Somewhere on the dreaded I-95 in Maryland on the way home to New Jersey Sunday night, my wife and I were listening to a classic rock station and the Who's "Who Are You?" came on the radio. After the beginning with the jangling guitars and repeated choruses of "Who are you?", there comes the first two lines of the story.
"I woke up in a Soho doorway. A policeman knew my name."
For some reason I had my writing hat on I thought, "Yes!" That's all you have to say. What brilliant writing!
If I were writing that scene I'm sure my first draft would have been something like, "He was drunk. He smelled like piss and soot. His raincoat was soiled and crumbled beneath him. He lay half asleep in the doorway of a Soho row house. A policeman poked him with his nightstick. "C'mon, John. Be a good lad. Time to move along."
And I could go on on and on and it would be okay. But those two lines do it so much better. Think what that one line says about a guy waking up in a doorway, "A policeman knew my name."
I know it's a song and we typically think of songs as a different animal than narrative writing, but that's the kind of writing I aspire to in anything I write.
I heard the same sort of brilliance at an Al Stewart concert last month when he sang his incredible "Roads to Moscow."
In this song, a young soldier in WWII manages to get through four years of war and devastation. Finally the war is ending and he is going home on the train with all his fellow soldiers when...
"And now they ask me of the the time that I was caught behind their lines and taken prisoner
'They only held me for a day, a lucky break,' I say;
He sings this quickly. You can feel the rush of the soldier's excitement, the words spilling out and then the next line:
"They turn and listen closer"
"They turn and listen closer."
Don't you feel your neck hairs stick up and the words, "uh, oh," form in your reader brain? What a great and simple way to show (not tell about) the suspicion and paranoia of his superiors. Really? They only held you for a day? Some lucky break allowed you to be set free? You wouldn't be a spy now would you? I wonder what you told them?
I wanted to stuff the words right back in the young soldier's mouth. I'm sure he did too because the the next lines are as follows:
"I'll never know, I'll never know why I was taken from
the line and all the others
To board a special train and journey deep into the heart
of holy Russia
And it's cold and damp in the transit camp, and the air
is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon
And I wonder when I'll be home again and the morning
And the evening sighs, and the steely Russian skies go on
I hope I can write stories or even just sentences as succinct and telling. I think sometimes it pays to listen to great music and read those lyrics and consider how we can work like that in our own genres.