What Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well’ (10-minute version) Can Teach Us About Story Structure

Recently, Taylor Swift released the 10-minute version of a song called “All Too Well.” By far, this track has been the most buzzed-about aspect of her re-released Red album, and it even broke the record for longest runtime of a #1 song, a record previously held by Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

For those who don’t follow the career of Taylor Swift, “All Too Well” was originally released on her 2012 album, Red. (Full album review here). That original version ran 5 minutes and 29 seconds. Despite All Too Well” never getting a music video or a proper marketing push to radio, fans latched onto it and gave this song a life of its own. Among fans and critics, it’s widely considered to be one of the best songs that Swift has ever written. Rolling Stone even named it the number #69 best song of all time, above any of Taylor’s proper “hits.”

Before the song became that 5:29 version fans have loved for nearly a decade, it was 10 minutes long, and now at long last fans get to hear that 10-minute version. The concept of “deleted scenes” or a “director’s cut” just doesn’t exist in music the way it does in other mediums, and that’s why 10-minute “All Too Well” is so fascinating to me. We get to see what Point A looked like and which bits an artist chose to cut in their quest to Point B.

Regardless of what medium you create in, there’s interesting storytelling lessons to be learned by comparing the two versions. Both are interesting in their own way, however they actually tell surprisingly different stories. When artists are strategic about which details they include, which ones they don’t, and how those details are pieced together, they can bend and shape narratives into a million different iterations with each one making the audience feel a little bit different.

Why the 2012 version of “All Too Well” is so good

“All Too Well” is often remembered as a heart-wrenching breakup ballad, and it is one. However, what some people may be surprised to learn is that more than half the song’s runtime isn’t really about breaking up, but about how wonderful this relationship felt as it was happening. The song opens with the following verse:

“I walked through the door with you
The air was cold
But something ’bout it felt like home somehow
And I left my scarf there at your sister’s house
And you’ve still got it in your drawer even now”

Nothing about these words tells us how the love story ends. At this point, the song could just as easily be about a couple that ultimately got married and lived happily ever after, and now they’re feeling nostalgic about how it all started. In fact it’s actually not until 1 minute 12 seconds into the song, roughly a quarter of the way through its runtime, that Taylor first tells us “I know it’s long gone and that magic’s not here no more.”

Even after this revelation that the love story we’re listening to is a tragic one, the story continues to focus on how great this relationship was pre-breakup. More than that, Taylor describes how all those warm and fuzzy feelings happened during seemingly simple, mundane moments. This isn’t a relationship defined by grand romantic gestures; instead it’s about dancing in the kitchen in the middle of the night, or car trips upstate or looking at photo albums with her partner’s family. That’s why it’s such a big deal that Taylor remembers these little vignettes all too well; they’re so ordinary that they would’ve easily been forgotten by now if she didn’t associate them with such strong emotions.

It’s actually not until three minutes into the song– yes, more than halfway into its runtime– that Taylor’s post-breakup pain becomes the main focus of the narrative. (I’m considering “Maybe we got lost in translation” to be that tipping point in case anyone was wondering.) The reason why that pain is so palpable is because she’s invested three minutes in telling us all about how great this relationship was before she lost it. We got to feel like there was real potential for this couple to have a happy ending, and so the loss of that potential is devastating. It’s the same way that the death of a character we’ve gotten to know hurts way more than the death of a character we just met.

Not only do we get a lot of time invested in the good as well as the bad, we also get a pretty clear division between the good and the bad. The front half of the song is loaded with all the positive memories of how great it felt to be with this person, the back half is all about how much it hurt to lose this person. It’s a simple, focused, yet highly effective narrative: relationship is going great; relationship ends; Taylor is left struggling to pick up the pieces and move on.

