Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Case Study in "Feeling"

Agent Mary Kole had an interesting post over at this week in which she talked about a writer's number one objective: To make your reader feel. Her post made me think of a song I'm really liking right now exactly because I think it does such a good job of conveying feelings without hammering us over the head and telling us how the song's persona feels. We have to fill in the gaps - to feel it ourselves.

The song is Nothing by The Script, and I think it is the best song at portraying misery that I've heard in a long time - maybe ever. (Of course, The Script is an Irish band, and I joke that no one knows how to be miserable like the Irish.) (That is a joke - I love you, Irish!) Here's the video for the song:

The gist of the song is that a guy has broken up with his girlfriend (or been dumped, more likely) and his friends decide to "help" him by taking him out for drinks. After one too many, he decides he will call her and say he still loves her, which will solve everything, right? Except...all he hears on the other end of the line is nothing.

Cool enough as a setup for a song. But since I am excessively high in need for cognition (that's a joke for my Persuasion Theory students, should any of them be happening to read this), I couldn't leave it at that.

What makes the experience of the song richer than my little summary there is that we get to feel the misery this guy feels right along with him. Now, he never says in the song, "I am miserable." Instead, what we get are three types of evidence that help us draw the conclusion ourselves. 

Number 1 - We get to listen to his thoughts. The very first words of the song set us up to see this state of mind: "Am I better off dead? Am I better off a quitter?" Someone who is thinking things like that obviously is not in a happy place, ha ha. Other lines show us how he's hoping against hope, that although reality tells him one thing, maybe something he can do this time will change it. Lines like "I know that I'm drunk, but I'll say the words, and she'll listen this time..." or "I know if I faced her face, she'll come to her senses," or "If she sees how much I'm hurting, she'll take me back for sure..." give us a sense of just how much this guy is deluding himself. And at the end of the song, he repeats the little refrain "I got nothing" several times. Gosh, I feel bad for the guy.

Number 2 - The physical things he's doing support the thought process. We are getting to hear his thoughts, but there's also physical evidence that this guy is miserable. Early in the song, before he's drunk, we see a contrast between the outer persona and his thoughts: "I'm smiling, but I'm dying, trying not to drag my feet." As the drinks take hold, though, his physical behavior starts to underscore his thinking: "I'm shouting your name all over town" (for just one example). We don't see everything he's doing, but only those things that contribute to the overall message: He's miserable.

Number 3 - We get to see the contrast between what other people are saying/doing and what's going on in his head. Throughout the song, there are several "They say" lines: "They say I'm better off now than I ever was with her"; "They say a few drinks will help me to forget her, but after one too many I know that I'll never"; "They all think it's crazy but to me it's perfect sense." That contrast helps to set up the fact that he's not seeing the world the same way as everyone else. We also see this in the way his friends are reacting to him: "My mates are all there, trying to calm me down...." And maybe most importantly, we are seeing how the former girlfriend reacts: "She said nothing. I wanted words but all I heard was nothing."
Taken as a package, those three elements all add up to give us a vivid picture of just what's going on in this guy's life, much more than simply saying, "He's miserable." That's a lesson I hope to take to my own writing.

(Of course, I know that much of the poignancy of a song has to do with the music and with the performance, both of which really underscore the message in this song. But I like words, and this song does a great job with its words.)


Susan Edens said...

I really enjoyed reading this!

Augustina Peach said...

Thanks, Susan! I suppose I should have been grading news leads, but I gotta keep my rhetorical analysis chops, ha ha.

Chris Farrell said...

I enjoyed this as well!! Thanks for sharing!! I don't see why we couldn't do something like this for our classes, we should get together and chat.