Argentine-American storyteller based in Appalachia

How Taylor Swift Uses Narrative

The short film that accompanies her rerelease of "All Too Well" is rich with plot devices, painted scenes, and effective story framing.

How Taylor Swift Uses Narrative
Photo by Ed Leszczynskl / Unsplash

First, let me address the men here who don’t or won't listen to Taylor Swift. Who don’t care about the narrative the women in their lives have told them this week about how she is a genius-heroine. How she outsmarted music industry tycoons to take back creative control of her first six albums. Who hear Swift’s voice every time their wife’s iPhone connects in their car because she was one of those people in 2017 who couldn’t wait for reputation to be released on Spotify and had to buy it on Apple Music.

Listen to Swift’s “All Too Well (10-Minute Version).” Then go to YouTube and join the 20 million (and counting) who’ve watched the short film she directed to accompany the song.

Pause at 3:38, preferably with your partner seated beside you on the couch. Then press play and pay close attention. Stay committed until at least 6:30. (Yes, that’s Max from Stranger Things. Ignore the generic-beard guy—you don’t know who he is. Just pay attention to the lines).

A short film for "All Too Well," Taylor Swift's directorial debut

“Why are you so pissed off?”

“I’m not pissed off. Who said I was pissed off?”

That’s the first one you will recognize. The spark that lights the fight scene: two minutes of absolute anguish that have played out in every relationship in every kitchen and living room in the world.

“You dropped my fucking hand.”

She strikes first, with the specific moment which could be any seemingly harmless moment in any relationship. The first night when you don’t open her car door. The Tuesday in February you get home from work and instead of kissing her on the lips ask her where your dinner is. The time, at the work party where she doesn’t know anybody, you talk to your young, attractive female colleague for too long and never introduce her as your girlfriend. Now you’re alone together. She’s brought it up, and you’re closing your eyes and shaking your head.

“You’re making me feel fucking stupid.”

“Holy shit. I don’t think I’m making you feel that way, I think you’re making yourself feel that way.”

That’s your shot. The comeback. I am a rational man, therefore I do not allow emotions to interfere with how I handle conflict in this relationship (this is my go-to approach). How’s that fared you so far? Carving a road toward resolution, brother? Or are you just tossing kindling to the flames?

“These are people I haven’t seen in 10 years. And you just sit there the entire fucking time. It was fun. I actually had a fucking blast. Now this is the night. We’re doing this. Awesome.”

“You just treated me differently...You didn’t even look at me once. You didn’t talk to me.”*

You try the guilt trip—another one of my default moves. I thought everything was perfect then you decided to make a big deal out of nothing, and now the only memory we’ll have of this otherwise enjoyable night is you burning it to the ground.

But she challenges your narrative. Maybe it was perfect for you. But how is it supposed to feel perfect for me if the person I love most in the world won’t even hold my hand when I’m sitting beside them at a dinner table where they’re my only connection to anyone else in the room?

Emotions crest. He wraps her in a hug. I’m sorry, he pleads. She’s embarrassed. They kiss and make up. Fin.

But don’t get stuck on the fight scene. That’s the bait that hooks non-Swifties like me. When you listen closely to the words of the song and watch the video a second or tenth time you’ll notice something else: Swift’s masterful use of narrative. How she employs plot devices, paints scenes, plays with the boy-meets-girl story arc, and uses visuals to create the most compelling song-video combination I've seen in years.

If you still feel weird about liking this song, listen to Ruston Kelly's cover version. This man knows heartbreak.

Chekhov’s Gun

And I left my scarf there
at your sister's house /
And you've still got it
in your drawer, even now.

About writing, Russian novelist Anton Chekhov once said: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."

The point is simple: don’t flood your story with details that go nowhere. If you’re Christopher Nolan, there’s a chance doing so may lead your audience to YouTube to watch a dozen videos explaining Tenet. But, you’re not. So instead you lose them, possibly forever.

In fiction writing, an item that you introduce, steer away from in the middle of your story, then bring back up to hammer home a key point later is called a plot voucher. Goes like this: “Here’s this thing. You may not see it again for a while. When the time comes, however, you will know it’s true purpose.”

