Guest Post: Songwriting 101: Showing vs. Telling

by Clay Riedesel

One of the hardest lessons I ever learned came from the bonus DVD to a mediocre sci-fi movie called “Stealth.” “Stealth” is about a sentient airplane that kills people, and, as you can imagine, it wasn’t a very good movie. After I finished watching it with some friends I assumed that this was some big budget Hollywood flick that was shot in a weekend to make a quick buck.

I only watched the bonus DVD out of boredom. What I found out is that the entire movie was a labor of love. Thousands of hours and millions of dollars were put into transforming “Stealth” from an idea on a sheet of paper into a reality. And what was worse, it was clear that everyone involved really believed in this movie. Nobody thought they were wasting their time making a box office flop that would go on to score 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. Everyone was clearly proud of what they accomplished.

Growing up, I was always told making art was about passion. As long as you deeply cared about what you did and put all of your energy into making your dreams a reality, you could do anything. “Stealth” taught me that passion alone isn’t and will never be enough.

Humans are ignorant when it comes to mastering a craft. They don’t realize that there are strict rules you have to follow or your audience will feel cheated. Like a magician, a filmmaker relies on their audience believing in magic instead of thinking like a skeptic. People love coming up with armchair theories about why things work or don’t work, but rarely do they know. For the most part I’m no better. There are a lot of things I don’t understand.

But what I do understand is music, and I’m tired of ignorant people who enjoy poorly crafted songs. So in an effort to educate the public and get good music back on the radio again, I’m going to help you understand what makes music work, so hopefully you can enjoy it a little bit more. So pull out your notes and get ready for Songwriting 101!

Lesson 1: Showing vs. Telling

Every good fiction writer knows that you don’t tell an audience a story, you show them. Not that telling is bad, it just doesn’t belong in the art world. Telling is for lectures and research papers. Telling is about exchanging information. Art is about empathy. You have to show your audience what’s going on instead of telling them, because if you tell them, they’ll get bored, or worse, they’ll think about what you’re saying instead of trying to feel what you mean.

The difference between showing and telling is a subtle one. When you tell someone something, you give your audience a direct connection into your brain. Your audience takes a passive role listening and absorbing what you have to say. When you show someone something, “you” become invisible. For example, when you watch “Romeo and Juliet,” you don’t spend that time thinking about Shakespeare, you’re too busy rooting for Romeo and Juliet to hook up to care who wrote it. But when you listen to your philosophy professor lecture about René Descartes, you assume a submissive role to your professor’s intelligence and focus your attention on what he’s saying. Because it’s coming from his mouth, it doesn’t matter if he’s talking about someone else — you’re still listening to his voice and watching his actions.

So where am I going with this? Let’s take a closer look at songwriter John Darnielle, better known as The Mountain Goats. Why do people listen to his music? We’ve already established that people don’t like poorly crafted things, yet he’s a horrible guitarist, has no sense of rhythm or pitch, and has a nasally, limited vocal range.

John only has one strength, and that’s his ability to show. Let’s take a closer look at the song “This Year.” The first stanza goes, “I broke free on a Saturday morning/ I put the pedal to the floor/ headed north on Mills Avenue/ and listened to the engine roar.” All that happened so far is that John has gotten in his car and started driving, yet it feels like so much more. Why? We know he feels like his house is a prison because he “broke free” (aka he doesn’t feel “free” until he’s outside of it). We know he drives away quickly, which means he’s either eager to go somewhere, leave his house, or both. We know the time and place this is happening (Saturday morning on Mills Avenue) and that he can’t afford a nice car (his engine is roaring which means he can’t afford a car with a muffler). Let’s take a look at the next two lines: “My broken house behind me and good things ahead/ a girl named Kathy wants a little of my time.” Now we know where he’s going (to see Kathy).

Notice how much information John managed to cram in those six lines. He could have said “I left my house and drove to see Kathy.” By showing instead of telling, he not only managed to condense a lot of information into a small amount of space, but also presented that information in a way that aroused our senses. Listening to the song, you can feel the tension and excitement as John drives quickly to see somebody he cares about. You can feel the g-forces pushing him back as he drives, hear the old engine churn, and feel the muscles in your ankle tightly pressing down the pedal. By showing instead of telling, John allows us to feel instead of listen.

This Year – The Mountain Goats

Now lets take a look at the song “Save Me, San Fransisco” by Train. Here are the first six lines: “I used to love the tenderloin/ until I made some tender coin/ and then I met some ladies from Marin/ We took the highway to the one/ up the coast to catch some sun/ they left me with these blisters on my skin.”

So what do we know? The first line doesn’t really tell us anything. What does he mean when he says “tenderloin”? Is he talking about sex or steak? Whatever it is, once he started making lots of money he stopped caring about it, which makes even less sense. Because usually when you make more money you eat more fancy steaks and have more sex.

At least the third line gives us some info. Now the lead singer has met some women from Marin. We have absolutely no idea how he feels about this. Are they beautiful or plain? Is he eager to have sex with them or apathetic because of his money? All he tells us is that they all get into a car and drive to an unknown sunny location where he gets blisters. We have no idea what he was doing when he got the blisters, where they’re located, where the women went, or how he feels about this.

The reason the first six lines of “Save Me, San Fransisco” are so vague compared to “This Year” is that the lead singer of Train tells us instead of showing us what’s going on. As listeners, we grow bored of “Save Me, San Fransisco’s” verses, ignoring them while we wait for the catchy chorus. “Save Me, San Fransisco” isn’t a bad song, it’s just a lazy one.

So the next time you feel bored listening to the radio, ask yourself if you’re being shown what’s going on or being told. Chances are, you’re being told, and no one likes being told what to do.

3 Comments to “Guest Post: Songwriting 101: Showing vs. Telling”

  1. Good post Clay, and I agree with pretty much everything you say. Except, when I read the words of the Train song, I actually found them more interesting than the Mountain Goats song. The John Darnielle lines tell you everything and make perfect sense, whereas the song about the Marin girls leaves you guessing and makes you want to find out more, which I found more compelling.

    The only thing that ruined it for me was when I clicked the link, saw the Train video and heard the song. Ugh! Give me Mountain Goats any day!

  2. Is that Train song for real? I mean… Really.

  3. Train wreck, more like! I seriously though the opening lines looked kinda OK “on paper” when I was reading Clay’s post, but I quickly changed my mind when I heard the song.

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