The Narrative Bridge

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A while back a friend of mine bemoaned the sad fact that an otherwise good song had such a poorly written bridge that it soured the rest of the song for him. “I know I’m weird,” he told me. “But the bridge should be the best part.”

I didn’t think he was weird at all. I agreed with him and the conversation got me thinking about the nature of the bridge and what it adds to a song. Because I’m a writer, a storyteller, I considered it in its narrative context and realized what I imagine every songwriter (especially those around here) has known for ages. It’s not necessarily the bridge itself that stands apart, it’s what it does to everything around it. It redefines what the song has already established. It transports the audience from what was, to what is. That’s why it’s called a bridge.

The bridge isn’t unique to songwriting, though. It exists in any form of narrative storytelling. It’s the moment of transition, of transformation, the moment when everything changes. It’s Luke Skywalker throwing his lightsaber aside and telling the Emporer, “I’ll never join you. I am a Jedi, like my father.” Before that statement, he’s boy, after it, he’s a man.

Anyone who tells a story, is in the business of taking their audience from one place to another and a good storyteller has to be an exceptional architect; we’ve got to lead our audience along on solid ground and ensure that when we ask them to cross our bridge that the bridge can bear the weight and we’ve got to deliver on the promise of a solid destination at the far side. The strength of our bridges will determine just how far the audience will go with us.

And that’s what we want isn’t it? We want people to come with us, to trust us, to set aside their certainty that fiction isn’t factual and believe in the possibility that it may be truer than anything they’ll read in the newspaper this week. Bridges work because they transport our audience to a place where they can look back and see that things have changed, that the journey was not in vain.

Sometimes the change is for the better and crossing the bridge has reaffirmed our hopes.

mrdarcyIt’s Elizabeth looking up to see the windblown Mr. Darcy in the distance, and he’s coming for her. And everything she thought she knew about him was both right and wrong, and neither of them are ever going to be the same.

aslan_with_2_kids1It’s a gloating white queen on a frozen field while Lucy and Susan are clinging to Aslan’s mane. He’s leaping, charging, running down the hills to loose his roar and turn the tide of battle. No one knows he’s coming but the world is thawing and spring is on the rise.

hellboyIt’s Hellboy, born to be the instrument of the world’s end, but when he’s burned by the cross he tears his horns from his head. His father gave him a choice, and he chooses not to be a monster.

horns

It’s the dark hour before dawn when the gates are breached. The end seems sure and then: “Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing.” Rohan has come at last.

Other times the journey is tragic but the change itself is evidence of the unquenchable possibility of hope.

braveheart01It’s a falling axe and William Wallace seeing a familiar face in the crowd.

It’s Quasimodo holding Esmeralda high above Notre Dame, crying, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”

It’s Mundo Cani Dog leaping into a chasm to contend with the Wyrm, the horn of the Dun Cow clenched in his teeth, falling, stabbing, marooned in the earth.

thepassionIt’s Mary’s son struggling beneath the weight of a cross, his friends have betrayed and denied him, he’s hours left to live, and he’s looking up to tell her that there is more than an execution taking place. “See, mother. I make all things new.”

These are the moments that storytellers live for. They are the reasons that we sit long into the night wrestling our thoughts and pinning them to the page, and the extent to which we sell the transfigurative moment is often the true measure of our success.

So yes, I agree, the bridge should be the best part.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


20 Comments

  1. Paula Shaw

    Aye, the bridge should be the best part. Agreed! Thanks for your post, Pete. It’s a good read, and a very insightful perspective. How is it that you guys who are so gifted in “pinning words to the page” can articulate so beautifully that which is in the common person’s mind, heart, and soul, but can’t seem to get out in an intelligible manner, or in such a beautiful and artfully skillful way?! You have a good gift Mr., and you use it well. Thanks again!

  2. Aaron Roughton

    Pete, somehow the “bridge montage” at the end of your post has breathed some hope and excitement into my Monday morning. Thanks for posting this. Well done.

  3. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Glad I could improve your Monday morning, Aaron.

    Paula, I’m a common person myself. As for the ‘how’? I haven’t figure that out yet, it’s mostly luck 🙂

  4. Chad Ethridge

    Each of those paragraphs describing the turning points in the various movies mentioned above should be written into verses of a song . . . you’d just have to create a bridge of some sort to go with it I suppose!

