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.


Destination writing is sense-bound free writing directed at a place, a person, or a time instead of an object.Andrea Stolpe


Learning To Recognize External Detail


Getting Started
Take 30 minutes and spend 10 minutes writing down details about 3 items.


Identify External & Internal Details
Once you’ve got a few written, go through with a highlighter and highlight external details. External details are things that describe what’s going on around the speaker/main character of the scene.

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.


Every adjective and adverb is worth five cents. Every verb is worth fifty cents.Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook


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.


Separate External Detail & Internal Detail
Next, take the highlighted items and dump them into a column. Take your remaining INTERNAL details and put them in a separate column:

    elderly man and his wife are walking
    wrapped in heavy coats
    holding her hand
    high school
    best blue dress
    coal dust
    seep into his hair
    nights out
    the baby came
    young girl became a mother
    came back from the war
    little girl
    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


Stolpe's Twist On The List
Your external column will become your primary verse content. It serves to erase the cliche scenes, bad symbolism and boring elements that so often find their way into songs because of a lack of a disciplined writing process (aka – the “blank paper and have at it” process).

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.