How the 10-minute version is different

When I listened to 10-minute “All Too Well” for the first time, the thing that immediately stuck out to me was how this relationship didn’t seem as great as it did in 2012. This time around, Taylor admits that even before the breakup, this partner was kind of an asshole sometimes. We learn that he never said he loved her until three months after their (first) breakup. We learn he was a no-show at her birthday party. We learn that Taylor felt like his dirty little secret. We learn there was an unspecified, but noteworthy age difference between this couple. We learn that even though this partner says the age difference might’ve been the reason for their demise, he still continues dating younger women after Taylor. More often than not, the lyrics that didn’t make the 5-minute version sound like red flags.

These moments come in the same form that the positive ones did in 2012: with specific imagery. I didn’t realize this at first, but 5-minute “All Too Well” really saves its most visual moments for the good times. Sure, we get more abstract, poetic descriptions of how bad Taylor feels after the breakup, but never a specific scene of this partner doing something objectively bad, and no scenes of Taylor’s emotions disrupting her day-to-day life. Sure, we know he “called her up again just to break her like a promise, so casually cruel in the name of being honest” but that’s still pretty darn vague compared to the descriptions of Taylor’s positive memories. There’s no negative counterpart to dancing in the kitchen in the refrigerator light, or this partner being so captivated by Taylor he almost runs a red light.

In the 10-minute version, those bad times are captured in scenes like the ones that captured the good times. We have a scene of Taylor weeping in a bathroom while some actress asks her what happened. We have a scene of Taylor watching the front door all night waiting for her partner to show up to a birthday party but then he DOESN’T (a moment made more powerful in conjunction with another Red track about this birthday called “The Moment I Knew.”) There’s a level playing field between good and bad.

Another big difference is that this version doesn’t have that same clear divide between the moments that felt good and the moments that felt bad. Instead, we shift back and forth between both moods throughout the song’s runtime. We get a memory of Taylor anxiously waiting for her partner to say he loves her only to be left disappointed; that moment happens before the memory about dancing in the kitchen in the middle of the night. We get a scene about this partner charming Taylor’s father sandwiched between the scene of Taylor crying in a bathroom and the aforementioned sad birthday scene.

Compared to 2012, Those less-than-rosy moments also start happening far earlier in the narrative. If this version had the same story structure as the original we would’ve gotten roughly six minutes of good, happy times before the song turns dark. Instead, it starts getting pretty dark around 2:30, only a quarter of the way into the song’s runtime. Remember, in 2012, that 1/4 mark had Taylor merely acknowledging the breakup before she continued to reminisce about the good times, here she gets to 1/4 of the way and devotes several rather dramatic lines to the death of this relationship and her partner’s feeble attempts to revive it after three months in the grave. At 3:33 we get one of my personal favorite lines of the new version, “you kept me like a secret but I kept you like an oath.” That same “maybe we got lost in translation” line that I considered the tipping point of the 2012 version happens at 4:04, less than halfway through the song.

Another change I noticed upon further listens is towards the end of the song, at 7:38 to be exact (roughly 3/4 of the way through the song for those keeping track):

I’m a soldier who’s returning half her weight
And did the twin flame bruise paint you blue?
Just between us, did the love affair maim you too?

We’re left wondering if this relationship was really a two-way street, a question that was not on the table back in 2012. In that version, the final chorus has Taylor confidently insisting this relationship was “the one real thing you’ve ever known” and an outro where she takes prior choruses and flips them from “I was there, I remember it all” to “you were there, you remember it all.” While these lyrics still appear in the 10-minute version, they’re no longer the finale. Instead, Taylor spends the last quarter of the song second-guessing that sentiment, first with the above lyrics asking about the “twin flame bruise” etc. and then later Taylor re-phrases “you remember it all” as “do you remember it all too well?” It’s a question now, not a statement.

So in 2012, it sounded like Taylor knew in her gut that this love was so strong and powerful that even though the relationship is over now, her ex must be haunted by all the same memories that haunt her. In the 10-minute version, that confidence is gone. Instead, the last scene shows a more uncertain Taylor considering that maybe this relationship never meant as much to her partner as it did to her. There’s a chance his heart was never in it, and thus he got to walk away unscathed and forget all these snapshots that she can’t. It’s one more subtle, yet important way that the 10-minute version undermines the idea that this couple could’ve ever had a happy ending. And remember, that potential for a happy ending is a big part of why that original 5-minute version feels as sad as it does.

