April 19, 2023

Fiction Writers Can Learn From Ode to Billie Joe

I was a teenager when the 1967 musical ballad Ode to Billie Joe swept across
America. Recently, I heard the song on an oldies station. It’s haunting rhythm was
as familiar as when I first heard it, but fiction writing had provided a new
perspective that enabled me to appreciate the high quality of singer/song writer
Bobbie Gentry’s prose.

It took me eight years to write my debut novel, The Lioness of Leiden, because I
had so much to master about writing fiction. I learned that a good writer must
“show, not tell” what each character is feeling in every scene. In Ode to Billie Joe,
Bobbie Gentry got this exactly right.

Everyone remembers the essential dramatic event: “Billy Joe MacAllister jumped
off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” But the story turns on the emotions of the narrator, a
young woman, whose grief for Billie Joe goes unnoticed by her family.

Since the ballad is told in the first person, the narrator could have said simply that
she was Billie Joe’s girlfriend and sad that he had ended his life. But what’s the fun
in that? Instead, she gives us clues. She tells us that Billie Joe and his friends “put
a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.” Why would a boy do
that? Because he likes her. She also informs us that her brother remembers the
narrator “talking to [Billie Joe]after church last Sunday night”—another sign that
they were a couple.

Then Gentry shows us the narrator’s emotions without explicitly telling us what
they are: “And mama said to me, child, what’s happened to your appetite? I’ve
been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite.” When the
narrator doesn’t eat after a morning of hard work, we know that she is badly
shaken by the news about Billie Joe. And a year later, the narrator is still visiting
the site of the suicide: she spends “a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw
Ridge and drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” Her grief
for Billie Joe runs deep and will not be extinguished any time soon.

There is more good writing in Ode to Billie Joe, such as the detail used to set the
scene: “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day,” and the narrator
was out choppin’ cotton, and [her] brother was balin’ hay.” When they headed
into the house for dinner, their mother instructed them to “remember to wipe
your feet.” Details like this are essential to writing believable dialogue.

Finally, Gentry understands that in everyday dialogue, no one speaks in a straight
line: “And papa said to mama, as he passed around the blackeyed peas; Well, Billy
Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please; there’s five more acres in
the lower forty I’ve got to plow; and mama said it was shame about Billy Joe,
anyhow.” The family doesn’t mind discussing the suicide, but other things creep
into the conversation because that’s how people actually converse.

Writing is art when it triggers a connection based on shared human experience.
While writing The Lioness of Leiden, it took me a long time to understand the
techniques required to trigger that connection. Bobbie Gentry understood it