59. Folkie Females of Flash Fiction and What Their Lyrics Teach Us About Story

Author: Nola Published: 5 months ago.
Tags: fiction, story, flash fiction, story arc, music, songs, lyrics, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, songwriting Category: Writing tips

Flash fiction includes stories of between six and 1000 words. With such tight parameters, you can’t waste anything. You have to jump in and make the best possible choices to establish your premise, character and setting. When you’re used to writing longer pieces, it can be hard to make the transition to flash. However, we could take a lesson from songwriters who manage to tell whole stories in just a few verses. Here are three of my favourites.

The Queen and the Soldier by Suzanne Vega

In this hauntingly beautiful song, a soldier tells his young queen he won’t fight for her anymore. However, he wants to know the reason behind all of the bloodshed before he leaves the battlefield for good. We see the queen’s vulnerability and think she may be persuaded to stop the killing. However, the song ends with her giving the order for the soldier’s execution while the battle continues. The song has a classic three-act structure: (i) The soldier poses the question, (ii) they enter into a dialogue, with the queen struggling over her decision, (iii) the queen’s choice is made and she has to live with it. The song has some ambiguity in that we never really find out why the battle must rage. We also know something painful has happened in the queen’s past: ‘I have swallowed a secret burning thread / it cuts me inside and often I’ve bled’. Her driving force could be power, fear of intimacy or something else. In any case, the song pulls us into the story and leaves us with an emotional punch. Like the soldier, we ask ‘Why?’ Like the queen, we wonder what might have been. You can read the lyrics here and watch the YouTube clip here (N.B. Just wait 15 secs or so for the clip to kick in).

Fast Car by Tracy Chapman

I first heard this song on the radio while driving my not-so-fast car to a shopping mall. When I reached my destination, I kept listening so I could find out the name of the singer with the remarkable voice. But I also wanted to know what happened to the girl in the convenience store who’d left school to look after her alcoholic father after her mother walked out. She wants a better life with the dude in the fast car, but life doesn’t turn out the way she plans. The cute guy spends his time down at the bar and history threatens to repeat itself. The song ends with her giving him an ultimatum to ‘make a decision / leave tonight or live and die this way’. Did he sort his life out? Did she leave him? Did they ever find that better life? Again it’s that emotional tug that draws you into the story. It’s a slice of life with characters who feel real. They have backstory, as well as a present and future. You can read the lyrics here and watch the filmclip here.

Amelia by Joni Mitchell

This song has a different story arc to the other two. It’s bookended by two descriptors that define the setting, starting with ‘I was driving across the burning desert’ and ending with the narrator pulling into the Cactus Tree Motel. The rest of the lyrics fill in her thought processes as she tries to deal with her former lover’s request that she ‘kindly stay away’. As she’s driving, she spots six jets overhead and thinks about her similarity to Amelia Earhart, ‘a ghost of aviation’ who was ‘swallowed by the sky’. They both have a need to fly, but somehow get caught between the ‘dreams and false alarms’ of life. Like a lot of Joni Mitchell songs, it can be appreciated on many levels and I don’t pretend to understand all the layers. However, the feeling the song engenders transcends meaning. What happened to Amelia? Will the girl find love? I want to know. You can read the lyrics here and watch the YouTube clip here.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing all of these fabulous women perform these songs live. Obviously the music is also critical in establishing mood, but the lyrics can stand alone. Thirty odd years later, they still rivet me in place. Can you imagine writing a short story that people could read again and again and yet feel that emotional connection every time? If you don’t think you can write a gripping story with few words, look no further than the master songwriters of your generation.

I’d love to hear about your favourite songs that tell a story. And Suzanne, Tracy and Joni—anytime you want to gig at my house, that’s absolutely fine. My writing group will be ready.

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