Cross-Training: The Babysitter

Listen to this song before I start blabbing, because it’s really, really worth it to hear it without dissection.

I think Dar Williams is one of the best flash-fiction authors writing today.

Flash-fiction author?! She’s a lyricist. A singer-songwriter. That hardly counts.

Yeah, but think about it. There are three hundred seventy-six words in the song we just listened to. And that’s not even taking out the repeated lines.

Three hundred seventy-six. And a lot of them had to rhyme.

Granted, it’s a pretty simple story. A guy makes a girl choose between him and college. The girl, heartbroken, chooses college.

But did you notice how emotionally charged Dar Williams managed to make it? Watch the video again….notice that the audience is all set up for laughing and giggling for the whole song. And of course they are; the voice is funny, and charming, and mind-bendingly adorable. They can’t help but laugh…..until she kicks them in the teeth with the point of the story. It brings the room to silence, where all you can hear are the soft sounds of silverware against plates. Even when the same cute voice breaks through at the end, a few people try to giggle, but it’s a half-hearted effort at best.

It’s a powerful thing, to be able to manipulate the emotions of an audience like that. As writers, we have to figure out how to tap into that kind of power for our own stories.

There are a lot of tools we can use for something like this, and “The Babysitter’s Here” highlights one of them that can be overwhelmingly effective when it’s done right.

Of course, I’m talking about the choice of your point-of-view character.

Take a minute and think about how most singer-songwriters would tell a story like this. The most likely perspective? The girl, obviously. She’d tell all about her love for the guy, and how she feels betrayed by his demand, etc, etc, etc.

But we’ve all heard a million, billion songs like that. It would most likely fade into the background noise of girls and guys whining about their feelings and how hard relationships are.

But Williams didn’t take the most obvious choice. Instead, she made her story unique and surprising by choosing the point of view of the kid that the girl babysits for.

This little girl is completely innocent, and she clearly idolizes her babysitter, who is amazing and is everything she’s ever wanted to be and can do no wrong. And she only has a limited understanding of what’s going on in the story.

But we as the audience hear much, much more.

This is the power that choosing the right point-of-view character can bring.

Every person is actually an amalgam of tens to hundreds of different people over the course of a single day, depending on who they’re interacting with at any one time. The title character of this song is no different. Anyone could have told this story: she herself could have, or her father, or one of her classmates, or even her boyfriend. And it would be a slightly different story each time, depending on whose eyes the writer chooses to see through.

But Williams chooses the little girl. And we experience the story through her simple understanding. And how overwhelmingly powerful it becomes!

So bring this to your own work. If you’re stuck on how to tell a story, take a step back. Whose perspective are you using? Is he the most effective choice? Who else is in the main characters’ life who could tell the story differently, or possibly even better?

When you’re thinking about it, don’t get blinded by sticking with the main characters’ contemporaries. There are people of all ages in his life, and any one of them could tell an effective story. The possibilities are endless!

Even if you stick with your initial point-of-view choice, I imagine you’ll find that he has become far more nuanced and real, now that you’ve considered all of the different people that your character can be on any given day.

And if you pick a new, unexpected, surprising point of view….then you can silence a room with the power of your story.

With only three hundred seventy-six words.

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Published in: on January 10, 2011 at 5:07 am  Comments (7)  

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What a fabulous article, and what a great way to frame it! Thank you!

  2. k, I admit it, I bawled. 😛

    Talk about a kick in the teeth…

  3. Dar Williams is one of the best musicians I’ve heard. I absolutely adore her to death.

  4. Thanks for a wonderful video and introducing me to a great writer.

    Your own writing must be extraordinary, as you obviously understand the heart of what writing is about.

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Carolyn Jewel, Jennifer Wylie. Jennifer Wylie said: Cross-Training: The Babysitter: http://t.co/NKSyhDM awesome blog about character points of view […]

  6. This is excellent–thank you for sharing. I am going to point this blog out to my writing students.


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