Here’s something I just discovered or taught myself over the weekend while working on song lyrics in an idle moment.
First, a little background. Long before Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I’d had an idea for a story about a cartoon character in the real world – one who was broken-down, career-ruined and alcoholic. Unlike Roger Rabbit, my conceit was that cartoon characters were just like humans once the cameras stopped rolling, complete with attendant real-life problems.
I let the idea lapse after seeing WFRR for obvious reasons, although it never quite went away. In the early 1990’s I wrote, co-produced and did voice work on a radio spot for a local pet store. The lead character was a cartoon rabbit with “mange… you try livin’ in the back of YOUR car…” that wanted the pet store owner to sell him. Since the guy who produced the spot with me was a huge Monty Python fan, it was partly an homage to them as well – we even used the opening doorbell from their “Dead Parrot” sketch. It remains one of the best spots I ever wrote, and is still on my demo tape.
Anyway, for some reason Harry the Hare recently resurfaced, demanding that I write a song about him. So I found myself working on a three-chorder called “Dirty Old Rabbit.” I made a list of cartoon cliches that I wanted to nod at in the song, which led to this line:
His taste for that big comeback
Is something that still lingers
He would love to count to ten
But he only has eight fingers
I was happy with that – for a while. For decades I’ve heard lines like that just thrown into songs because they were clever or they supported the rhyme structure of the verse they occupy (non-sequiturs like this almost always appear in verses or bridges). Stan Ridgway does this sort of thing all the time, putting in a line not because it makes sense, but because it fills out a rhyme pattern. Good enough for him, good enough for me.
But then my inner novelist surfaced. As I started working out the other lyrics, it became more of a story than a portrait. As that happened, the less I liked the Polaroid portrait nature of the “eight fingers” line. Everything I’d put in up to that point arrowed toward the plot, and now I was looking at the prospect of doing something that had become the bane of my writing life; cutting characterization for the sake of plot.
So I started to play with the line, trying to see if I could somehow keep it for the cleverness and character, but integrate it into the plot. What I came up with was this:
Now he’s waiting for that big comeback
To again be in demand
But he’s just counting to ten
With four fingers on each hand
Hopefully you can see the difference here. I still got in the ‘toon joke about four/eight fingers, but instead of being a random line reminding us that Harry is a cartoon character, it uses ‘toon culture to show the futility of Harry’s dreams. And since it’s the last line in the song, the line ends it on a poignant note.
Well, as poignant as a song about an alcoholic cartoon character can get, I guess.
The lesson to be learned here is that when an economy of words is required (as is definitely the case in lyrics), try and make two things happen at once with what you write. Now that I’m conscious of this, I’m going to put it to good use in my novels. By combining characterization with action using this method, there will hopefully be less character-killing edits and make the overall manuscript a more efficient storytelling machine.
NP – iTSP (Lene Lovich, “New Toy”)