Go Big, Open Strong!

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Go Big, Open Strong!

By Barry Willis

“When they think of huge openings, many people think of me” So says Hedwig, the transsexual East German rock star in John Cameron Mitchell’s wonderful redemption story Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Hedwig’s laconic self-deprecation is a joke, of course, but at the joke’s core is wise advice: Go big. Open strong. Establish your territory. Take command of your audience.

Every successful form of entertainment has a powerful opening and a strong stance. In Hedwig and the Angry Inch, it’s the band’s performance to an uncomprehending audience in a scuzzy salad bar called Bilgewater’s. In Herman Melville’s timeless novel Moby Dick, it’s the narrator’s introduction: “Call me Ishmael.”  In Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, it’s a bare description of the squalid quarters where resides aspiring boxer Billy Tully: “He lived in the Hotel Coma.”  The hotel’s name implies the state of a whole culture of semi-pro prizefighters in the Sacramento Valley town of Stockton, California in the late 1950s.

A strong lead is a compelling hook for capturing readers. If you’ve got them up front, you’ve probably got them all the way to the end. But that strong opening must take your readers into an equally compelling narrative landscape.

Arguably among the greatest county songs ever penned, Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” is a paragon of simple narrative strength, unfolding a personal tragedy in five elegant stanzas:

The first thing I remember knowing
Was a lonesome whistle blowing
And a young’un’s dream of growing up to ride
On a freight train leaving town
Not knowing where I’m bound
And no one could change my mind, but Mama tried

One and only rebel child
From a family meek and mild
My mama seemed to know what lay in store
Despite all my Sunday learning
Towards the bad I kept on turning
Till Mama couldn’t hold me anymore

And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried

Dear old Daddy, rest his soul
Left my mom a heavy load
She tried so very hard to fill his shoes
Working hours without rest
Wanted me to have the best
She tried to raise me right, but I refused

And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.

A great many would-be writers could—should—study this song to discover how much power lies in lyrical simplicity. In this case: longing, foreshadowing, foreboding, loneliness, rebellion, crime, guilt, consequences, regret, and ultimately, self-acceptance—all while honoring the parent whose loving guidance was long ignored. The tale couldn’t be told any better or with any more insight by a novelist regardless of their stature. It’s consistently strong from beginning to end.

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