Most writing experts agree that it's best for fiction to "show, don't tell." Simply put, that means that a story should come to life like a movie or a virtual reality scene unfolding in brilliant detail in the reader's imagination. If you find yourself thrilled by a particular piece of fiction, chances are you are under the spell of a word-wielding wizard who knows how to put on a show.
Today, I experienced a "show, don't tell" epiphany. It came to me through my Bluetooth headphones, and it was music to my ears.
Listening to an iPhone playlist as my wife and I stained our deck, I was glad when one of my favorite songs began to play: "Fight Test" by The Flaming Lips. If you haven't heard it, please click below now and give it a try.
The story this song tells is one of a man who believes it's best not to fight, and he loses his love interest to the man he refuses to fight. I really dig this song. It's thought-provoking. It's got a fun vibe. And its propulsive sound is compelling. But it tells much more than it shows. Read the lyrics and notice the lack of details, the lack of visuals, the lack of a sense of being placed within a scene:
"The test begins... now!"
What occurred to me as I listened to this song and stained my deck was that "Fight Test" tells nearly the same story as Kenny Rogers' "Coward of the County," another of my favorites. If you don't know it, you're in for a treat. Have a listen here:
Now take a look at the lyrics for "The Coward of the County." Notice the specifics and the visuals that bring the story to life in the mind's eye:
Everyone considered him
Do you see how "Coward of the County" paints a picture whereas "Fight Test" only suggests an idea?
For example, "Fight Test" tells the listener about how maturity sometimes requires fighting: "Because I'm a man, not a boy, and there are things you can't avoid. You have to face them when you're not prepared to face them."
On the other hand, "Coward of the County" shows this idea by placing us in a scene: "The Gatlin boys came calling. They took turns at Becky, 'n there was three of them. Tommy opened up the door and saw his Becky crying. The torn dress, the shattered look was more than he could stand."
The story comes to life with specific people (Tommy and Becky and The Gatlin boys) in a specific place (a bar room) with specific visuals (a torn dress, a shattered look, a picture on a fireplace mantel, a locked door, a man knocked cold, falling to the floor).
Both songs are appealing, but only "The Coward of the County" was a number one hit song in several countries and inspired a television movie. The cinematic experience it creates takes an important idea and makes it memorable.
Winner: Kenny Rogers.
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.