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The essence of story, in a 358-word song

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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.

Go listen to the thing first:

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.




5 comments

  1. posted February 24, 2012 at 9:34 pm | permalink

    Great piece Tommy. Good songs are models of narrative. Lately I’ve been very fond of a Sufjan Stevens song called Casimir Pulaski Day. It’s a sad, quite beautiful song. Anyway, thanks for writing this.

  2. Randy
    posted February 25, 2012 at 3:43 am | permalink

    I have always love this song at so many levels. I now begin to understand why. Thanks.

  3. posted February 25, 2012 at 10:50 pm | permalink

    Excellent post! I remember being absolutely mesmerized by that song. Always a good sign that a good story is being told.

    I’ll have to add the song to my classroom musical repertoire. A few years back, when I was teaching a first-year journalism class called “The Art of Writing,” I had students listen to two songs to illustrate my lecture on showing not telling. The songs were “All I Wanna Do,” by Sheryl Crow, and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” by Lucinda Williams. Both song writers did an exceptional job of giving the listeners something for all five senses. And reaching journalism students through fairly recent popular songs seemed a good way to demonstrate the points made in the lecture.

    This is another great example — even though it is an oldie but goodie. Thanks! I’m always looking for interesting ways to help journalism students be more engaging writers.

  4. Paige Williams
    posted April 5, 2012 at 9:15 am | permalink

    Thanks for the heads up!

  5. posted September 28, 2013 at 8:40 am | permalink

    I want to to thank you for this wonderful read!! I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it.
    I’ve got you book-marked to look at new things you post…

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  4. by The Essence Of Story, In A 358-Word Song | Gangrey.com on February 22, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    [...] Tomlinson deconstructs “Ode to Billie [...]

  5. [...] 8. “The essence of story, in a 358-word song” Sports on Earth writer Tommy Tomlinson unpacks elements of narrative via Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” [...]

  6. [...] on Earth writer Tommy Tomlinson, looks at the elements of narrative journalism via songs. His 2012 breakdown of “Ode to Billie Joe” was such a hit with readers, we’re developing his idea as a regular post. Narrative works [...]

  7. [...] Living and Garden & Gun. In his last musical-narrative piece for Storyboard, he wrote about “Ode to Billie Joe.” If you’d like to see him explore certain songs, drop him a line at [...]

  8. [...] haunted “third of June” cannot pass without calling out Tommy Tomlinson’s classic piece on the essence of story, via Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Tomlinson, a [...]

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