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!