That’s the red scarf.

At :50 in the video, you see it for the first time when Sadie Sink, playing Swift, walks into Jake Gyllenha...Dylan O’ Brien’s sister’s house, where she takes the scarf off and leaves it on the railing of the staircase. At 1:01, the camera zooms in on it. Those of you who’ve listened to the song at any point since 2012 know what’s coming when it reappears at 12:36, set more than a decade after the death of the relationship. By that point, Swift, in director mode, has taken the viewer through the couple’s ups and downs with titled scenes: “An Upstate Escape,” “The First Crack in the Glass,” “Are You Real?,” “The Breaking Point,” “The Reeling,” and “The Remembering.” So when you see O’Brien watching her through the window of a bookstore where she’s giving a reading of her debut novel about their time together you open your eyes real big and gasp. He’s wearing it!

After plaid shirt days and nights
when you made me your own /
Now you mail back my things
and I walk home alone /
But you keep my old scarf
from that very first week /
'Cause it reminds you of innocence
and it smells like me.

The scarf is transformed into a relic of what the male protagonist once had and will never forgive himself for losing, according to Swift’s narrative. (More on that in a second.)

Scenes From a ‘Masterpiece’

Portraying scenes in fiction that read as being real without being autobiographical is exceptionally hard. I wrote an essay last month about how Jason Isbell and Bruce Springsteen do this masterfully in their songwriting. Some fiction writers pull this off naturally too—Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl, Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men, to take examples of novels that were just as good in film. It can be hard for us to distinguish what these writers have pulled out of their own lives and what they haven’t. That leads to a lot of night-time Googling.

I love to read or watch scenes like Sink and O’Brien’s epic fight, which is relatable even if you haven’t lived it frame by frame. In the case of “All Too Well,” the scenes are supercharged by the song’s new lyrics, which add a lot of “show, don’t tell” elements.

You who charmed my dad
with self-effacing jokes /
Sipping coffee like you're
on a late-night show /
But then he watched me watch
the front door all night,  
willing you to come. /
And he said, "It's supposed to
be fun turning 21."

Do you see the canvas she’s painting? The lover—call him Jake—pulled out old tricks to impress Swift’s dad—like Chris Pratt did America on Jimmy Kimmel before last week when he said that thing about having a healthy daughter with his new wife and the internet exploded against him.** The prick. He couldn’t fool us. Neither can you, Jake. That’s what Swift is saying to the listener.

And did the twin flame
bruise paint you blue? /
Just between us, did the love affair
maim you, too? /
'Cause in this city's barren cold /
I still remember the first fall of snow /
And how it glistened as it fell /
I remember it all too well.

In this final verse and scene, Swift appears willing to forgive him. Her references are poetic but familiar to her fanbase. The twin flame is her soulmate. She asks: is he, the other tethered soul, showing the same pain on his face and body from the breakup? The fall, with its red and yellow leaves, has been replaced by December snow (Swift dated actor Jake Gyllenhaal from October through December 2010). Even metaphorically, the final image works: the relationship was a season of her life that died in winter.

Flipping the Script

The writer Kurt Vonnegut popularized a theory called the eight story shapes. One of the most recognizable shapes is Boy Meets Girl. In its basic form, boy-meets-girl narratives read like The Notebook. Lovers meet. They fall madly in love. They encounter an obstacle. They overcome the obstacle then live happily ever after.

Popular variations of this script have appeared in indie rom-coms for years. One of my favorite is Ruby Sparks, which I wrote about during my brief stint as a film reviewer last year. In this allegorical fantasy story, a writer creates his perfect girl, tries to make her love him in every way he needs, realizes he cannot force her into being exactly who he wants without destroying her, loses the relationship, then meets a real-life version of her while walking his dog in the park.

Swift is masterful at creating narratives in which she is the heroine.

I freely embraced this type of narrative during my teenage years in the emo music scene (I wrote about this last week). We are the cheated ones. We are the nice guys who finish last. But soon we will have our fated day of glory.

