What drew me to country music—the modern, non-twangy kind—was that it told story. I could not, in the early years of my generation, figure out how the words “Peggy Sue” repeated over and over, constituted music, but singer Sonny James’ “Young Love” put me instantly in a mood to be near my current sweetheart, or the girl I longed to be my sweetheart, and, like other members of my age group, I sang along enthusiastically . . . when its turn came up on the Top 40.
Young love, first love
Filled with deep devotion
Young love, our love
We share with deep emotion.
The lyrics were simple, the melodies humble and singably basic. Mr. James and his contemporaries on the radio bathed us in the mood of their music and suddenly transported us onto stage singing with him in a duet:
Just one kiss from your sweet lips
Will tell me that our love is real
And I can feel that it’s true.
For we will vow to one another
There will never be another
Love for you or for me.
I could go on:
Live with me, and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dales and fields,
And all the craggy mountain fields.
There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, by whose falls,
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
Oh, so you can’t remember Mr. James singing those latter two verses. He didn’t. William Shakespeare wrote them a few hundred years previous. They are from one of his sonnets (“Sonnets to Sundry/Notes of Music”). I quote them to prove what? That James could have been a Shakespearean poet or Shakespeare a writer of rock ‘n roll? Possibly both, but more likely that poetry is not easily bound by time periods, form, or the preferences—good or bad—that collect and wane over time. It all depends on your approach and the perspective applied.
I also quote them because it takes little analysis to discover that lyrics for a song are not easily come by. They need to have not just a rhyme but an internal rhythm that enables them to be stretched into music.
There are traits that experts use to identify a song’s author or the period of its origin, but poetry resides within the soul and with such infinite structure it’s not always easily assigned to a specific person, location, or time. What makes Shakespeare’s sonnets special, and related to country music, is that they both tell stories—frequently of lost love. They have timeless life spans because our minds love and rarely tire of how they feel rolling off our tongues.
Historically, however, there is no evidence that the “borrowing” or re-use of the poetic elements, from Shakespeare or last year’s top pop hit, will guarantee success and break-through fame for a new lyrical effort, be you a hardened pro or newbie. And one success offers no guarantees that another will follow . . . sooner, or, later.
There is no list of Top 40 Sound-Alike Hits.
Success comes to the new and unique, or uniquely tweaked.
Those two terms—new and unique—are not synonymous, however, with being brand new and totally unique. If something consists of just five elements, totally changing one or altering two slightly will likely produce a new whatever. Shared concepts or elements don’t preclude something from being or appearing new. It’s how and where the creativity of the mind is applied, or is slightly modified, that can give an otherwise hackneyed plot, scene, character, or lyric new life. A new setting, another time, another place, a heroine rather than a hero, a new obstruction or obstacle, or exchanging or mixing up character traits or challenges faced can produce something new rather than repetitive. If you don’t believe me, watch a little nighttime television.
More or less salt or pepper can change the taste of a recipe. A few modifications and tweaks or alterations to a story, a plot, a character—hero or villain—or taking an alternative path of action, no matter how slight the difference, and an old plot becomes a different plot. Thank God for that or we would have run out of “new” plot ideas a couple centuries ago.
Stories have facets like a cut diamond, and each facet produces a different reflection depending on how you look at it or the angle of light reflected by it.
No magical formula for doing this exists. If it does, likely it’s buried next to the Fountain of Youth, someplace in Florida . . . as I recall. But there is a fountain of fun in coming up with ways to modify something old into something new, or at least well refreshed and revitalized. (Keep that term in mind whenever you write.)
Let me explain. Break down a fictional story into its fundamental elements:
• Inciting incident.
• The challenge(s) and/or goal(s) to face or to be overcome or in some way altered or eradicated by the hero/heroine.
• A list of supporting characters and their roles (their purpose to the story and impact on the main character).
• A list of traits and personality variants that inject life into individual characters.
• A compilation of elements, circumstances, and actions that interact to obstruct, thwart, or assist the hero/heroine in achieving some goal or attaining some objective or getting past the bad guy(s). (This might require a little more paper.)
Bullet points are a good way to compile your list initially, but you get the idea. Add to your list as new ideas come to mind and make it your own. Once you have piles of little notes on separate pieces of paper, assign each note to the appropriate category: inciting incident, character types/personalities, goals, challenges and obstructions, geographic locations or elements, seasonal elements, and so on. Be as detailed as you want to generate, in say an hour or so, examples for:
• Inciting incidents.
• Elements of rising action (the threats or obstacles the hero must confront or conquer).
• The hero/heroine character traits (These are the little details that bring your characters to life and help them jump off the page of the reader. They may be good or bad or something your character struggles with.)
• Ideas for the actions that lead up to or build to the ultimate confrontation, i.e., climax.
• The climax—where the culmination of the tensions, obstructions, challenges etc. come to the point of highest tension—the KABOOM! of the story
• Elements of falling action—the events that take the story and your characters to a satisfying conclusion; what has come together to make the hero’s efforts worth the trouble.
• A satisfying conclusion—someone riding off into the sunset or the smithereens of someone who gets blasted into the sunset.
From your jar or bucket into which you have put these separate items or elements, randomly pull out pieces and put them into their assigned proper category, i.e., rising action, climax, character traits, etc. From this you will be able to form a rough outline of a story’s structure. You can toss any duplicate category elements you pick back into the pot or pick from them favorites or ones with the most promise.
There you have it, a “plot machine,” or at least a “device” (technique) that will potentially get your creative juices flowing and/or sufficiently refocused to generate some ideas, options, or alternatives. You can add new elements or ideas as they come to mind. The purpose of the exercise is not to produce a story idea but to prime your brain to come up with one (or more) and kick-start your creative engine. Expand your reservoir by having friends join in a brainstorm-fest if you would like. It’s not like you’re creating a top-secret plot tool. It will, by its randomness, work differently for each individual and each time it’s used. Add intrigue by putting all our slips of paper in a shoebox labeled
“Story Idea Device—Top Secret” and put it on a top shelf in your library/office to create a sense of intrigue to visitors. They’ll talk about you behind your back. “Did you know that Peter has some sort of secret plot producing device that he keeps hidden on the top shelf of his office?
Your next job is to fit the chosen items into a plot line and come up with the necessary transitions. This can be the hardest part of the assignment. Of course, we all know it doesn’t work so easily as just described because there are hundreds of decisions and decision alternatives that arise in the creation and development of a story that can snag your attention, and, like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, you have to play with and try out. Thus, the exercise should not be seen as a solution but merely as a primer—to generate maybe just the seed of one idea that might lead to a solution or break up of a mental impasse that has plugged your idea (creative) pipeline. The plumbing analogy is appropriate because we all know that it isn’t always water that flows through pipes.
Treat each effort as a game to play with yourself when you feel stuck or stale. (Note I didn’t use the term “mentally constipated,” but it works!) It’s another way to exercise your thinking process and blow the dust out of your cranium, which means a long walk might do the same thing. Everyone finds what works for him or her.
So what does this have to do with country music? Both rely on the creative use of words, and that is like looking into another facet of a diamond—you’ll likely find something new in a slightly different reflection. Or you can sit back with pen and paper and put your story idea into the lyrics of a country song. That could prove to be a refreshingly difficult exercise—one that might provide some new and unique insight into your writing skills. Who knows, maybe you’ll come up with a country album. Now there’s a story idea.