Lyric Writing Tip: Showing vs Telling - What does that mean?

Hi Songwriters, 

One of the themes that kept popping up is that people were doing more telling than showing. Many of us have heard the phrase, Show us, don't tell us. So what does that mean? 

First, all songs should have a mix of showing AND telling. Too much of either side will take some steam out of the song. So let's look at what each of those mean. 

  • Showing = descriptive, sense based language, picture words 
  • Telling = Emotions, direct statements of feelings, Ideas we can't see 

As a general rule, your verses will do more showing than telling, and you chorus will do more telling than showing. 

Songwriting is really just communicating a story. Think about how you communicate with your friends. You usually don't just tell them what you are feeling, you give them concrete details so they can connect more with your emotion. 

Example: You come in and say, "I am really angry right now!" Your friend would be like, "uh ok...so what happened." Then you would need to explain that your car blew up on 394 and then someone stole your bank card. OK, now the friend is like, "yeah that sucks! I am mad for you." You told, then showed in this situation. What if you came in and said to your friend, "My car blew up this morning, and someone stole my bank card, I am so angry right now." Your friend would instantly be right here with you and not have to ask questions. 

How does this apply to songwriting? It really means you should give concrete details first, then explain what they mean from an emotional standpoint. The emotion will stick when the listener can see what we are talking about. Many times as writers, we just write what we are feeling but give no context. Without context the listener doesn't care. They are not "in" our song. 

How many of you have written this song....I am amongst you, so it is ok: 

I loved you so much when we met 

Things were going so great 

I thought we really had this in the bag 

Then you messed it all up 

*this is ALL telling* - It is all mostly cliche as well. It has been said thousands of times and we are basically writing someone else's song. 

What if we said this: 

We strolled along 79th Street on cobblestones under glowing street lights 

You pulled me in close and said you can see us retired in rocking chairs 

The next week we picked out those shiny silver and black hills gold rings 

Then your iphone lit up with her name 

*this is showing* - I did not say anything about how these people were feeling, but you KNEW what they were feeling based on the descriptive language. 

If your verses do a good job of painting word pictures, then you can use telling language in the chorus and it means something. 

One extra trick when writing verses is to have 3 lines of Showing, then 1 line of telling. 

Learning to show and tell is not easy. We all get trapped in knowing too much about what we want to say that we don't effectively show the listener. So that is your new mission: Practice bringing your listener into the scene of your song. Practice showing us what is happening before telling us the emotion. 

Want more tips? Join me live the second Thursday of every month for a Monthly Songwriting Workshop Online. 

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