Everything I Know About Narrative Realist Fiction I Learned From “The Call” by the Backstreet Boys


I’ve been studying creative writing since I was a kid, but I never learned much from “books on craft” (ugh) or discussions about whether or not creative nonfiction needs to stick religiously to the truth (yawn). As a matter of fact, it was a single song from the turn of the millennium that — despite its humble length and heavy reliance on “club” sound effects — taught me everything I know about good fiction. It begins with a simple phone call; it ends with universal heartbreak. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll question everything you knew about high art.

1. If you do nothing else, at least begin in media res.

Before the Backstreet Boys, pop music was heavily reliant on archetypal openings like a “sick beat” or a few pounding guitar chords. “The Call” ignores all that musty traditionalism in favor of something as intriguing as it is simple: the ringing of a phone. Why ease into the (narrative) pool when you can perform a (literary) cannonball instead?

2. You have approximately two seconds to establish tension.

Without tension, your story falls immediately — I have to say it — flaccid. Never ones to risk losing their underage audience, the Backstreet Boys hook us mere seconds into the song. A sleepy-sounding woman picks up the phone. “Hello?” A man’s cigarette-roughened voice begins, “I’m sorry, listen, I’m going to be late tonight…”

Dun dun dun. It’s not a new juxtaposition — innocent girl at home, hard-partying man anywhere but — but it sure is an effective one.

3. The truth is ambiguous. Play around with it.

What one character knows to be true might not necessarily be the truth of the story world. What the narrator insists is true might not necessarily carry weight in the real world. It’s called narrative unreliability (I think), and it’s one of the most interesting techniques a writer can play around with.

Forget Humbert Humbert and Holden Caulfield — “The Call” doesn’t get nearly enough credit for featuring one of the most famously unreliable narrators of all time. Before the song even starts, we hear the protagonist hanging up on his girlfriend without answering any of her worried questions, insisting, “My battery must be low.” As readers, we’re privy to the fateful night that follows, so when we look back on that “call that changed [the protagonist’s] destiny,” we realize that he was totally lying about the battery! What else has he been lying to us about? Is the girl at the club even real? Are you on drugs?

4. Down with the fourth wall! DOWWWWWWWNNNNNN!

Many of the world’s greatest stories have a narrator who introduces him or herself to the reader. Forget about that whole “Call me Ishmael” shtick. The narrator of “The Call” doesn’t even need a name:

Let me tell you a story ’bout the call that changed my destiny.

Suddenly we’re just a bunch of cavemen, sitting around the world’s first fire, listening to that most universal of entertainments — the story.

5. Please, please, please, please, don’t spend time describing the club.

Or the bar, or the coffee shop, or the restaurant. Nobody cares that the music at the club was “hot, sweaty, and sensuous, with a beat like the ragged breathing of a panther.” We understand that coffee shops are full of “scruffy men writing the next Great American Novel in ratty notebooks, wondering if anyone is watching.” And we definitely know that bar floors can be sticky. Don’t bore us with your unnecessary descriptors. The main action of “The Call” takes place in a club, but the Backstreet Boys give us only this:

Me and my boys went out, just to end up in misery.

Our imaginations quickly sketch in the rest of the scene, and no one needed to hear about “the yellowing lime rattling around in her gin-and-tonic.”

6. Let your protagonist second-guess themselves.

Guilt. Regret. Indecision. Terrible emotions to experience in the real world, but they make for some of the richest characterization in literature (HIYA, PRUFROCK). Though the narrator of “The Call” quickly establishes himself as a sleezebag, the Backstreet Boys save him from becoming a stereotype by allowing him to express doubt and self-loathing, transforming him from a one-dimensional club bro into a nuanced, near-sympathetic protagonist:

I should have said no. … It eats me up inside/that she’s not by my side/just because I made that call to lie.

