Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What Songs, Poems, and Prose Have in Common - or Should (aka "Show; Don't Tell!")

What kind of music do you like? Popular music? Rock and roll? Country and western? Hip hop? Rap? Disco? Maybe a tid from here and a tad from there?

Ever wonder why you like a certain song?  

Songs – songs from every genre – capture emotion – tell a story – encapsulate a moment.

Songs are little, candy-bar-sized packages of consumable sound. Tear open the wrapper, close your eyes, and sink your teeth into what you saw, and felt, and thought during a different time, even if that time was just ten minutes ago – or put words to the essence of the furor/joy/despair/longing that echoes inside your chest at this very moment. These delicious treats employ a calculated formula of words and music to wrap experiences, epiphanies, joys and sorrows, fury and rage, heartbreak and despair, and so on, inside just a few, collective bytes of sound.

In other words, songs help you organize and preserve your experiences, validate your feelings, and make sense of your world. (We could argue that they do lots of other things, too – such as offer potentialities, and we could list many other functions, real and potential, but since this isn’t philosophy or a course on the sociology of music, I’m going for the simple here, so cut me a little slack and just go with it, all right?)

How do songs do that? Capture emotion, and experiences, so adroitly? Have you ever wondered? How, exactly, do songwriters imprison – press to glass – a moment – and your attention? Win your loyalty? Make you spend your money, and your time, on them? What tools do they use?

And why in the hell am I, an author, musing about music?

Well, frankly, it’s this simple: music – and poetry, but I’ll get to that in a few – and prose share some characteristics, and require some of the same skills as prose, and I want to point one of those out.

Anyway – onward.

One of my favorite songs goes like this:

“Want to put my tender heart in a blender,
watch it spin 'round in a beautiful oblivion.
Rendezvous, then I'm through with you.

“I burn, burn like a wicker cabinet,
chalk white and oh so frail.
I see our time has gotten stale.
The tick tock of the clock is painful,
all sane and logical.
I want to tear it off the wall.
I hear words in clips and phrases;
I think sick like ginger ale;
My stomach turns and I exhale.”

(That’s from Eve 6’s “Inside Out,” in case you haven’t heard it.)

And now a question: How do you think the narrator is feeling?

Angry? Sure; I’ll buy that. Frustrated? Yep; I agree. Heartsick? Probably so. Sad? Yeah; I think so, too. It’s pretty clear, I think. I mean wow – do I get that. Exactly. I have so been there.

So – why didn’t he just say so? Say those words -- angry, frustrated, heartsick, sad?

Wait; wait. Does that seem like a silly – even stupid – question?

Well, it isn’t. I read this kind of thing in prose all the time: “I felt angry.” Or even: “I felt very angry,” or “I felt furious.” Or perhaps it’s “he dashed down the stairs with an angry look,” or similar. Or maybe something akin to: “it looked different, and she didn’t like it.”

Do those bits of prosewriting listed above knot your stomach? Raise your ire? Bring a tear? Really -- let's be honest here -- do you care one tiny bit about whomever I am referring to, no matter how angry they are?
Of course not. How could you? And I don’t think a lengthy explanation is necessary. You get it.

And now I want to bring poetry into this for your consideration as well. Poetry (and I mean literary poetry here), unlike prose, focuses very, very precisely on choosing just the right words to capture a connotation, an emotion, an idea, and it does that to convey a precise meaning – and to whet your appetite, and make your tongue wet your lips.

Let me give you two examples for comparison:

1. After listening to judge read the sentence, Bessie felt upset because Basil was to die at the ringing of curfew. Bessie walked to the sexton. “Curfew must not ring tonight!” she told him.

Now pry your eyes back open and compare that to this:

2. Wild her eyes and pale her features, stern and white her thoughtful brow,
As within her secret bosom, Bessie made a solemn vow.
She had listened while the judges read, without a tear or sigh,
"At the ringing of the curfew, Basil Underwood must die."
And her breath came fast and faster, and her eyes grew large and bright;
One low murmur, faintly spoken. "Curfew must not ring tonight!"

(That’s from one of my favorite poems, “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight,” by Rose Hartwick Thorpe.)

Okay. Sum up time, and let me put this as simply as I can. If you want readers – like me! – to care about your characters, to get into your story, to remember it, to identify with it, and to BUY IT, don’t tell me that she slipped and fell, or that his heart broke. Tell me that a fog cluttered the corners of her vision, and that the floor went crooked – and that as she felt herself falling, her hand shot out and missed the rail. That bile rose in her throat in the seconds after the back of her head bounced off the floor.

Now, on the other hand, don’t go on and on and on and on. And on. Find the best one or two descriptors – the ones that most eloquently – or starkly – portray what you’re trying to get across. And then use them. Make me feel it – make me tap my metaphorical foot along with the beat – if you want me buy, much less remember, your work.

The end.


  1. AWESOME! I always wondered about songs and why and how they can move me. This was very powerful with your words and your pictures! Wonderful job!

  2. That is why I love poetry and song lyrics - in a few choice words, everything is there to feel. :)

  3. Agreed - and I want my books to be just as compelling. To hit readers right in the gut.

  4. This has so linked in with this blog post I read the other day (given below), and I'm learning that it is so true. May my own writing one day be like this!

  5. That's a great post, Laurel, and thanks for sharing. I, too, hope to one day write as poignantly as a poet - or good songwriter.