I was a huge fan of Rocky & Bullwinkle. I still am, even if I’ve forgotten just about every episode, or clip, I’ve ever seen. But what I do remember, and what I will always remember, is the opening sequence, and the theme music that goes with it.
A flying squirrel? Are you kidding me? How awesome is that? Only slightly less awesome than a clumsy, but witty, moose, that much I’m certain of!
Hey, as a side note, I had a flying squirrel once. His name was Quirkus.
He was awesome. And he liked grapes. And pockets. And urinating on my shoulder.
But anyway, Rocky the Flying Squirrel got me to thinking about openings. And squirrels. And it occurred to me that, just perhaps, there’s a lesson in there for aspiring writers. As always, there’s a story, albeit a short one.
The fact of the matter is that a story–any story–requires a handle for the reader/viewer to grab hold of. Something to ensure that they grip that opening, and hang on until you reveal what all meant. What that opening sequence had to do with anything. And don’t fool yourself, it has everything to do with your story, and its ultimate end point. Watch any movie, and in the first ten minutes, if it doesn’t give you something to grab onto, you’re done. You don’t want to invest yourself in it, but in all likelihood, you spent the money to watch it, so, well, you endure it, and offer it a tepid, “Meh,” when the end credits roll.
In a book, you have the first few pages to hook the reader, if not less than that. For the prospective agent, or editor, you have as little as the first paragraph. You want to tell a story to begin your story. You want to give the reader the feeling that they just unwittingly jumped into a car on the most exhilarating/frightening/horrifying roller coaster they will ever know.
I journey to Richmond, almost every year, in October to attend the James River Writers Conference, where I have yet to fail to leave wiser than I arrived. They have, for the past few years, opened the conference with something they call, “First Pages,” which is nothing more than a critique that is as much Sumo wrestling, as it is Pie in the Face. As a writer, you anonymously submit the first page of your manuscript, or story, and two extremely talented readers perform your work before the 150 attendees, and a panel that usually consists of an editor, an agent, an established writer, and a roll of the dice. I boldly submitted the first page of Anointed at one of these sessions, leaned back in my chair, and awaited the praise that was sure to come.
I was butchered, and justifiably so. My opening was droll, rambling, and nothing happened. It was a horrible opening. It was a serviceable third chapter, but it did nothing to offer hope that it would be anything but what it appeared. Who really wants to endure 336 pages of rambling? Of course, the book isn’t 336 pages of rambling, but that opening that I offered left the impression that everything to follow was precisely that. So, that weekend, motivated by the crudely horrible things that they panel said of my opening (not the work itself, but the opening), I wrote a scene in which Satan, and the Anti-Christ walked into a bar. There was dialogue, there was some idle rambling (as it is a great tool of humor I employ), but there was also action, as the characters worked through the scene, and there was intrigue. There were characters that immediately offered questions, and a story within the story; a story that played out through the entire work, and resolved itself in the end.
It was like stepping into the car of the roller coaster, and anticipating what was to come, rather than the feeling that the ride was over before it ever really began. Give your reader a moment to look forward to the ride, give them a glimpse of the rails, the precipitous climb to that first drop, and perhaps even a few twists, and turns, beyond. But don’t drop them in the car along the way, somewhere on a flat plain, where the only thing they can possibly feel is apathy for the ride.