HOW YOU CAN LEARN STORY STRUCTURE FROM A STORY SONG

Or The Storytelling Art of Dan Fogelberg

Some songs haunt you.

Some songs deliver an emotion that resonates with you at a certain time in your life.

And none has haunted me more than a song by Dan Fogelberg.

It is titled Same Old Lang Syne, from the 1980 album, The Innocent Age. It was sung with such heart-wrenching emotion that upon first hearing it, gooseflesh erupted along the tops of my arms. It tells the story of how a man met his old lover one Christmas night. They got to drinking and reminiscing. He wondered if his life would have changed if they had gotten together. More than ten years have passed since I first heard the song, yet I could never listen to it without feeling that familiar tug of bittersweet ache in my heart.

I wondered why.

Then I realized that Dan Fogelberg did not just sing a song, but he sang a story song. And when you examine the entire song, you’d realize how Dan applied the same storytelling craft as you would, when you pen a screenplay.

Observe how Dan sets up the first act of his story.

Met my old lover in the grocery store
The snow was falling Christmas Eve

The first act, or the beginning of any story, is where you set up your main character, the supporting characters, and the world in which the drama will happen.

Dan Fogelberg did all that in two concise lines and a mere 15 words. He introduced the Protagonist, the supporting character of the old lover, and the world of a small town.

Note the details. Grocery store. Old lover. Snow. Christmas eve. It is an irony in storytelling that the more specific you are, the better the connection to your reader, even though the reader, because of cultural differences, may not fully understand that specific detail. The more local you drill down into your specifics, the more global your reach. I may not have stepped into a grocery store in America, but nevertheless, I have known a similar store in my own country. In that sense, I can visualize and relate to it. I am therefore drawn into the story.

Note the detail of snow falling on Christmas eve. And the emotion it conjures. Serenity. Nostalgia. Even a touch of melancholy.

And then in the next two lines -

I stole behind her in the frozen foods
And I touched her on the sleeve

And with that touch upon a sleeve, Dan Fogelberg set up the inciting incident. Boy meets Girl. An inciting incident is defined as the scene that answers the question of why you are telling the story now. In life, there will be many inciting incidents, but one will stand out because it is the one that kickstarts the story you are telling.

At this point, we are just four lines into the story. And look at what’s being implied.

The beginning of a love story.

What will happen as a result of this encounter?

Will old lovers unite?

Will the Protagonist find love again?

That is the question that this story song will answer. But before we reach the answer at the end of the song, the Protagonist must face COMPLICATIONS. This is where the Protagonist or the Hero begins to encounter Problems And Struggles.

She didn’t recognize the face at first
But then her eyes flew open wide
She went to hug me, and she spilled her purse
And we laughed until we cried

Note here, that if the old lover had not recognized him, and turned him away, the story would have ended there. But the old lover responded to his touch on her sleeve. The fact that “we laughed until we cried”, suggests a shared history. They were probably very good friends in the past. He has tried to make a connection with her, and she accepted.

And now our Protagonist begins his journey into the second act.

We took her groceries to the checkout stand
The food was totaled up and bagged
We stood there lost in our embarrassment
As the conversation dragged

There is some attraction going on between these two — tension mounts between them. These two have now reached a moment of truth. They could part at this point and the story would be over. But there is an underlying and unspoken attraction. And because of this, they decide to adjourn to a bar.

Went to have ourselves a drink or two
But couldn’t find an open bar
We bought a six-pack at the liquor store
And we drank it in her car

At every stage of the Protagonist’s Journey, he could have called it off. He could have told his old lover that since all the bars were closed on this Christmas evening, perhaps this was a sign to leave it at that. A pleasant encounter at the grocery store.

But he did not do that.

He persisted. Whether it is the guy or the old lover who suggested buying a six-pack and drinking it in her car, we won’t know for sure. To share a drink in her car would be out of the question if she did not trust him. The fact that she allowed it to happen, suggests hope. A promise of a deepening of the relationship between them. Maybe the Protagonist can indeed find love again.

The narrative hurtles forward.

What will happen next?