7. The most interesting moments often take place during the denouement. 

While the climax of a story may be the most exciting part, it’s often fairly one-dimensional — sometimes the real story lies in what happens afterward. Sure, “The Call” is about a man who cheats on his woman, but the story doesn’t end at the cheating itself, since that’s not the interesting part (BSB tantalizes, without cheapening the moment, by a simple “I’ve got a little place nearby — wanna go?”).

The emotional heart of the story lies in the narrator’s regret after he’s cheated on his girlfriend, especially once “one of her friends found out that she wasn’t my only one.” The regret is so poignant, in fact, that it can only truly be expressed by singing the chorus over and over again. In this way, we understand the dull inescapability of his pain.

8. There is real magic in repetition.

Writers have this irritating obsession with finding the newest, the most original ways of expressing things (“ocean” becomes “a glittering mirrorball wherein my future lies unformed, pulsing like a white dwarf” and the rest of the world mutually agrees to jump off a cliff). But seasoned narrators understand that sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is repeat a single word or phrase (see the now-legendary ending of Oscar Wao: “The beauty, the beauty!”).

Instead of telling us what happens post-breakup, the Backstreet Boys imply the empty future of the protagonist with a haunting repetition of the opening word: “Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?” This time, it’s not the sleepy inquiry of an innocent girlfriend left drowsing at home. It’s a vengeful ghost, whispering in the ear of a man who will never know true peace again.

9. When all else fails, sing the chorus again in a different key. 

Aaaaand modulate up a full step. Feels so good!

A Playlist for Your Creepster Writing Sessions

California etc 198

Hi there! Want to be more like me? OF COURSE YOU DO. Why? Um, because I have $16 in my bank account. This makes me bohemian and spontaneous, right? And prone to kleptomania.

I have decided to bequeath upon you a FREE GIFT. It is not only free for you to receive, it was free for me to give. I would gladly spend thousands of dollars on each of your glowing anonymous faces, but I no longer believe in material things (half out of necessity, half because Joyce Carol Oates told me that Marilyn Monroe was a Christian Scientist). So instead of Chanel, I give you the gift of INTANGIBLE SONG.

When I am writing a particularly creepy scene, I need a particularly creepy playlist. Show me the author who can write to Ke$ha and I will show you a fraud. It takes a certain mindset to write a fight scene in a storage unit, a mother nursing a plastic doll, or The Shining, and sometimes I require outside influences to achieve said mindset. I also have to pump myself up like an athlete if I want to get my creep on, but I rarely do that anymore, because I spend most of my days in a SATC-induced lethargy while lying in a pool of sunlight. I’m not really a February person. Or a small-town person. Or a person. (WENT THERE. #zombieapocolypse)

Get in the zone, Auto Zone, with this chill-inducing playlist that will remind you and your characters of their own looming mortality. It ends with a pair of pump-up semi-cliche spooky jamz to celebrate the fact that the scene is ending (whoo! you done good!). And yes, it opens with some old English opera. Trust me on this one. I wrote one of my first college stories with this song on infinite loop. The story itself was terrible, the writing experience was awesome.


Loving the Cliché, Or Why Lana Del Rey Might Be a Genius

Something in me loves the cliché.

Of course, as a writer, I also hate the cliché. I avoid it like the plague (cliché), run screaming from it (cliché), and am constantly attempting to drive a stake through its heart and rub it with garlic before topping with brushcetta (certified toridotgov mixed metaphor).

Point being: I have always had a tempestuous relationship with the cliché, which I’m sure makes me really unique. Lemme define “cliché” real quick: I mean anything that has that unmistakable aura of heard-before. I don’t just mean idioms (raining cats and dogs) or situational cliché (boy and girl are snarky arch-rivals oh wait they’re in love), but also sheer melodrama (masked intruder knifes the pretty blonde girl first) and predictability (the mysterious woman is…wait for it!…Chuck Bass’ mother!). I dread all of it. I want originality, creativity, freshness, unpredictability, blah, blah, blah, if you’re one of my undergraduate students I hope you’re listening.

