You’ve probably gotten song critiques that suggest you need more furniture in lyrics to give the song a stronger sense of showing versus telling.
To do that, you’ll use a combination of external detail and internal detail. But, how much is too much?
And, how do you make sure that it still sounds melodic and not like someone describing how to work a can opener – in other words, too instructional?
And where the heck are you supposed to get these details?!
Great news – I’ve got an external detail process for you to help add “furniture” to your songs, and most importantly, to know when to stop!
It’s also a fantastic system for getting past the whole pesky “second verse hell” we’ve all experienced.
To See External Detail Write Every Day
In her book Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling, Andrea Stolpe writes about a technique you may find helpful in avoiding a blank piece of paper, making tea and waiting for the muse to show up on a Sunday afternoon.
I’ve written before about Object Writing, which is a term Pat Pattison uses to describe taking a few minutes every day and writing in great detail about an object.
Andrea Stolpe encourages the same technique, but uses a slightly different focus. She refers to this songwriting process as Destination Writing.
And, you don’t have to choose a process. I would encourage you to try both and see which works the best for you. Who knows, you may employ them each for different outcomes.
An internal detail is something that’s going on within the speaker/main character, like what they think about a situation or how they feel about it – heart and mind observations. The perspective is internal.
Let’s look at an example I wrote, with the EXTERNAL details highlighted.
A couple going through life – an elderly man and his wife are walking down the sidewalk . It is cold and they’re wrapped in heavy coats .
He’s holding her hand , as if they’ve forgotten they’re in their seventies now. They’re back in high school – him in his varsity football jacket , and her in her best blue dress .
They’ve known each other forever. Maybe they should have dated other people, but back in those days, it was your lot in life to marry when the time came. There were hard times, when the coal dust would seep into his hair and stain their world with nights out and drinking . Women too.
Then the baby came , and a young girl became a mother . He came back from the war a different man, not the man she had dreamed about as a little girl – her knight in shining armor : the perfect man to live a perfect life with, not a man who could one day be a better man and lead a better life. How things change!
Admittedly, this could probably be more detailed, which will be fairly common when you first start your object/destination writing, but notice that almost all of the words are nouns or verbs.
The reason? They can add intense imagery and emotion without long passages, i.e., high value. And, if you only have three verses and a chorus you need as much rich, contributory language as possible to give your song texture, depth and emotional connectivity with the listener.
elderly man and his wife are walking
wrapped in heavy coats
holding her hand
best blue dress
seep into his hair
the baby came
young girl became a mother
came back from the war
knight in shining armor
couple going through life
they’ve forgotten they’re in their seventies
they’ve known each other forever
maybe they should have dated other people
your lot in life to marry when the time came
stain their world
there were hard times
a different man – not the man she had dreamed about
the perfect man to live a perfect life with
not a man who could one day be a better man
lead a better life
how things change
The internal column becomes the portion of the lyric that helps define the song, i.e., why it’s worth writing and listening to.
One thing you’ll want to keep in mind is that too much external detail or too much internal detail can cause problems. The trick is to find a balance.
Stolpe gives a great example in her book Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling.
Example of a verse too heavy on External Detail:
The mud from our shoes
left prints on the floor
and the rain on the stoop
spilled in as it poured
the shingles were flapping
the windows were clapping
but we stayed inside safe and warm
Example of a verse too heavy on Internal Detail:
Baby we could say what we feel
and do what we say
remember why we’re together
and look forward to forever
then nothing can stop us
nothing can tear us apart
with these two hearts
If you think you might have a verse with too many internal details, try to punctuate it.
Most people unconsciously put punctuation into a sentence when listening, so, if you can’t punctuate a verse, it’s probably too general for someone to follow.