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The Narrative Bridge

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.

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.

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.

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.

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