Writing a song is easy. Writing a good song, however, can be a huge challenge. In this blog, the music production experts at Nashville Demo Factory welcome you into The Songwriter’s Studio—a blog series giving you tips to become a better songwriter. In today’s lesson, we’re going to cover one of the trickiest topics in songwriting: showing vs. telling.

The Art of Showing

This is the number one rule for writers in any medium, and one of the most difficult rules to follow. Showing your listeners how you feel instead of telling them how you feel is a difficult concept to unpack, so allow us to explain with a familiar country tune:

Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” with telling instead of showing (not the actual lyrics):

My man loves a girl named Jolene / It’s making me sad / I hope she doesn’t steal my man / Jolene

Now here are the actual lyrics, doing a great job of showing instead of telling:

He talks about you in his sleep / And there’s nothing I can do to keep / From crying when he calls your name / Jolene

“He talks about you in his sleep” puts you inside an actual moment—”shows” you the way into someone else’s life. Through this lyric, we learn that Dolly Parton’s man is in love with Jolene—she doesn’t have to say it outright. The “there’s nothing I can do to keep / From crying when he calls your name” lyric achieves the same thing—by learning that she’s crying, she doesn’t have to tell us she’s sad because, well, we know she’s not crying tears of joy.

Still not sold on the concepts of showing and telling? Think about it this way:

Your friend delivers some great news—you’ve both won an all-expenses-paid beach vacation for a week in Jamaica! How would you naturally react?

The “telling” reaction: With a straight face, you turn to your friend and say “That’s great. I am very surprised and happy about this.”

The “showing” reaction: Your face lights up, you scream “woohoo!” and you give your friend a big hug.

What’s the difference between these reactions? The “telling’ reaction has no action—it’s only relaying obvious facts using adjectives like “surprised” and “happy.” The “showing” reaction is based around action—by screaming “woohoo!” we get the idea that you’re surprised and happy.

That’s all we have this week for The Songwriter’s Studio. Check back later for more songwriting tips!