Archive for December, 2019

What Writers Can Learn From “Jingle Bells”

I suspect most people in the United States are familiar with the Christmas Carol “Jingle Bells.”  In fact, it, no doubt, is one of the most familiar carols ever in the US.  One particular verse, actually the second, caught my ear many years ago, but just recently I realized how well and how intricately that verse had been put together.  There are a few lessons we writers can learn from that verse.  First a little background on the carol.

“Jingle Bells” was written in 1857 by James S. Pierpont for a school choir to sing on Thanksgiving, not Christmas.  (As far as I’m aware, he wrote both words and music.)  He originally entitled it “One Horse Open Sleigh,” words we’re familiar with from the first verse, though nowadays we call it by the first words of the refrain, “Jingle Bells.”  Mr. Pierpont actually penned several verses, most of which are not sung anymore.  The modern tendency is to sing only the first verse and refrain, though sometimes the second verse is added.  It’s that second verse I want to concentrate on.  Here it is:

“A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride,
And soon Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated at my side.

The horse was lean and lank,
Misfortune seemed his lot,
He got into a drifted bank,
And then we got upsot.”

This verse is interesting because it tells a very short story which is (almost) complete within itself.  No words are wasted.  An interesting historical context—and I’m speaking entirely within the verse, having nothing to do with any of the details of “Jingle Bells,” or the other verses—is presented in the first line, “A day or two ago.”  It sets the time factor—relatively, if not absolutely—right up at the front.  It, and the second line about taking a ride, get us directly into the action without unnecessary words.  At this point, we are aware from the first verse “Dashing through the snow,” that we are in winter, and riding in a “one-horse open sleigh.”  That’s not given in the second verse, one point of critique.

The narrator is not named in this little story, but one other character is named, so we do have a character we can relate to.  I suspect that most people assume the narrator is male, and the name “Fanny” certainly suggests the rider is female.  At this point, we can visualize the two of them riding in a one-horse sleigh down a snowy road with bells attached to the bobbed tail of the horse.  All seems well.  A nice outing on a cold winter’s day.  Can’t you just feel the wind on your face?

But the plot thickens, and the author introduces the required tension that holds the story together.  Got to have conflict or at least tension in a story.  The characters have to be in danger.  Something has to happen.  Otherwise, the story line falls apart, and all we have is a simple account of the incident.  We’re given a good description of the horse, that it is “lean and lank,” enough to allow us to visualize the animal in our mind’s eye, but no more than necessary.  It wouldn’t add any thing to the story to know what color the horse was, or its age, or gender, or whatnot.

Then we learn “Misfortune was his lot.”  Now, like in any well-constructed story, we’re given a hint at the eventual climax, but just a hint: “Misfortune seemed his lot.”  So tantalizing.  A horse with a tendency to having bad luck.  Something’s going to happen.  But what?  Like any well-constructed story, every word, every line, every sentence, is necessary to the plot.  If it’s there, it must be essential.  We dread to know.  What will it be?

Finally the climax, “We got into a drifted bank” and “got upsot.”  (An old term for “upset.”  Fell over.)  That’s the end of it.  That’s all we need to know.  The story is done, the end is clear.  Whether the characters (including the horse) were injured is not known, and really, that information isn’t necessary.  The story ends at the end of the action, and no further words are necessary.  The author left it alone.  Do the same with your stories.

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