What Can “All Along The Watchtower” Teach Us About Minimalist Storytelling?

2015 Artwork All Along The Watchtower article sketch modified

Even though this is an article about minimalist storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about music, TV shows and about the strange ways that my mind works sometimes. There will be a point to this and I’m not just rambling about music and about myself for the sake of it.

A day or so before I wrote this article, I found myself obssessed with listening to a particular song. This is nothing new or spectacular – if I find a song I like, I’ll usually end up listening to it repeatedly until it’s either almost permanently etched into my memory or until it loses all fascination for me.

This time, the song was “All Along The Watchtower“. Surprisingly, the first time that I heard this song was last year when I finally got round to watching the last episode of season three of “Battlestar Galactica“.

Although I’d watched the rest of the season in 2013, I couldn’t afford either of the fourth season DVD boxsets at the time – so, like I often do, I didn’t watch the last episode of the last season I had, since I knew that it would end on a cliffhanger.

Anyway, season three of “Battlestar Galactica” has one of the most stunningky powerful and shocking endings that I’ve ever seen in a TV show. I don’t want to spoil too much, so I won’t go into the detail about it.

But, as you may have guessed, a cover version of “All Along The Watchtower” plays during that particular scene. I was naturally interested in the song for a while, but I only really rediscovered it earlier this year.

It’s one of those songs where almost every version of it is both unique and brilliant. Jimi Hendrix’s version is absolutely sublime and, even though it was recorded in the 1960s, it sounds timelessly modern. Bob Dylan’s original is oddly haunting and yet brilliantly fascinating, since it evokes long dark nights and painted mental images of torchlit medieval buildings [Edit: I’ve just changed the Youtube link for the Bob Dylan version of this song to the latest official video, since the official one when I originally wrote this article is now unlisted for some reason].

The cover by Bear McCreary from “Battlestar Galactica” also obviously reminds me of one of the most emotionally meaningful scenes I’ve ever seen in a TV show.

So, why am I talking about “All Along The Watchtower”?

Well, it’s because the lyrics of the song are a brilliant example of minimalist poetic storytelling.

The song tells a strange story about boredom, nihilism and anticipation. It tells a story about a night which could either be just another meaningless night or it could be the eve of an apocalypse, or even the eve of better times. It contains interesting characters and fascinating locations…. And it does it all in less than two hundred words.

So, how do you tell stories like this?

Well, for starters, you should only include a couple of characters at the most. These characters need to be universal enough to be instantly recognisable, but also unique enough to be memorable.

For example, the two characters in “All Along The Watchtower” are a joker and a thief. Everyone has their own idea of what a joker and a thief look like (eg: a medieval jester and a mysterious handsome man who wears a cloak), they’re fairly generic stock characters. As such, Bob Dylan doesn’t need to describe what these characters look like or even to describe their backstory.

From their names alone, the audience can work out who they are and the lives that they have lived. As such, Bob Dylan has more room to actually tell the story.

However, if you listen to the lyrics of the song, it begins with the joker talking seriously to the thief about how depressing he finds life to be. Not only does the joker not even joke once, but he has the kind of nihilistic attitude that you’d probably expect the thief to have. The thief, on the other hand, is friendly, reassuring and optimistic. This is about the best example of dramatic irony that you’re going to find anywhere.

So, if the characters in your minimalist poem or story have to be stock characters, you also need to make sure that these characters are different enough to be interesting or memorable. You can do this through showing their personalities, or through brief descriptions – but there must be something interesting or unusual about your characters.

Likewise, the majority of Bob Dylan’s song is taken up by dialogue. This is one of the best ways to tell an interesting story in a short space, since you can include both characterisation and descriptions in dialogue. Likewise, overhearing a fragment of a conversation is inherently interesting, because it forces the listener to try to work out what the rest of the conversation will be like. So, dialogue can be a brilliant way to tell a fascinating story using a small number of words.

In addition to this, although most of “All Along The Watchtower” is taken up by dialogue between the joker and the thief, Bob Dylan also manages to create a really atmospheric setting through a just few brief descriptions. Interestingly, Bob Dylan never actually describes the watchtower itself – instead, he describes some of the things that are happening in the location (eg: a cat growling, servants walking through rooms, riders approaching etc…).

By describing actions, rather than the location itself – not only does Bob Dylan keep the story moving at a fast pace but he also forces the audience to use their imaginations to work out what the watchtower itself looks like. After all, if you describe an action, then your audience is going to have to imagine it. But, they’re not just going to imagine it in isolation – they’re also going to have to imagine where it happens too.

So, if you describe actions instead of locations – then your audience will automatically have to think about where those actions happened. As such, you don’t actually have to describe the setting itself.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