While researching this essay, I read a mixed review for "All Too Well" in The Daily Beast. “It’s a sometimes infuriating habit of Swift’s to end some of her tougher, gut-wrenching material on a note of sweetness and optimism,” the writer said. (If you watch the video, what she’s referring to starts at 11:24 in the scene titled “Thirteen Years Gone.”)

But I love this about “All Too Well.”

If it were me in the room with Swift, I'd tell her to be vindictive. “This is your story,” I’d say. If your ex-lover wants to write his, he has a platform to do so.

This is 2021. We carry computers in our pockets and can write press releases in tweets. Ultimately we create art for an audience. Our audience. Some of you, I hope, will one day follow me to the ends of the earth. Some of you will never stomach me. That’s something Swift has dug her heels into for her entire career. Her fans want her to win.

In this boy-meets-girl narrative, the female protagonist doesn’t end up living happily ever after. But the shape of the story doesn't dip either. Because, ultimately, she's happy to see it end. It allows her to transform into the feminist heroine who's taken the pieces of the relationship, turned them into an award-winning story to share with her devoted followers, and get the upper hand over him. Too late, honey. Missed your shot.

Where Visuals Enrich The Story

Most artist’s music videos don’t match their lyrics as closely as Swift's. Because music videos are not intended to be screenplays. They capture the essence of the song. The visuals are an accompaniment. But they ultimately exist as a separate thing.

There are great music videos with famous actors (Hozier’s “Cherry Wine” with Saoirse Ronan, Ed Sheeran’s “Lego House” with Ron Weasley).  There are some that are visually astounding (Bon Iver’s “Holocene”) or have a powerful narrative or message (Childish Gambino's "Feels Like Summer").

The way Swift uses timelines and paints dramatic scenes to reveal information is only matched, in my personal memory bank, by Chris Stapleton's “Fire Away.”

Chris Stapleton conceived the story for the "Fire Away " video, which was produced in partnership with the Campaign to Change Direction, an organization working nationwide to address mental health and prevent self-harm.

The way she pairs each verse and chorus to the scenes you're seeing gives the audience a much fuller experience of the song. It heightens the drama. There are traditional love scenes: lovers walking through a forest trail and kissing on their way to the edges of a lake where they each take an earbud and listen to a song together (1:29-2:32). The moment when he casually rejects her hand at the dinner table (2:47-2:51). But the most affecting image is Sink laying in her bed wailing, feeling her chest, as the phone rings at her side (8:17-8:26). You want to talk about acting portraying real life. Who hasn’t lived that moment at least once?

Not all of us are able to visualize the words we listen to in our cars or on our headphones. For those who would rather see, Swift fills in the story. All I can really say is watch it.

And when you do make sure to tell the woman beside you that you were wrong. Taylor Swift isn’t that bad after all.

*A couple of my other favorite lines. “Trust me, they were enthralled by you. Of course, of course. You were the perfect host—you didn’t even look at me.” (Her). “You’re making this all about you.” (Him). “Don’t look at me like that.” (Him). “Come on, come on. I don’t want to fight. I’m sorry.” (Him). “Oh I’m embarrassed.” (Her). This is a short film, so the resolution happens quickly. In real life, it doesn’t come until at least 15 minutes later when one of you walks out of the room you stormed into and asks the other to apologize first, then you apologize, you both grab a drink, and you cool off on the couch while trying to find a show to stream on Netflix).

**If even I read about this, you surely did. Pratt, who has a son born with disabilities with ex-wife Anna Farris, posted an Instagram tribute to his second wife Katherine Schwarzenegger where he thanks her for giving him a “gorgeous, healthy daughter.” The internet is still talking about it. Makes you question his original intention while getting a weird feeling about watching clips of Andy on Parks and Rec on YouTube. For context, see the Buzzfeed article, “Support For Anna Faris Is At An All-Time High After Chris Pratt's Instagram Post Thanking His New Wife For His ‘Healthy Daughter.’”

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Jamie Larson