We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to now
And tried to reach beyond the emptiness
But neither one knew how

We are now deep in the second act of the story. And at the beginning of the second act, the Protagonist will appear to get what he wants. A pleasant reunion with a past flame. It might even lead to consummation. If this was a love story, the young lovers would initially be enjoying the sunshine moments of courtship. But this isn’t a story between two starry-eyed young and innocent lovers, but two mature adults who have seen a bit of life and have gone through and survived hard times but still do not know the answers to achieving true happiness and this is why they “tried to reach beyond the emptiness But neither one knew how”.

The next parts of the song story bring us closer to what is known as the midpoint. A crucial structural moment in any story, the lack of which would render your story one-dimensional. Every good story is made up of two parts. The first is the external story, what you see on the surface, which in this case, is a love story. For genre stories, the surface story is the hook that lures you to read or watch further, be it horror, thriller, or science fantasy.

But when you hit the midpoint, that is when the writer reveals to you the ACTUAL story he wants to tell.

So what was the story that Dan Fogelberg trying to tell?

She said she’d married an architect
Who kept her warm and safe and dry?
She would’ve liked to say she loved the man
But she didn’t like to lie

I said the years had been a friend to her
And that her eyes were still as blue
But in those eyes, I wasn’t sure if I
Saw doubt or gratitude

In these eight lines, the Protagonist encounters a revelation. All these years, he had always thought she was happy with her life with another man. He had gotten used to that. It made his pain easier to bear. He could tell himself that he could go on with his life and pursue his dreams. He did the right thing breaking up with her because she did find happiness. And yet….

She would’ve liked to say she loved the man
But she didn’t like to lie

But he was not the only one who mistook the other for being happy.

She said she saw me in the record stores
And that I must be doing well
I said the audience was heavenly
But the traveling was hell

It’s not explicitly stated in the 4 lines but I thought the Protagonist was responding to what she felt, in his own words. When he said the audience was heavenly but the traveling was hell, the subtext was — I liked to have said I made the right choice when I chose my career over love, but I don’t like to lie.

And what is subtext but another powerful and effective storyteller’s tool. The art of saying unsaid things. It is the dialogue underneath the dialogue.

And thus, the Protagonist has reached a new understanding of himself and his old lover.

We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to time
Reliving in our eloquence
Another auld lang syne

We move closer to the end of the second act.

The beer was empty, and our tongues were tired
And running out of things to say
She gave a kiss to me as I got out
And I watched her drive away

How do we know when we have reached the end of the second act?

We know it when we can no longer go back to things as they were. He let her drive away. He let her go. He did not invite her to his home. He just stood there.

Just for a moment, I was back at school
And felt that old familiar pain
And as I turned to make my way back home
The snow turned into rain

And finally, we reach the third act, the concluding chapter, and what is the purpose of the third act? To answer the story question set at the start.

Will the Protagonist find love again?

He doesn’t. The Protagonist does not reunite with his old lover. But instead experiences a bittersweet moment of regret and hopefully, acceptance. And that is the actual story that Dan Fogelberg was telling. A story about regret and lost love, and the consequences of choices that adults must make in their lives.

And life must go on, just as the snow will turn to rain.

Anton Chekov, the famed Russian short-story writer, tells us if you set up a gun in the first act, you had better fire that gun in the final act.

Observe what Dan Fogelberg did with the snow.

The snow falls in the beginning.

The snow turns to rain in the end.

Set Up.

Payoff.

Planting mini-bombs of “Set Up” and exploding them in “Pay Off”, is an essential tool in the Storyteller’s Arsenal. It provides delicious closure to the reader and viewer. It leads them to the all-important “Aha” moment of realization. I do not know if Dan Fogelberg deliberately intended to use snow as a storytelling device. But as a writer, I can tell that Dan Fogelberg was not just a singer, but he was an instinctive storyteller as well.

Final Takeaway

That is why the song has lingered with me all these years and I suspect will continue to linger in the future. Dan Fogelberg turned a chance real-life encounter into a meditation on the universal theme of regret, and he told it succinctly in melody and emotional vocals.

He told a story song.

And made me appreciate the power of Story.

I cannot imagine a simpler way to learn story structure than to study a story song. Listen to the song below.

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=same+old+lang+syne+dan+fogelberg

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Andrew Ngin

Man In The Arena . Once a lecturer. Written television, films, short stories. Older. Singaporean. Still writing. Always with love