Over the years, one of the lessons I've found hardest to teach my journalism students is, when writing about any person, action, or event, to rely not on adjectives (“the greatest and best”) or subjective interpretation (“the most terrible I’ve seen…”) but to paint pictures that help the reader draw their own conclusions about the subject.
This concept of showing, not telling is occasionally called the golden rule of writing,
The technique has been closely associated with several famous writers. Russian novelist Anton Chekhov was said to have written: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." (Unfortunately, Chekhov never actually said those words*—though the point is still valid.) Ernest Hemingway had his theory of omission—commonly referred to as the iceberg theory—where he used the simplest language possible to describe events which had a much deeper, unspoken meaning below the surface.
The advice I most often find myself sharing on this topic comes from another of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis, who wrote in a 1956 letter to Joan Lancaster:
In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was ‘terrible,’ describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was ‘delightful;’ make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, ‘Please, will you do my job for me?’
Of course, storytellers are not just writers. They work in every medium: Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, is a story of alienation and despair; the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, adapted from a James Thurber short story, is the hero’s journey of a daydreamer struggling to reconcile his actual life with the adventure-rich one he dreamed of before his father’s death.
Two of my favorite songwriters, Bruce Springsteen and Jason Isbell, happen to also be among the best storytellers in music today. Their song lyrics are raw, symbolic, picturesque, devastating, and beautiful. But don’t believe what I tell you. Listen to them for yourself.
Here are four songs—two by Springsteen, two by Isbell—which embody the concept of showing, not telling at its best.
Overseas (from Isbell’s 2020 album Reunions)
When I first listened to this song, without paying close attention to the lyrics, I was reminded of “Dress Blues,” a song Isbell wrote in 2007 about a young soldier killed at war. Except, in this case, the song is written from the perspective of the soldier’s wife.
Because few things with Isbell are ever that straightforward—because he forces you with his storytelling to consider perspectives that are not autobiographical but which he fleshes out as if they were—that’s not at all what the story is about.
Instead, “Overseas” is the story of either a wife and mother, or a husband and father (depending on how you interpret it) writing to their spouse, a refugee living in either Europe or the United States. It’s a heartbreaking story. But Isbell doesn’t tell you it’s heartbreaking. He paints the heartbreak, showing you the hopelessness, love, and anguish in fragments of pictures.
“Overseas” starts in medias res (in the middle of things), a technique used by writers like Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke). Isbell sets the scene in the country where the spouse who is writing has remained. The big reveal is at the end, when the spouse writing the letter says:
Does your heart rest easy where you are? /
And do they treat you like a star? /
Or do they call you (a) refugee /
Isbell wrote “Overseas” while he and Amanda Shires, his wife, were on separate tours. “He took that disconnected, disconsolate feeling and fictionalized it into a tune about a couple that have split up and now live literally an ocean apart,” a reviewer for Variety wrote after Reunions was released. My favorite comment about the song came from a user on Reddit, who calls Isbell’s songs “films in 4 minutes.”
The Promised Land (from Springsteen’s 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town)
So many of Bruce Springsteen’s early songs (“Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Dancing in the Dark”) focus on the theme of leaving.
Springsteen he grew up in the industrial town of Freehold, New Jersey (about an hour from where I was raised, in Bayonne) and came of age during the Vietnam War. I didn’t listen to much Springsteen growing up. I knew his greatest hits, as most people who have ever been to a bowling alley or a bar in Jersey do. I found myself diving deeper into his discography after watching the film Blinded by the Light, based on the book by Sarfraz Mansoor, a Pakistani-British writer whose life was changed by Springsteen’s music as a teenager in Bury Park, England.
The idea for "The Promised Land" came to Springsteen during a road trip he took in the Utah and Nevada desert. Before he had the verses, Springsteen had written the chorus to the song:
The dogs on Main Street howl 'cause they understand /
If I could reach one moment into my hands /
Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man /
And I believe in a promised land.
