Show, Don’t Tell
Jack Harris
23rd September 2015
Show, Don’t Tell

Earlier this month, with funding from Help Musicians UK, the English Folk Dance and Song Society hosted a creative residency for emerging folk musicians in the atmospheric setting of Snape Maltings in Suffolk, giving the participants the chance to learn from leading songwriters Steve Knightley, Nancy Kerr and Suzie Ungerleider. Reflecting on his experience, Jack Harris waxes lyrical about the art of great songwriting.

"Don't tell me the moon is shining”, said Anton Chekov, “show me the glint of light on broken glass." I’ve heard good writers bemoan the Russian master’s advice, but to me it still holds up. Turns out the Help for Musicians blog writing guidelines agree: when trying to engage people with words, it pays to show rather than tell.

It’s just as true of words and music. For me, the best songwriters are those who downplay telling us how they feel in favour of showing us something. “The moon stood still/ On Blueberry Hill.” Fats Domino’s famous couplet is simple and graceful. By showing us a moon ‘standing still’, as if paying attention, Fats invests a nocturnal scene with magic. He shows us how he’s feeling, rather than telling us. The line is enough to show he’s in love.

Other great writers have made similar use of moonlight. This is from ‘Don’t Let Us Get Sick’, by Warren Zevon:

“The moon has a face, and it smiles on the lake/ And causes the ripples in time.”

A song ago the moon was standing still, now it has a face which can smile. The glint of light on Chekov’s broken glass is now cast across a lake, and its image on the water becomes a meditation on the passing of time. It’s an image of reflection, in both senses of the word. Zevon is feeling grateful, contemplative, sanguine. Like Fats Domino, he’s also in love. And, like Fats, he’s showing us, not telling.

My friend and mentor Eric Taylor is great at this. Look at the first verse of his song ‘Texas, Texas’:

It was a night so hot,
I’d tell you if I could
How the moon set fire
To the cotton woods
How the horses called
From the river bank
And how the water boiled
And how they would not drink

I love the economy of these lines. There’s the moon again, turned arsonist. The horses at the river present a stark, beautiful image: there’s thirst here which won’t be quenched, and heat that is all-encompassing. Taylor doesn’t use the word ‘love’ or directly allude to feeling it until the very last verse, but we’re already pretty sure this will turn into a love song. The clarity and precision of imagery shows us, like the guiding light of the moon.

Writing with ‘show, don’t tell’ in mind isn’t the only way to make a great song, but to my mind it’s one of the most effective. It makes us really think about the lyric, asking us to reconsider the feelings in play, rather than simply accept some weary old platitude. It leads to wonderful images and ideas, rather than banal iterations of feeling. It’s just my feeling, but I still think that Chekov was right.

‘Don’t Let Us Get Sick’ is from Zevon’s ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’ album; ‘Texas, Texas’ is from Taylor’s ‘Ressurect’. You know where to find old Fats... 

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