Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Song Lyrics--Part 3

Yesterday in looking at the lyrics of "The Right Side of Wrong," we established all the groundwork laid for the story in the first two stanzas. We talked about how we as listeners (or readers, if this were a book) are pulled to empathize with the two protagonists. I think we'd all agree that by the first two stanzas, we're with these guys, foolish as they might be in what they're planning.

Then the song cuts to the chorus:

I got a half tank of gas, and if we run all the lights,
We'll slip across the border on the wrong side of right.
And just like Butch and Sundance, we'll ride until the dawn,
Sipping whiskey, singing cowboy songs On the Right Side of Wrong.

Interesting, the elements that happen here. (1) The first line ups the ante of the underdog nature of the protagonists. Everything has to go perfectly right for these guys. They have no plan B. They don't even have gas to spare. All the lights better be green so they can keep on going. My immediate reaction is, sheesh these guys are never gonna make it.

As a novelist, how could you translate the effect of the chorus's first line into a plot point that would up the ante for your protagonists?

(2) The second line is the first time we see that the protagonists know deep down that what they're doing is wrong. They admit that, even if they make it, they'll be on the "wrong side of right."

(3) Line three is a reaction from line two, as if the protagonists don't want to face that moral reality. So they pull back from it, begin to romanticize what they're doing. They're likeable guys, like Butch and Sundance. (Never mind that those two got blitzed in the end--let's not talk about that.)

(4) Fourth line continues the romanticizing. It'll all be cool! We'll drink and sing, life will be merry! And look at the final chorus phrase: on the right side of wrong. Wow. What a turnaround from line 2. They're totally lying to themselves at this point. Rationalizing what they're doing.

Fascinating inner conflict. How could you use a similar type sequence in a book?

Next stanza:

We picked a helluva of a night, from the shore I see the skyline.
In a couple of hours from now, Rick, we're gonna get out of this life.
We'll stop for smokes. I brought a six pack. We'll stop at lookers on the way back.
We'll laugh this off, keep your fingers crossed that all goes well tonight.

This whole stanza is more romanticizing. Everything is fine and dandy. They're obviously now on their way. I can picture these guys in their car, talking about how fine the night is and how great life's going to be. For me, it's at this stanza when I know they're not going to make it. They're not focused on what they have to do. They're too busy dreaming. It has the feeling that something drastic is going to go wrong.

I'm so empathetic with them at this point that I'm not even thinking, well, they never should have attempted a robbery in the first place. Instead, I'm thinking, drat, if they don't get themselves focused and make a few better plans, they're going down. Now--if this stanza had come sooner, it would have make these guys unlikeable. I'd think--not only are they immoral, they're just plain stupid. But by taking the time in the first two stanzas to establish their plight and their strong Desire to overcome that plight against all odds (the underdog effect), the story has led me to like these guys enough that when I see their frailty and stupidity, I feel sad for them.

I think this is a key point for us novelists, esp. as we deal with protagonists who may not be that likeable. We do have to take time establishing what is likable and understandable about them before we layer on their more difficult characteristics.

Back to chorus, then next stanza:

We'll make the grade, they'll know our names. I need a friend to drive—here,
Wear my necklace of St. Christopher and talk to him while I go inside.
I'll take that suitcase, get the cash and we'll be gone before you know.
Wait until we tell the girls we're moving down to the Gulf of Mexico!

The time to "do the job" is approaching. For a minute they get serious, but by the last line it's back to dreaming again. Although I have this sense that now the moment has come, these guys really are scared, and the last line of the stanza is self pep talk. What's so sad about this last line is that it reminds us of everything that's at stake. If these two guys are caught, their families go down with them. They will ruin many lives. I think of their wives, who probably have no idea what they're up to. This heightens the tension again--so much to lose.

At this point, the song goes into a guitar solo. Good place for it, storywise. It makes us dwell in the crisis, pulls out the tension as to what will happen. Never a good thing to rush through the crisis.

Final stanza:

A friend of a friend needed a favor.
Life was just what happened while we were busy making plans.
We never saw nothing. There was a run-in.
.9 millimeter steel was coming for the windshield of that Oldsmobile
As the cop said, “Show your hands!”

Here's where it all goes wrong. I get the sense they might have pulled it off had they not lost their focus. But they were too busy making plans. And I, law-abiding citizen that I am, feel sorry that they've been caught. I see the sadness for so many people, the waste of it all.

The song ends again with the chorus, which is a poignant reminder, because it puts us back to the moment when the guys were dreaming big and felt on top of the world:

I got a half tank of gas and if we run all the lights,
We'll slip across the border on the wrong side of right.
And just like Butch and Sundance, we'll ride until the dawn,
Sipping whiskey, singing cowboy songs On the Right Side of Wrong.

So few words, yet a full story. One that makes us empathize with protagonists who have questionable morals, dreams based on lies, and bottom line, aren't all that bright. Now if I'd come to you and said I'm going to write a story about two protagonists with those features, you'd probably think no way you'd care what happens to such folks. But a mere song, in less than 200 words, did make us care. I say if a song can make us empathize with characters who on the surface sound unlikable, we should be able to pull off the same in a novel. And this song has given us a few techniques on how to do it.


Becky said...

We-ell, Brandilyn, I can't argue with the techniques about making unlikeable protags likeable. That's good stuff. But I gotta admitt, these clowns never won me over. The only point I felt sympathetic was with the wife and kids and not enough money lines. Combined with a friend of a friend in need, I thought, This guy has a good heart. But when the song goes on with the "dreaming" part, and all he can see is PAR-TEE, I started not liking him so much. Also, I took the running lights to be red or green (too many car chases in LA, I guess), so I was seeing him as abandoning all mores even before they pulled off their crime. All sympathy gone. Guess I was a little glad they didn't get shot up.

But this is me, without the music.

Doesn't the music play a significant part in how we feel in a song? And maybe in novel writing too, if we pay attention to creating lyrical prose???


~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Becky, you've hit on a significant point. I'll discuss it more tomorrow. I wonder if others weren't hit as strongly by the song either, again because they didn't hear it. After all, the tune is the VENUE for the story.

~ Brandilyn

Robin Caroll said...

Too bad I can't add a guitar solo in my book! Oh..wait....that's called a hook chapter ending! LOL

Camy Tang said...

For me, the emotional impact is the sick feeling of knowing things are not going to go well for these guys.

They fantasize and then reveal glimpses of vulnerability (the St. Christopher line), but it's all just that technique of setting the characters up for failure. They're riding high, thinking things will go well, but I as the reader know that means just the opposite is going to happen.

Maybe it's their delusions that dig the sympathy deeper, because I don't like seeing a nice guy fail. It's all in the timing. I felt sympathy for them before they started doing all that stupid fantasizing, so the fantasizing actually makes me feel even worse for them.