“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short”
-Henry David Thoreau
It is one thing to write a novel of a screenplay, but it really is something else to write a short. I am writing “Broadway Sketches,” a series of vignettes, to hopefully direct and produce sometime this year. So far, there are about eight story lines and only nineteen pages. Every line of dialogue has to count. Every action should have a thought behind it—and all of these elements have to be concise.
I take a great deal of inspiration from some of the story-songs from older popular music forms, like blues, rhythm and blues, and country. Merle Haggard is a master story teller, so are Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker. Whatever you feel about country, there is a lot to be learned about telling detail from a three-minute song.
Here’s Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
I aint seen the sun shine since I don’t know when.
His character is stuck in prison, probably solitary.
I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
This guy is an unrepentant killer, probably insane.
I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car…those people keep a’moving and that’s what tortures me.
Understanding that escape is a fantasy, the man’s final resort is his imagination, which ultimately does him no good.
All of this can be gleaned from a two and a half minute song. Not bad for brevity.
I’ll end this post with a song from blues singer Ted Hawkins, “Sorry You’re Sick,” featured on this Sunday’s This American Life and inspiring me to write this post. In the space of a couple of minutes we learn that the narrator’s lover is sick, that the sickness could be terminal, that the man is in love, too, and that, tragically, his attempts to help her are futile. Or in the words of Jesse Kornbluth on Head Butler, “Something tells me that the patient in this song is in no danger of getting better — and that Hawkins is getting the right medicine for her.” Take a listen—that mournful refrain speaks volumes more than any long explanation.