I was in the car last week driving home from a meeting when a song came on that I’d listened to countless times in the past: “Crooked Teeth” by Death Cab for Cutie. It was released in 2005, so you kinda either jumped on that bandwagon or didn’t, but here it is for your listening pleasure. You’ll want to play this once. It’s relevant to this post, which will soon become a lesson in great writing.
Now, as I just wrote, I’d heard this song many times before. But for some reason, something clicked with me in a way it never had before. Eight years later, and this song was still doing new things. Remarkable.
Here’s a breakdown of my epiphany.
I’m listening to the first verse, which goes like this:
It was one hundred degrees
as we sat beneath a willow tree
whose tears didn’t care
they just hung in the air
and refused to fall, to fall
And I knew I’d made a horrible call
and now the state line felt like the Berlin Wall
and there was no doubt about which side I was on, mmm hmmm
I italicize the mmm hmmm there because it’s crucial. If you were to look up this song’s lyrics online, they wouldn’t even feature. But to me, this has always been a little nagging. The meter is simple, and clearly there should be two more syllables there. But Ben Gibbard, in his almighty wisdom, chose instead to hum.
Moving on, the chorus is pretty simple:
Cause you can’t find nothing at all
If there was nothing there all along
Repeat that twice, and there you have it. I emphasize the at all up there because it’s about to rock your face off.
Here’s the second verse, and the crux of this argument:
I braved treacherous streets
and kids strung out on homemade speed
and we shared a bed in which I could not sleep, at all
Do you see what they did there? Maybe I’m overanalyzing. Probably I am. But I think there’s something going on here that’s subtle and beautiful and poised to kick at your subconscious to make you want to hear this song again and again and again.
Because if you look at the rhyme scheme of the first verse, and consider the fact that there really should be two more syllables’ worth of lyrics at the end, and when you think about the context of the words themselves, it would really make sense if they decided to include the words at all there, wouldn’t it?
But, as the chorus says… You can’t find nothing AT ALL if there was nothing there all along.
It’s like they set your brain up to expect those two words there when they were never there in the first place, so you shouldn’t be looking for them. Because you can’t find them. Of course, this could all be a coincidence. Except that in the next verse, where the words at all don’t fit the rhyme scheme, THERE THEY ARE. Glaring at you. Snickering. Getting up in your head, kicking stuff around.
That, dear readers, is what you called delayed gratification. It sets the groundwork for curiosity by elegantly signaling your brain that something is a bit off, and then circling back when you least expect it. I’ve always liked this song, and I’ve never been positive why. I think this is why.
So, what does your common, everyday writer have to learn from this? Simple: learn to hold back every once in a while. Don’t show your entire hand from the outset. I often encourage my staff or my readers or anybody who will listen to me to keep things clear and simple when it comes to web writing, but clarity doesn’t always mean overstated boringness. Sometimes, it means a clarity of meaning, or a clarity of structure. It means giving the reader all the pieces they need to put your ideas together, but also offering a bit of wiggle room in the instructions.
Use a reliable rhythm. Identify a structure – even if it’s just a top ten list – and work within that structure to build something creative. Leave something out every once in a while, but be sure to come back and fill it in later.
In other words, don’t be afraid to realize that sometimes, great writing requires multiple reads. And, if it’s truly great, it can even demand them. We’re always so focused on grabbing attention quickly, getting in and out before anybody is the wiser. Why not take our time once in a while?