I love diving into craft and influence and the minutiae of this thing we humans do; telling tales. The who’s, the how’s, the why’s and wherefores.
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the mechanics of story. What makes a story a story? Sometimes a three hundred page novel can feel like a really long short story, and conversely a five line poem can speak volumes. I’m fascinated with how to tell a compelling and entertaining story as efficiently as possible. Famously, Ernest Hemingway is credited with his “six word story”:
For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.
A precursor to flash fiction, in which one tells a story in less than a thousand words, or even a Drabble, which is a story in one hundred words, the practice of stripping down a story to its bare bones elements and still giving a satisfying beginning, middle, and end has been a long held pursuit by many a writer keen on sharpening their pencil and their wit, of which brevity is said to be the soul.
To that end, I’ve been thinking about Jonathan Coulton, a singer-songwriter, whose songs are almost always complete little stories in and of themselves. More often than not, they even include a heavy dose of backstory, told in the most efficient manner of three minutes or less.
Re: Your Brains is the story of Tom, trapped in a mall during a zombie apocalypse, whose former co-worker Bob is giving him a reasonable offer to succumb to the inevitable.
Creepy Doll tells the story of someone being haunted by a… creepy doll.
Skullcrusher Mountain lays out the tale of a megalomaniac monologuing to the beautiful captive he wishes to woo. And yeah, he probably used too many monkeys.
He doesn’t limit himself to sad monsters either. NPR fans might enjoy his imagining of Soterios Johnson’s double life as a club kid, and math geeks can rejoice over his effusive ode to Benoit Mandelbrot. Je Suis Rick Springfield is THE Rick Springfield attempting to convince someone that he is indeed Rick Springfield (but is he really?) in poor Canadian French. I’m Your Moon is a beautiful love song from Charon to Pluto (yeah, the planetoids…) And every Winter Olympics, I have to play the only song about Curling I know of.
I haven’t yet heard a JoCo song or album I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed (and I own them all– except the latest album of covers, which I just discovered while researching this blog post, and I’ll be rectifying that directly.) They are always quirky, fun, and inevitably, a total bop. Most of the above came from a project he called Thing-A-Week, in which he wrote and recorded a new song every week for a year.
These are the kinds of challenges that will either make or break an artist. Not everything will be good (shockingly, even the throw away stuff he did like Mr. Fancypants is still entertaining) but you learn so much from the process. Pushing yourself to produce as much as you can in a set amount of time, whether fifteen minute writing sprints, or a painting a day for a month, or setting a daily word count goal helps keep those creative juices pumping, and primes the brain for staying in the flow state.
The key is to recognize the signs of burnout early enough to switch tracks before you hate yourself and your work.
For your consideration I submit perhaps my favorite Jonathan Coulton song, Blue Sunny Day. I have been listening to this song on repeat throughout my writing process, and have included it in every playlist for each book because it inspires me as a storyteller. I am in awe of this little story-song, and bow at JoCo’s feet.
In this early performance, he gives his thought process when he was writing this song. What I love about it is how skillfully he says everything without saying everything. This song is a masterclass in “show, don’t tell.”
He never (in the song) says, “I’m a vampire” but you KNOW it’s a vampire (although as he points out, it doesn’t HAVE to be.) It’s such tight storytelling. In a three and a half minute song, you get a clear picture of who this person is, what their motivations are, what came before, and where things end. I marvel at this little bit of literature disguised as a pop tune. This man is truly one of my artistic heroes.
And don’t get me started about his policies around Creative Commons licensing. (Believe me, I’ll be exploring this more personally as my books continue to roll out.)
Who is your favorite storyteller? What is your favorite example of efficient storytelling?
Here are the lyrics, though I totally encourage you to listen. It’s a DEFINITE BOP.
Blue Sunny Day
by Jonathan Coulton
Early light that burns my eyes
A minute more the sun will rise
And paint the bright blue sky with yellow gold
I’ll be dead asleep by then,
Shut up in this box again
Until it’s gone
Outside I can hear it
Birds are singing, bees are buzzing, sun shines overhead
I’d be there to see it, but I can’t get out of bed
Since the day you left the weather always feels this way
One more blue sunny day
Looking for an easy mark
I hit the Denny’s after dark
And take a lonely waitress home to drink
She’s sincere but halfway through,
I find I’m wishing she was you
My blood goes cold
I guess this date is over
Several hours later i’m the only one awake
All these streets are empty it’s just me and my mistake
One by one the stars go out, as black skies turn to gray
One more blue sunny day
Sometimes I see how long I can wait,
Tempting disaster by my garden gate
My trembling hand’s on the cellar door,
Trying not to think of what it is i’m waiting for
All at once I’ve had enough,
As if i’m made of sterner stuff,
I take a breath and open up the door
Dawn breaks hard and falls on me
For just one moment I can see
The pale blue skies
I close my eyes because the world’s so bright and beautiful I have to look away,
Braced against the beauty of another perfect day
As I go to pieces and the breeze blows me away
One more blue sunny day