“The devil went down to Georgia/He was looking for a soul to steal/He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind/And he was willin’ to make a deal”
Yes, that was the Charlie Daniels Band song “Devil Went down to Georgia.” Country gold, circa 1979. Big beards and bigger hats. Epic flannel. And also a master lesson in storytelling, no matter the medium. Strip away the beards and music, and you’ll see what I mean.
Recently “Devil” came a-fiddlin’ and such on the radio. The words struck me faster than a chicken in the bread pan pickin’ out dough: this no folk ballad with ABCB rhyme. It is a folk story. Not bad Americana flash fiction, not at all. Try the first verse re-rendered as prose:
The devil went down to Georgia. He was looking for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind, and he was willing to make a deal.
How is that for a hook? Intriguing, compelling, clear. Oh, and in 39 words we get the main character, the scene, the motivation, and a hell (couldn’t help it!) of a premise. No way I don’t read on.
When he came across this young man sawing on a fiddle and playing it hot, the devil jumped up on a hickory stump and said, “Boy, let me tell ya what. I guess you didn’t know it, but I’m a fiddle player too, and if you’d care to take a dare, I’ll make a bet with you. Now you play pretty good fiddle boy, but give the devil his due. I’ll bet a fiddle of gold against your soul ‘cause I think I’m better than you.”
The meter and structure of songwriting forces this into a speech, way out of proportion to the story. We can’t explore the conflict while the devil bangs on about fiddle playing. But here’s the thing: it works. It fleshes out the devil deeper than a big pig roots up a tater row. It frames the central conflict. All we need is…
The boy said, “My name’s Johnny, and it might be a sin, but I’ll take your bet. You’re gonna regret, ‘cause I’m the best that’s ever been.”
Contest on! Antagonistic forces vying for high stakes? Check. A seemingly impossible quest for our hero? Check. Interesting? Check. Set-up, aka Plot Point One? Check. That’s more checks than CDB’s mic tester!
No story is perfect. The refrain works great in the song, but refrains in short fiction? What is this, a Greek Chorus?
Johnny, rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard, ’cause hell’s broke loose in Georgia and the devil deals the cards. And if you win, you’ll get this shiny fiddle made of gold, but if you lose the devil gets your soul.
It’s a fine refrain. Really. But as fiction? Consider:
- POV jump: Up to here the story is the devil’s, told at a moderate narrative distance. He’s out to make up a soul shortfall, with fiddling he means to his end. Suddenly we arguable jump to Johnny and for sure then to some omniscient narrator with an entirely new voice.
- Fourth wall: the narrator directly addressing Johnny explodes suspension of disbelief.
- Restatement: This passage doubles back on already told stuff.
- Mixed metaphor: Devil deals the cards? Why not calls the tune?
Actually, it fills one critical element of craft. In Donald Swain lingo, Johnny has just completed a dramatic “Scene” in which he makes a potentially disastrous choice. A clever writer finds a way to pause there a moment for a “Sequel,” where the decision is reflected upon and a response determined. Our clever song-writer did just that. Moving on…
The devil opened up his case, and he said, “I’ll start this show.” And fire flew from his finger tips as he rosined up his bow. And he pulled the bow across the strings, and it made an evil hiss. Then a band of demons joined in, and it sounded something like this. [MUSICAL INTERLUDE]
Vivid, even with a gap where the music kicks in. Fill that in with a power sentence, and we’re as good as Granny’s dog.
When the devil finished Johnny said, “Well, you’re pretty good, ol’ son. But set right in that chair right there and let me show you how it’s done.
This is the story’s Mid-point. Up to here the Devil has been in control and gaining in advantage. He crushed it playing the golden fiddle, which raises the stakes for Johnny. Play even better, or kiss that soul goodbye.
“Fire on the mountain, run boys run. Devil’s in the house of the rising sun. The chicken in the bread pan peckin’ out dough. Granny does your dog bite? No, child, no.”
We’re building to a climax here–OK, flying through it–but it’s there. We get a twist, too, with Johnny as good as his boasts.
The devil bowed his head ’cause he knew that he’d been beat. And he laid that golden fiddle on the ground at Johnny’s feet.
The denouement, quick and clean.
Johnny said, “Devil just come on back if you ever want to try again. I done told you once you son of a gun, I’m the best there’s ever been.”And he played, “Fire on the mountain, run boys run. Devil’s in the house of the rising sun. The chicken in the bread pan peckin’ out dough. Granny, does your dog bite? No, child, no.”
Sweet ending. Johnny effectively spikes the ball in the Devil’s face. So what themes were explored? Pride? Both Johnny and the Devil brag throughout, although Johnny acknowledged the sin in it. Faith? Maybe, in self and in what’s right.
There you go, in 349 words a country-fried lesson in craft. Disciplined, fun, and memorable.
How many pieces of fiction can say the same?