  5. rachel

    ok, i just had an amazing moment. as i read the last of the “bridge montage,” my itunes was playing jason gray, “everything sad is coming untrue part 2”, and he sang the words, “makes all things new” EXACTLY at the same time as i was reading it ……

    i had to share. it was transcendent.

    so i have long been a huge proponent of the bridge. i judge a song by its bridge. i don’t like songs whose bridges fail them. that being said, i think we all need to take a moment to recognize the KING of all bridge-writers, andy osenga. no one writes a bridge like him.

    i would offer examples, but i the amazing part about his bridges of awesomeness is that they are amazing, due large in part to the context. so instead of quoting some epiphany-inducing bridges, i would rather exhort you to take some time and feed your musical diet a daily dose of osenga bridges. they do a body good.

  6. ClayofCO

    I’m a songwriter, a nonfiction author, and a hopeful fiction author. I, too, spend a lot of time crafting the lyric and music of bridges in my own songs. I’m sure some of my bridges have generated the same, but I have more than once when listening to new music commented on a “throwaway bridge” in a song. However, I had never thought about bridges in other narrative media such as film. Now you’ve got me thinking about bridges in short or creative fiction. What a great insight! I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think about stories I write the same again. Thanks for the paradigm shift.

    Maybe you should ask for comments on the best bridges in songs, films, and books. I’d like to get a better hold on what a literary bridge looks like.

  7. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    That’s a great idea, Clay. In fact it might be a great topic for tomorrow to have everyone post their favorite transformative moments from any media type. Good call.

  8. Peter B

    Ah, the Rabbit Room. Where else can you get technical quality and soul-moving brilliance for free?

    Lest I come off as trite, let me assure you that I was indeed moved by this post. Pete, thank you for articulating this so well and sharing your hard-won wisdom with the rest of us.

  9. whipple

    Good grief, could you have listed more poignant moments? Mundo Cani – such an amazing turn of the tide.

    I have to add the very end of our dear Proprietor’s second book in the Wingfeather Saga. And thanks. Like so many other treatises in the RR, yours was a timely reminder.

  10. Chris Yokel

    Wow, this was an awesome post. I will never overlook the bridges in my songs again. Thanks for the insights Pete.

  11. Peter B

    Oh, you should probably put a spoiler warning on this. I’ve never read Dun Cow, but it’s on my Amazon wish list.

  12. Toni Whitney

    Pete, luck has nothing to do with it. It is a gift of insight that has been given to you by God and you are choosing to use it. Bravo!

  13. Marit

    Earlier, I did not like bridges in songs. The songs I was used to sing were either only verses, or verses and choruses. Bridges I only met in American pop music and worship songs. Some were simple and trite, the others I probably did not understand. I think I will look differently on bridges in songs from now on.

  14. Laura Peterson

    I just noticed this in the “featured” section on the RR home page, and I’m so glad I did! I’ll be pondering this all day – thanks for resurrecting this post. Like Clay commented above, I can pick out the bridge in a song (shout-out here to Andy Gullarhorn’s song “Working Man”) but I’d never really thought about this concept in other narrative forms (I think I’ll probably lose some English Major cred for that). Based on the examples in this post, I think I can redefine the bridge, at least in movies, as “the part that finally makes me cry.” The first film example that comes to my mind is from Finding Neverland – the moment near the end of the play at the Davies’ house when Sylvia walks into Neverland with her family. That’s a “phew” moment for me, the realization that I’ve crossed the bridge and am safe on the other side with a good ending.

  15. Gary

    “…we’ve got to lead our audience along on solid ground and ensure that when we ask them to cross our bridge that the bridge can bear the weight and we’ve got to deliver on the promise of a solid destination at the far side.”

    Pete, this is great writing! I did not read the original post 828 days ago, but it’s just as fresh today. The word pictures you use are art & point to the Truth. Thanks for this…

  16. James Witmer

    I’m glad this was featured. I’m going to think harder about bridges in my songs from now on.

    And I’m going to start playing “spot the bridge” in stories now, too.

    Thanks, Pete, for making me even more of a nerd!

  17. yankeegospelgirl

    I remember feeling that way when I heard a 4Him song called “The Message.” I actually wrote a better bridge just to make myself feel better. Granted, a number of their songs have weak bridges, but the rest of this one was SO good it bugged me more.

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