What novelists can learn from song writers

Joe Moore

Last Friday, a giant in country music passed away. George Jones was not only considered by many to be the greatest country singer of all time, but also one of the most self-destructive. His string of hits was fueled by a private life of booze that was nothing short of gj-1devastating. Once when his wife hid the car keys so he couldn’t go buy alcohol, he hopped on a riding lawn mower and rode it into town to the liquor store. He later parodied the story in a music video.

But despite the long chain of events that few mortals could survive, George Jones climbed to the top of the mountain and made a place for himself that will forever be the gold standard in country music.

His life was a soap opera that was mirrored in the songs he sang. His struggles with the demons of alcoholism are reflected in some of his album titles: “The Battle”, “Bartender’s Blues”, and the defiant “I Am What I Am”. But out of this self-inflicted carnage of a tragic life, one song emerged as arguably the greatest country song ever written: “He Stopped Loving Her Today”.

The song is performed with the singer telling the story of his "friend" who has never given up on his love. He keeps old letters and photos, and hangs on to hope that she would "come back again." The song reaches its peak with the chorus, telling us that he indeed stopped loving her – when he finally died.

It’s poignant, sad, and paints a heart-wrenching portrait of absolute love and devotion, as well as never-ending hope. Not only does it drill to the core of emotion, but it delivers the story with the few words.

So what does this have to do with writing books? Everything.

It’s called the economy of words—telling the most story with the least amount of text. It is an art form that songwriters must master, and novelists must study. There is no better example of the economy of words than in a song like ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’. Not one word is wasted. No filler. No fluff. Remove or change a word from the song and the mental picture starts to deflate. The story is told in the most simplistic manner and the result is a masterpiece. Every word is chosen for its optimal emotional impact. Nothing is there that shouldn’t be. It is a grand study in how to write anything.

I’m not suggesting that your 100K-word novel be written with the intensity of George Jones’ song. In fact, if it were, it would probably be too overwhelming to comprehend. But my point is that no matter who you are—New York Times bestseller or wannabe author, your book contains too many unnecessary words. If you can say it in 5 instead of 10, do it. Get rid of the filler and fluff. Respect the economy of words. Less is more.

For those that love George Jones, enjoy this video. For those that have not heard “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, click the link, listen and learn.

He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones


31 thoughts on “What novelists can learn from song writers

  1. Country music is not my first choice but I loved George Jones. Three of my closest friends and I made a pact that when the Possum died we would stop whatever we were doing, meet up, and raise a glass. And that we did.

    Besides the gut-wrenching sad songs, he sang some of the most light-hearted as well. “White Lightening”, “The Flintstone Song”, and “The Corvette Song” are three of my favourites.

    Good advice, Mr. Moore. Songs are two minutes stories with a hook and a rhythm. Interesting.

  2. Excellent post, Joe. I love the storytelling of country music. It can be funny, visual, and poignant. I also love how you connected writing to creating imagery through music lyrics. Very true. Lyrics can be great story inspirations, for sure.

    • Definitely. Several country lyrics have added emotional elements to scenes of mine for the imagery value. One involves a lover that a guy sees at the bottom of every glass. Or a guy who wants to be propped up next to a jukebox when he dies, so his buddies can pay their respects a quarter at a time. Or a guy who wants to go fishing, but when his girlfriend tells him he can’t go–that it’s fishing or her–he sings “I’m gonna miss her.”

  3. A well-written country song is a writing lesson anyone can learn from. The best could be used as treatments for excellent novels in th right hands. There are half a dozen Delbert McClinton songs I’d love to base stories on.

  4. Great post, Joe. Jones in around three minutes created a classic. The odd thing was that he didn’t even want to record the song initially. I’m glad that cooler heads prevailed. That story about the tractor is but one of many colorful stories surrounding the man. He walked a tightrope for decades. Thanks.

  5. You’re right, Joe. He pretty much hated the song when he first heard it and refused to learn it. He said no one would like such a sad, depressing song. Good thing he was into singing and not marketing.

  6. Never a big fan of Jones, because I have never been a fan of country music, but I teach poetry from the starting point of music, and I use artists ranging from Metallica to Public Enemy to Rise Against to Flyleaf to Brad Paisley to Tupac Shakur to Nina Simone. I do so for the same reason, because each and every word matters, and it’s important to be able to pierce that veil and understand the emotion, context, and usage of each one of those words to get the full force of the poem. Same is true of story. Great post, Joe.

  7. Great work on your part, Jake. I wonder how may kids who love rap music realize they’re learning the most modern form of poetry? Whatever it takes!

  8. “Economy of words!” Absolutely, Joe. When the music is playing through a story, the reader just floats away. Now THAT’S entertainment.

    Music is always an inspiration for me.

  9. Great post Joe. I’ve found the same compact thoughts in other music as well.

    My favorite is Gladys Knight’s great hit Midnight Train to Georgia. The first line always gets to me. Here it is.

    LA proved to much for the man.

    • Good example, Brian. We can find great stories and storytellers in most music genre. Country seems to always be consistent in the story-telling game.

  10. I always appreciate the economy of words advice. But I also appreciate the words of Pat Conroy: The cool, hard sentences of Hemingway were spare and shapely, but his sentences were trays of ice to me. I never could enroll in that it-is-true-and-good-and-spare-and-find school of American writing.

    Of course, he loved his adjectives too.

  11. Compression specialist George Jones, welcome to the next world. Please meet expansion specialist Thomas Wolfe (there’s matchup for you).

  12. I love good descriptive, evocative imagery that comes from clean writing both in music and in text.

    Get to the point quickly but still draw the fullest picture from the reader’s / listener’s mind, that’s the goal.

  13. Perhaps we should all be required to write a song version of our novels before tackling a full-length manuscript.

    I’m a freelance editor and just finished two separate nonfiction manuscripts written by authors whose word economies are suffering from severe inflation. My eyes are crossed, my shoulders ache and I did babble in the corner for a short while yesterday.

    I love reading authors who have the gift of powerful brevity. Many of my favorite authors do, and I recently finished reading “Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger. Excellent word economy there, and I highly recommend the book.

    Thanks for the post, Joe!

  14. This was a great dialog. I enjoyed reading the post and I am pleasantly surprised to see that I am not the only one who gets inspiration from music. Sometimes it is to get into a time period, or character’s attitude but just as often I get a seed of an idea from a song. The old country song “Elusive Dreams” recently inspired a short story, though I changed the story teller to a teen who’s father dragged the family all over, the original idea came from remembering that song. Thank you for this post. I grew up on country and remember ‘The Possum’ well.

  15. When I first heard the song Whiskey Lullaby, I longed to write with such finesse. “She put him out like the burning end of a midnight cigarette.” “He put the bottle to his head and pulled the trigger.”

  16. And I’ve met Kent Krueger and he will be so appreciative of the read . . .

    I could not agree more with this post. When I wrote a set of articles about flash fiction, I used Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” as a way to describe characters and infer their motives without ever using ordinary adjectives.

    Was a little too tall
    Could’ve used a few pounds
    Tight pants, points, hardly reknown
    She was a black haired beauty with big dark eyes
    And points all her own sitting way up high
    Way up firm and high

    No doubts there at all about their appearance or what is on their mind.


  17. I was lucky enough to see Jones perform in 1998. He was famously averse to visiting New York City, so my wife and I went to one of his shows at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. All due respect, I think these are his best lyrics:

    As you turn to walk away
    And as the door behind you closes
    The only thing I know to say
    It’s been a good year for the roses

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