The song’s protagonist is a garage worker wrestling with whether to leave town or stay and keep working for his father:
I've done my best to live the right way /
I get up every morning and go to work each day /
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold /
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode.
At first it’s unclear whether he stays or goes. Because the song, like so many great songs, isn’t about the decision. It's about the tension of deciding: escape for the mythic promised land or build your own right where you are. The answer, as in our real lives, isn’t obvious.
Speaking about the song in a documentary about the album years later, Springsteen said it mirrored a lot of what he was going through in his life at the time. He was unable to record a new album because of a lawsuit. He felt like he was letting down his band members. It was a moment of despair and frustration, and he poured that into the song’s fiction.
The revelation of the character’s decision comes in the third and final verse.
Well there's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor /
I packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm /
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down /
That ain't got the faith to stand its ground /
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart /
Blow away the dreams that break your heart /
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted.
While it appears he's gone, Springsteen revealed that he didn’t go anywhere. He packed up and got ready for the fight right where he was. He faced the obstacle, as heroes do, and he allowed it to blow away the fairytale that the grass is greener somewhere else. Those are the lies that leave you “nothing but lost and brokenhearted.”
Speed Trap Town (from Isbell’s 2015 album Something More Than Free)
Another song written in scenes and images, “Speed Trap Town” is the story of a small-town boy whose father, a state trooper known for trying to pick up women during his shifts, is slowly dying in the hospital. The boy is fed up. He’s ready to go. But, as in Spingsteen’s songs, he’s wrestling with the decisions he needs to make.
Does he take his dad off life support?:
The doctor said Daddy wouldn't make it a year /
But the holidays are over and he's still here /
How long can they keep you in the ICU? /
Veins through the skin like a faded tattoo
Does he leave everything behind to start a new life?:
And it never did occur to me to leave 'til tonight /
And there's no one left to ask if I'm alright /
I'll sleep until I'm straight enough to drive, then decide /
if there's anything that can't be left behind
Isbell, speaking about how he wrote the song, said he started with the opening scene in the grocery store about a woman trying to be helpful, though she’s really being intrusive:
The narrator obviously has a problem, but what’s the problem? As I wracked my brain, I remembered a chief of police in a town that was on 60 Minutes for being the worst speed-trap town in the nation. It was a scandal when he married my cousin’s ex-wife, because they’d been seeing each other while she was still married. So I said to myself, ‘What if the narrator’s father was a state trooper and wasn’t the most responsible father? What kind of realization would it take for the narrator to decide to leave that town?’
Isbell wrote a few versions of the final chorus, which he shared with his wife Amanda, who told him, in the way all great women do, “I think you already know which is the best.”
Atlantic City (from Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska)
While I do like Springsteen’s original acoustic version of the song, I’ve spent the past five months listening to Isbell’s cover of the song, from Live From Welcome to 1979, at least 50 times a week (or more).
Springsteen's "Atlantic City" was recorded in just four takes. It's a story of a young couple in the days after Philadelphia crime boss Philip Testa was assassinated in his home. The song's protagonist is a man who can’t make ends meet. He tries to persuade his girlfriend to leave with him for Atlantic City, where, at the time, gambling provided young couples a way to quick money and escape. Risking death was a part of the deal you made with the devil.
The chorus became so iconic that New Jersey governor Chris Christie referenced it during an appearance on Saturday Night Live after Hurricane Sandy devastated the coastal areas of the state in 2012.
Everything dies, baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
My favorite lines from the song, however, come in what is the third verse of Springsteen’s version and the second bridge of Isbell’s. It can be read as a letter from the man to his girlfriend. While he can't find work, he's agreed to do a job for the mob to help them come out on the right side of things.
Now I been looking for a job, but it's hard to find /
Down here, it's just winners and losers and /
‘Don't get caught on the wrong side of that line’ /
Well, I'm tired of coming out on the losing end /
So honey last night I met this guy, and /
I'm gonna do a little favor for him.
*What he actually said, in 1886, in a letter to his brother, was: "In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball."