Writer Wednesdays

Writer Wednesday: Learning from Music

If you’re going to write short fiction, particularly flash fiction, I encourage you to turn on the radio before you start.

Find an old country or folk station and just listen for a while.

I promise I’m not trying to torture those of you who prefer your music a little more, well, whatever older music isn’t (the word I use is “boring,” but I digress). What I want you to do is listen to the lyrics.

A lot of songwriters are master storytellers.

Ballads and classics are where this shines through. They use an incredible economy of words to make stories just as powerful as anything writers can turn out. 

For example, Robert Earl Keen uses 508 words in his song “The Road Goes On Forever,” and tells a story as strong as any flash fiction piece. I’d argue the story is even better than some bestselling books.

And it’s not an outlier. Shel Silverstein penned the Johnny Cash classic “A Boy Named Sue,” another fantastic story. Same with songs like Asleep at the Wheel’s “Hot Rod Lincoln,” Dustbowl Revival’s “Lampshade On,” or the Patti Loveless classic “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (I prefer Brad Paisley’s version, but the song is more associated with Patti).

So what do these words have in common besides economy of words?

Well, in many cases, they take advantage of tropes to move the story along without needing a ton of description. They can use a limited number of words to give you a vivid mental picture.

Returning to “The Road Goes On Forever,” take a look at the first twenty words:

Sherry was a waitress at the only joint in town,
She had a reputation as a girl who’d been around.

When I hear Keen sing these lyrics, I can see a blonde, tattooed, impoverished Sherry sitting in her run down trailer putting on her makeup. Her work uniform is stained. There’s probably a mangy dog trying to get in her room, and her dad is asleep in his recliner, empty beer cans littering the floor around him as a daytime talk show plays in the background. As she gets up to leave, she checks the pocket of her apron and pulls out a crumpled napkin with a guy’s number written on it. 

Twenty words produced eighty-one in my mind’s eye. 

Ain’t that a trick?

Another thing they do is they keep the story focused. “A Boy Named Sue” has a single narrative the lyrics follow tightly, from an upbringing in poverty to a confrontation in a Gatlinburg saloon. Every bit of information given is critical to driving the story forward. As a writer who lives by the credo “omit needless words,” a lyricist’s ability to do so is a definite plus.

Finally, they limit the number of characters to what is needed. In “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” there are three. In “Lampshade On,” there’s one. “Hot Rod Lincoln” alludes to multiple additional characters, but when it comes down to it, there are two, maybe three the story focuses on (the narrator, the other driver, and the police officer).

These principles that create great songs can also be applied to short fiction. So kick back, turn on the radio, and get to writing!

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