Lately I’ve become interested in flash fiction. It’s (comparatively) easy to write an unrestricted short story, but when you add an arbitrary restriction — 1,000 words, 500 words, or less — the writer must make an effort to drop unnecessary words, and rely more heavily on the reader to fill in the blanks.
Songs are not really flash fiction. They are more like poetry: they usually have stanzas (verses), a meter (beat), rhyme, etc. On the other hand, they share some characteristics with flash fiction. Songs on the radio nowadays are typically a few minutes in duration, and many of them tell a story in that time.
That made me wonder: if I were to take some of my favorite songs from the radio, and interpret them as flash fiction, what could I learn from the songwriters? I think the question is interesting enough to deserve an answer.
(Note that although I have no intention to do so, the same argument could be made for TV commercials, which are typically limited to 30 seconds or less.)
First up: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, performed by The Band Perry.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is copyright © 2013 by Republic Nashville Records, a division of UMG Recordings, Inc. It was recorded by The Band Perry for their 2013 album Pioneer.
Normally, I would quote liberally from a written work when writing an essay about it. Given the short form nature of songs, though, I would likely end up quoting the work in its entirety.
I do not know if quoting an entire work falls under fair use, even for review purposes where I have clearly attributed the lyrics to the copyright holder. Therefore, I have tried to limit any quotes to a minimum.
If you have never heard this song, I encourage you to watch “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” on VEVO, where it has been legally uploaded by its copyright holder, to gain context.
According to Wikipedia, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely was written by Sarah Buxton, Rodney Clawson, and Chris Tompkins. Each is an accomplished songwriter in his or her own right, credited with multiple songs recorded by several top-40 country artists.
In terms of flash fiction, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (which I shall refer to as the story) runs about 320 words. The definition of flash fiction varies, but if we take 1,000 words as a cutoff, this story fits easily within that limit.
The action of this story is broken into three parts, separated by the chorus. A story typically does not have a chorus, but since I’ve chosen to interpret the song as flash fiction, there’s bound to be some weirdness in my interpretation.
Please forgive me if I lapse into the editorial “we” in the analysis. For some reason, it’s very natural to use “we” rather than “I” while analyzing the song. Additionally, I will try to refer to the song using prose terms (paragraph, story) rather than poetic or musical terms (verse, song), except where this is not possible.
Part I sets up the premise of the story.
From the first sentence, we know that the narrative is first-person: our narrator is describing her own situation. (That the narrator is female is only made clear due to the nature of the medium: Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry provides the vocals.) This first-person perspective allows the narrator to reveal her story from an intimate perspective, providing insight about her own thoughts and feelings.
In the first paragraph, we learn that the narrator is longing for something, expressed in terms of redemption: “a saving grace / a hiding place.” There is a hint of despair: “I don’t have forever or time to waste.” This concludes with the titular plea: “don’t let me be lonely.”
In the next paragraph, the narrator continues in terms of freedom rather than redemption. I particularly like the “shake this winter coat off my sleeve” imagery, because the metaphor expresses much in a few words. Anyone who has lived in a cold-winter climate understands the bulky restrictiveness of a winter coat, and the desire to “shake [it] off my sleeve.”
Further, the time to metaphorically shake off a winter coat would be at the end of winter. The arrival of springtime carries its own connotations, particularly spring fever — a restless desire to venture out and be active.
The next line continues this idea. Country music in particular associates youth and freedom with cruising in cars and listening to music. The narrator yearns for an image of youthful freedom.
The plea “don’t let me be lonely” is repeated twice in the second paragraph. Repetition is common in poetry and songwriting, but seems to be uncommon in the flash fiction that I have read. Word economy — packing a lot of meaning into a few words — seems opposed to repetition. Is this something to consider when writing flash fiction?
At the end of two paragraphs, we now have an image of the narrator as a young woman, lately cooped up for too long, and with an unrestrained desire to burst free.
A question arises from the first two paragraphs. We already know that the narrator is a young woman: Kimberly Perry performs the vocals, and the narrator’s restlessness and spring fever support this. Her youth is confirmed (or strongly implied) in this paragraph.
Yet in the first paragraph, she states “I don’t have forever, or time to wait.” The repetition of “don’t let me be lonely” also conveys an urgency (which is wonderfully expressed in Perry’s vocals). If the narrator is so young, what is her urgency?
In this paragraph, the narrator justifies herself. Even though she is young, she is savvy enough to understand that youth does not last, so even though she may have her whole life ahead of her, her youthful days are numbered.
This is another metaphor that I like, because despite the urgency expressed throughout the song, the metaphor also suggests an understanding that there is such a thing as youthful excess: we can fly as youths, but we “trip on clouds, ’cause we get too high.”
(The line could also be a drug reference, of course — “trip on clouds ’cause we get too high” conjures up some images from my college days — but given the rest of the song, I interpret it simply in the context of being high on life.)
We’ve reached the chorus. Prose tends not to have a chorus, and this goes doubly so for flash fiction, which eschews repetition in favor of word economy. There is still an aching need, repeated throughout the song: “don’t let me be lonely.”
The chorus continues the (stereo)typical country images of youthful freedom and cruising.
In my mind, this is not a love song. The narrator doesn’t care where she’s going, and doesn’t seem to care whom she goes with: her enjoyment simply comes from driving somewhere with someone. If it is a love song, it is dedicated only to the love of youth and the freedom of being young.