So while the 2012 version depicts a once-great love story that ultimately met a bitter end, the 10-minute version depicts a more dysfunctional couple that seems like they were doomed from the beginning. Even when things are good, they’re never great. Taylor’s pain doesn’t really come from losing a great relationship so much as a general undercurrent of toxicity that persisted throughout this relationship’s on-again-off-again lifecycle. It’s the pain of knowing someone’s mistreating you, yet not knowing how to disconnect from them to protect yourself.

So which one is better?

Well… it depends. While the 5-minute version of “All Too Well” made me feel sad that this relationship is over, I can’t really say the same about the 10-minute version. How could I? The relationship just doesn’t sound very healthy, and Taylor would probably be better off without this bloke anyway.

There was one lyric in particular that didn’t pack quite the same punch as it did in 2012:

Maybe this thing was a masterpiece ’til you tore it all up

In the 5-minute version, this is one of the first lyrics we hear after that 3-minute mark, when the song stops being about cute moments this couple had together and turns to Taylor painstakingly trying to get over her ex. In the 10-minute version, we get this lyric AFTER learning that Taylor’s partner didn’t want to say he loved her, and that he “kept her like a secret.” I didn’t believe this lyric the same way because unlike in 2012, the relationship described doesn’t sound like it was ever a masterpiece.

So if the question at hand is… “Is 10-minute ‘All Too Well’ a more effective re-telling of the same story Taylor’s been singing since 2012?” I’d have to say no. Taylor and her co-writer Liz Rose made smart choices about what to cut, leaving us with a clear, focused narrative that’s carefully crafted for maximum heartbreak. By comparison, the 10-minute version is cluttered. It can feel like it’s treading water for long stretches, just coming up with new words for the same feelings over and over again with no meaningful progression in the narrative. It lacks clarity, with lyrics about this thing being a masterpiece while other lyrics have already told us it’s not. It cites so many examples of toxicity that an outsider can easily see that they aren’t isolated incidents: this partner is just not good for Taylor. Because of that, it’s harder feel like we’re mourning the relationship’s end with her.

However, the more I’ve listened to it, the more I think we shouldn’t be asking if this is a better version of the old song. It doesn’t seem fair to judge the 10-minute “All Too Well” as an alternate version of the same story when it has such an altogether different story to tell. It’s not about having a great relationship swept out from under you, nor is it really trying to be. Yes, it can feel like we’re stuck spinning our wheels in a perpetual heartbreak machine with no sign of narrative progress in sight… but maybe that’s kind of the whole darn point?

Just as 5-minute “All Too Well” is great in ways that 10-minute “All Too Well” falls short, I think the same is true if you put the shoe on the other foot. A lot of times, breaking up isn’t that clear cut “we used to be great, now it’s over” narrative. Those moments in between “couple is great together” and “now it’s over” often hold the most interesting emotional turmoil, and that is where 10-minute “All Too Well” really shines.

It captures those moments where you love and hate someone all at the same time; the moments where you’re irrationally hoping your partner will change even when all the writing on the wall tells you they never will; how it feels to stay in a relationship long past its expiration date because you’re just that desperate, and no matter how bad the relationship feels, the thought of it actually ending is too daunting to bear. Breaking up oftentimes is a messy, confusing process, so there’s a case to be made for using a messy, confusing structure to get that feeling across.

The 5-minute version is a great case study for conventional storytelling. Establish a status quo; use specific, poignant imagery to make it come alive; now change that status quo; show us how that change in circumstances changed our characters; delete anything else that doesn’t fit. A lot of great writing throughout human history fits that formula, and that’s because it bloody works.

The 10-minute version is a case study in how stories that break that mold can also work; how structure itself can be another means of capturing a feeling. When done well, these less conventional structures can feel true to life in ways that formulas from Creative Writing 101 never can.

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