In college, I wrote a story that purposefully used every ghost story cliché imaginable, and in doing so I thought I was being super radical and subversive (four years later, Cabin in the Woods comes out. I AM SO AHEAD OF MY TIME). But upon reading the story, my professor said something that has always stuck with me. He said: “But–they’re still clichés.”

Therein lies the horror of the cliché–in its inescapability. If you try to enter into a dialogue with it, it will always win, by its sheer force of cliché-ness. It Is The Cliché. It has been around for decades before you were born and it will survive long after you are dead. Ultimately, trying to reimagine the cliché is a little bit boring (Cabin in the Woods didn’t really have a satisfying payoff, am I right?). I truly love anything meta but I have to admit that meta/4th-wall-destruction/general subversion gets old really quickly, because there’s only so much you can do before running into the formidable, battle-scarred bulk of the cliché.


But here’s where Lana Del Rey comes in. I have a soft spot for this melancholy crooner, despite the fact that all the musicians I know hate her. And for good reason, maybe: Lana Del Rey’s most popular songs are quite literally a string of clichés. There’s barely an original line to be found in Del Rey’s oeuvre. For example, here’s the chorus of Born to Die:

don’t make me sad, don’t make me cry (cliché-ish)
sometimes life is not enough (cliché!)
and the road gets tough (cliché!)
I don’t know why
keep making me laugh (cliché!)
let’s go get high
the road is long (cliché!)
we carry on (cliché!)
try to have fun in the meantime (cliché!)

come and take a walk on the wild side (cliché!)
come and kiss me hard in the pouring rain (cliché–THE NOTEBOOK)
you like your girls insane (cliché–MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL)
choose your last words (cliché!)
this is the last time
cause you and I, we were born to die (cliché!)

Video Games is similar, sauntering shamelessly down the idiomatic indie-romance gamut with everything from “his favorite sundress” to “take that body downtown” to “seeing stars” to “I heard that you like the bad girls.” Not convinced yet? Blue Jeans features slogan-y superstars like “fresh to death,” “you fit me better than my favorite sweater,” “ride or die,” and “dancing all night,” culminating in a chorus that is literally a Hallmark card: “I will love you till the end of time/I will wait a million years./Promise you’ll remember that you’re mine/Baby, can you see through the tears?” BAM BAM BAM BAM. Happy Valentine’s Day month, feel free to re-purpose as necessary.

HOWEVER: I love Lana Del Rey. I think her songs are these beautiful little cultural fabrications. There’s something about the incredibly languid way she murmurs each cliché that makes it okay. She’s got this attitude of so what? I’m using these lines because they’re here. Her songs are weirdly heartwrenching and unmistakably romantic because that’s what love is! Love is till the end of time, wait a million years. Love is not I discovered the God particle for you. And the whole point of Lana’s aesthetic is its sleepy, easy relatability, right? She’s the Youtube miracle of our generation, her music videos take place in this melodramatic hipster dream world, we get her, she gets us, she is not afraid of the cliché. In fact, she embraces it. And isn’t that what makes it okay? The self-awareness? Knowing that what she’s doing is simply stitching together idioms and video clips and handing them to us along with a crown of flowers, just because?

So what I love about the cliché is this: it’s part of us. I mean, what are we but a collection of clichés? These are our bones. Sure, it’s really exciting to open a book of poetry and read that the moon is a great white shark or whatever, but that’s not what “moon” is to me. To me–your average East Coast baby who migrated West over the course of her childhood, mid-twenties, daughter of the new millennium, likes neon, worries about the future–moon is man in the moon, moon is made of cheese, moon is Many Moons and Goodnight Moon, moon is the Dreamworks logo, moon is werewolf, moon is eye and silver coin and little sun. Moon is a beautiful cliché, familiar and strange all at once, but what matters is that it’s lovely and that I know it.

And THAT is why Lana Del Rey might be a genius. Maybe she’s not the voice of a generation–but she’s a mirror. (I mean, the video for Blue Jeans alone has everything from Coca-Cola to Tupac…and I’m pretty sure she’s wearing that American Apparel rose sweater that we all wanted at some point.)