I also find it interesting that part of the narrator’s desire is a surrender of freedom. If she simply wanted to go out, she could drive herself: she has a car, and she has the keys. Instead, she wants to turn them over to her companion.
It is not freedom per se that the narrator wants, but the freedom to lose herself in someone else. This echoes the first line: “I need a saving grace / a hiding place.” The narrator wants to take refuge, not in a place, but in another person.
I have a lot of trouble understanding this, and at the risk of sounding chauvinist, I wonder if this is a “woman thing”, or even just a “young woman thing”? I personally would be extremely uncomfortable making myself vulnerable to another person in this manner, yet the narrator (and Perry as the vocalist) seem genuine in this desire. Maybe someone else could provide additional insight into this.
The chorus (and its repetitions) serve to reinforce the main theme of the story. Carpe diem… or in this case, noctam.
Part II carries on from the premise given in the first part of the story.
The chorus may have covered up a time skip. In Part I, the narrator expressed that she wanted to experience the freedom of cruising with an unnamed companion. In Part II, we find her and her companion out cruising together, enjoying the night, yet painfully aware that morning is coming.
The car metaphor begun in Part I concludes: the night “rolls on”. The night itself doesn’t roll on, but time rolls on like a car, and the car rolls on through the night. I suspect there’s a literary term for this type of construction, but memory fails me. Double implied simile?
By associating nighttime with “a long lost friend,” she ties into the idea of spring fever, and breaking free. The night, and the youthful freedom it represents, is an absent friend, now returned. Once again, though, time is against the narrator and her companion. In a violent but evocative image of sunrise, the narrator tells us that her time with her companion (and her “long lost friend”, the night) will end with the coming of the sun.
While examining the chorus, I mentioned a question that confused me: why is the narrator so willing to surrender herself to her companion? The next paragraph addresses this, but doesn’t fully explain it in my mind.
The narrator says “[t]here’s nothing to hide and nothing to prove.” At first, this seems to conflict with her earlier need for “a hiding place.” After all, what use is a hiding place if there’s “nothing to hide?”
However, we learned in the chorus that her hiding place is actually a person. The narrator wants to believe that she has found a person with whom she can just be herself: she can take refuge in this person and share herself without the need to hide or to prove anything.
In fact, she expects this to be reflexive. The narrator expects this sharing to be mutual. It may even be that she is urging her companion to feel free to share. “Nothing to lose,” could be interpreted in a couple of ways. Either it is a statement that the narrator will not judge her companion, thus the companion will not lose her… or a reminder that this is just a youthful excursion that will soon end, thus he will lose nothing more simply by opening up to her.
So the narrator expects this surrender to be mutual, perhaps as a prelude or a part of falling in love (though again, this is not really a love song). I still have quite a bit of trouble understanding this sort of voluntary vulnerability.
Part III concludes the story. Actually, the song ends with a couple repetitions of the chorus, as is typical with songs, but the essence of the story is wrapped up here.
There is no resolution here: we never find out what happens at the end of the night. All we get is the narrator picking up on her thoughts about youth, begun in Part I.
The narrator says “[w]hen you’re young / [l]ife’s a dream.” A dream is ephemeral: we dream it, and then it ends. Here, the narrator provides a reversal: it is not life that is a dream to the young, it is her ephemeral youth that is a dream in her life. By mixing up youth and life, the narrator once again reveals the urgency she feels throughout the song. She associates life with youth, and also associates growing up with loss or death. Since youth passes quickly, the narrator wants to make the most of her youthful years.
This is the shortest section, excluding the chorus. It provides no closure on her relationship with her companion, because the relationship itself doesn’t matter. What matters is to enjoy her freedom with someone she likes: to make memories that she will carry with her after her youthful days are long over. This is not a love song: it is a song about living life while you’re young.
Thoughts on Flash Fiction
In flash fiction, word economy tends to be paramount. Every word must carry meaning, and I have not seen significant use of repetition to reinforce ideas in flash fiction. However, despite the frequent repetition, this song’s word count is only about 320 words. Certainly repetition for its own sake would run up a story’s word count unnecessarily, but I expect there may be times when effective use of repetition could hammer a point home, even while keeping word count within the arbitrary limit for flash fiction.
As with many songs, I enjoy the use of imagery and metaphor to paint a picture in few words. This is a technique common in poetry, particularly in the Imagist school. I believe this is something I should work on in my own prose.
Another key aspect is the use of stereotypes to convey meaning. Overall, the entire song embodies the stereotype of the youth yearning to break free.
Additionally, anyone familiar with country music will immediately connect phrases such as “dust off a record” and “take the keys…and just drive”, and associate them with a wide range of thoughts: youth, sneaking out and cruising at night, blasting music over the stereo, and generally having a good time, because these are tropes that occur frequently in the genre.
Taking advantage of these stereotypes, tropes, even clichés, is important to flash fiction because they help readers fill in the blanks without adding much to the word count. Yes, stereotypes can be bad when used to reinforce negative or untrue ideas based on hasty or incorrect generalizations, but when used in a positive manner, such typing can reduce word count by allowing the reader to pull from his own preconceived notions, rather than writing them out explicitly.
So… that took longer than I expected. I think it was an interesting exercise. The purpose was to look at another short-form genre (in this case, songwriting) and try to learn lessons that might apply to flash fiction. I look forward to trying out the above.