Monday, September 2, 2013

5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Pancho and Lefty

5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Pancho and Lefty
I grew up on country music. This was the late '70s and early '80s, so we're talking real country. Outlaw country.

Country that would duct-tape Taylor Swift's mouth shut, take away all Brantley Gilbert's jewelry, and tell Keith Urban that rehab is for quitters.

One of my all-time favorite songs is "Pancho and Lefty," made famous by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. It's a story song, written by Townes Van Zandt. I still hang on every word like there's a secret nugget of truth waiting to be discovered.

How is there so much embedded in one sub-five-minute song? Have a listen and we'll find out.

Now, how can writers learn to tell a story so simply, with so much depth? Let's take a look.

1. A first-person narrator telling a story about someone else can be really effective.

No less a writer than Jonathan Franzen tells us that we should write in third person. This is one of those "establishment" rules for serious literary works. The reasoning? Third person is more remote (read: mysterious), which makes the reader work harder. It's also less limiting if you want to explore multiple characters. Plus, you get to create both the narrator's persona and your main character's (note: these are NOT the same thing).

"Pancho and Lefty" doesn't follow the third-person rule. It has a first-person narrator; however, the narrator isn't the subject of the song. This accomplishes two things:
Merle Haggard Has More Country in One Butt Cheek than Brantley, Luke, Tim, and Jason Put Together
True story.
(1) it creates immediacy with the use of the "I" voice, which is why many writers use first-person voice
(2) it generates mystery since the "I" voice isn't the subject of the song.

Our narrator probably knows Pancho and Lefty, and might have witnessed the events in the song. But we don't know. (Mystery? Check.) Our narrator says, "Livin' on the road, my friend, is gonna keep you free and clean." Who is the "friend"? Is it the generic use of "friend" that he's using to tell a campfire story? Or is he singing to an actual friend, maybe Lefty himself, after the events of the song? The narrator holds himself back from us, not making this clear. (Remote? Check.)

2. The right similes can set a tone without a single adjective.

In the first verse, we get two similes in a one-two punch: "Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath as hard as kerosene."

Think about that. What does it mean to wear skin like iron? It means you think you're invincible. You think you can take a licking and keep on ticking. Or it means you've hardened yourself to the outside world so it can't reach you, no matter how hard it tries. (Unless you rust...that would suck.)  Each of these meanings make the simile richer. And here's the kicker: who is the singer talking to? Who wears his skin like iron? A man listening to the story? Lefty? Is he talking about himself in some weird reflective way? We don't know. But we do know this song is going to be about a mysterious bad-ass. This simile sets a mood, which is what all good storytellers must do.

And what the hell does it mean to have breath as hard as kerosene? Kerosene's a liquid. Liquid, by definition, isn't hard. Or is he referring to its scent, its noxious fumes? Those things are gases, which also by definition, are not hard. We're taking a trip through the three stages of matter here, just working on an interpretation of a single simile. Using "hard" to describe something that isn't hard works well here, especially following on the heels of the "skin like iron" simile. Skin is not like iron, and breath is not hard. But isn't that so much more effective than saying, "This is a song about some hardened criminals?"

3. Using action as a form of characterization works really well.

Also a true story.
It's pretty boring when someone says, "John was a good man" or "John was a bad man." What does "good" or "bad" mean? These aren't absolutes, especially in fiction. It's far more effective to say, "John rescued the cat in the tree because it belonged to the little girl down the block" or "John skinned the neighbor's cat in retribution for the loud party three nights back." This lets the reader place John appropriately on the scale of goodness and badness.

That's what our narrator is doing in this song. Pancho "wore his gun outside his pants / For all the honest world to feel."  I think "feel" should be "fear" here, but that's just me. In any case, the narrator isn't saying, "Pancho was really good at shooting people" or "Pancho had a death wish." No. He's telling us something about Pancho that's revealed through his action. What does it mean to wear a gun outside one's pants? Several things: Pancho means business. Pancho isn't afraid of conflict. Pancho is confident in his abilities. Pancho wants you to stay the fuck out of his way. So simple, yet so effective.

Lefty gets the same kind of characterization in the beginning of the next verse. "Lefty he can't sing the blues / all night long like he used to / The dust that Pancho bit down south / ended up in Lefty's mouth."

That's a powerful way of saying, "Lefty feels like shit for the role he played in Pancho's death." Instead of using the most obvious word on the planet ("guilt"), the narrator ties Lefty to Pancho's death using setting and figurative language. Lefty doesn't have a literal mouthful of dirt. But he's carrying a crap-ton of baggage that has to do with Pancho's death, so much baggage that he can't even sing anymore. We're left to that how Lefty earns a living? Is he so broken up over his buddy's death that can't earn a living? This image conveys emotion and suggests conflict in a few simple words. Damn.

4. Be specific with names and places.

There's a beautiful juxtaposition in this song between the vagueness of the story itself and the concrete setting. We don't know who the narrator is. We don't know if he's talking to Lefty or about him. We don't know for sure what went down between Pancho and Lefty (although we can guess). But we do know Pancho died in Mexico. And we know Lefty "split for Ohio." Later, we get more detail: Cleveland's cold. Even here, we have layers. No shit, Cleveland is cold. The average temperature in January is about 28 degrees Fahrenheit. But is it also cold because Lefty lacks Pancho's companionship?

What I love here is the specificity of "Cleveland." Lefty didn't go "out west" or "down south." There's something so much more pathetic about him shacking up in Cleveland, a non-glamorous city that's stuck between the midwest and the east. With all apologies to Cleveland, perhaps the idea here is Lefty's in nowheresville. But rather than say it, the narrator uses a specific place that plants that idea in our heads.

5. Leave a little (or a lot) to the reader's imagination.

Ryan Gosling meme: Hey Girl, I'm Starting to Like Country Music
Probably not a true story.
One of the best parts of this song is its mystery. The narrator doesn't tell us exactly what happened. How did the Federales finally get Pancho? Why did Lefty split on the day he died, with a mysterious sum of money? Did Lefty sell Pancho out? Probably. Why did Lefty do it? We have no idea. A secret dream of making it big as a singer someday? The need to get out of a life of crime? Why didn't he have the balls to say, "Hey, Pancho, I'm gonna hang up the old gun belt now and start singing showtunes for tips. You're cool with that, right?" Is it really a commentary on friendship, on weakness of character, or misguided loyalty? Or all these things? Or none of them?

We don't know, and that's the way it should be. That's why this song needs a narrator who isn't Pancho or Lefty. That's why it's so much more powerful when we hear about Lefty's inability to sing anymore. That's why it's still moving at the end of the song, when not only Lefty but the Federales are old and gray. Everyone involved still remembers, still feels bad, still has some regrets. It's that important to them. And now it's that important to me, because I've just written 1,500 damn words about an old-ass country song.