. Knowing where the action is taking place can also make it easier to include detail. Is the character in his or her bed? On a roller coaster? In a supermarket? At a nightclub? In an airport? At a restaurant? In a cabin in the woods?
- I was sitting in my truck
Underneath a streetlight
Outside the house that used to be ours
- The sun peeked above the ocean
As I woke up on a beach in Waikiki
To view some lyrics that include exceptional use of details check out:
- I Drive Your Truck (recorded by Lee Brice; written by Jimmy Yeary, Connie Harrington, and Jessi Alexander)
- Last Friday Night (recorded by Katy Perry; written by Max Martin/Dr. Luke/Bonnie McKee/Katy Perry)
- Terms of My Surrender (recorded and written by John Hiatt)
- Irreplaceable (recorded by Beyoncé; written by Amund Bjoerklund/Mikkel Eriksen/Tor Hermansen/Beyoncé Knowles/ Espen Lind/Shaffer Smith)
- Night Changes (recorded by One Direction; written by Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Harry Styles, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson, along with Jamie Scott, Julian Bunetta and John Ryan)
There are no rules in songwriting, and I’m not implying that you should never tell how you feel in a lyric. Countless songs have become hits without the benefit of this tool. But it’s an important tool to have in your proverbial toolbox.
Detailed stories filled with “pictures” are the cornerstone of the lyrics of Nashville’s current hits—but as you can see from the lyrics referenced above, this tool can help set your songs apart in every genre. Infusing your lyrics with A: action, I: imagery, and D: detail can be the ticket to deliver your lyrics to your listeners’ hearts—and your career to the next level.
Jason Blume is the author of This Business of Songwriting and 6 Steps to Songwriting Success (Billboard Books). His songs are on three Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. One of only a few writers to ever have singles on the pop, country, and R&B charts, all at the same time—his songs have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Gipsy Kings, Jesse McCartney, and country stars including Collin Raye (6 cuts), the Oak Ridge Boys, Steve Azar, and John Berry (“Change My Mind,” a top 5 single that earned a BMI “Million-Aire” Award for garnering more than one million airplays). In the past eighteen months he’s had three top-10 singles and a “Gold” record in Europe by Dutch star, BYentl, including a #1 on the Dutch R&B iTunes chart.
Jason’s songs have been included in films and TV shows including “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Assassination Games,” Disney’s “Kim Possible” “Dangerous Minds,” “Kickin’ it Old Skool,” “The Guiding Light,” “The Miss America Pageant,” and many more. Jason is in his nineteenth year of teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters workshops. A regular contributor to BMI’s Music World magazine, he presented a master class at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and teaches songwriting throughout the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, the U.K., Canada, Bermuda, and Jamaica.
After twelve years as a staff-writer for Zomba Music, Blume now runs Moondream Music Group. For additional information about Jason’s latest books, instructional audio CDs, and workshops visit www.jasonblume.com
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