When I was little, my mama worked the early shift at the seafood plant. She’d drop me off at my Aunt Janice’s house before dawn and they’d lay me down on a pallet in the living room. Country music played low on the stereo. I knew Charley Pride and Loretta Lynn before I knew words.
One of the first stories I ever learned by heart was “Ode To Billie Joe.” It’s not a true story. But it sure does feel like one.
We don’t study fiction much here at the Storyboard. But every writer can learn from music – not just rhythm and pacing and mood, but the poet’s efficiency a songwriter needs to tell a story in the short span of a song. Bobbie Gentry wrote a textbook here in 358 words.
Then think about all the narrative skills Gentry uses:
Concrete detail. It’s not just summer; it’s the third of June. (Technically still spring, but in Mississippi, trust me, June is summer.) The narrator’s brother doesn’t just remember teasing her; he remembers a frog down her back at the Carroll County picture show. And the key action in the story doesn’t just happen down by the river; it’s up on Choctaw Ridge, on the Tallahatchie Bridge.
One perk of being a songwriter: You can make up details that rhyme. But any reporter can become more convincing by nailing down particulars.
Dialog. Most of the details unfold in a conversation around the dinner table. Mama talks, then Papa, then Mama again, then Brother, then Mama one last time.
When you get people talking together, reacting to one another, coming from different angles, that’s closer to real life than you, the interviewer, asking questions.
Suspense. The nut graf comes at the end of the first verse: Billie Joe jumped off the bridge. But it’s not until the fourth verse (Child, what’s happened to your appetite?) that you start to understand how much Billie Joe means to the narrator. And then you learn they threw something off the bridge together.
Gentry chooses to leave the mystery unsolved – you never learn what they threw off the bridge, and why Billie Joe jumped. But that’s not so different than most of the narratives we have to write. Even in long stories, big questions often linger. We have to figure out how to write an unsatisfying ending in a satisfying way.
(For many, many theories on why Billie Joe jumped, go here.)
Imagery. If you’re looking to portray loss of innocence, your character dropping flowers into a muddy river ain’t a bad metaphor. Build scenes out of the small gestures that echo the big themes of your narrative.
Meaning. The story of “Ode to Billie Joe” is a suicide and the mystery that remains. At the beginning, the narrator sits down to a meal with her family. At the end, she’s on the bridge, alone. The song is really about secrets, how they isolate you, and how they can bend or break you.
Every narrative has a plot. Great narratives reach higher to make a point. The best let you in to work out their meaning for yourself.
“Ode To Billie Joe” came out in 1967. Since then it’s been covered time and time and time again. At least twomovies have been made about it. The real Tallahatchie Bridge – the one Gentry seems to have been thinking about – collapsed decades ago.
So go ahead – steal some of Gentry’s tricks, even if you’re sticking to the nonfiction side of the river. Bridges fall. Great stories last.
Tommy Tomlinson (@tommytomlinson) is a storyteller for The Charlotte Observer, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and a former Nieman Fellow. He presented on songwriting and reporting at the 2009 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.