As a movie and TV buff I have two rules for greatness:
- The Spencer Tracy Effect
- The opening scene of the pilot in Breaking Bad
Allow me to explain:
Spencer Tracy could steal a scene by not saying a word. He could stare at the ground, slowly look up at the sky and smile at the person across from him.
He made it look easy. He was a rarity when it came to doing something so simple and making it look so great.
There was a calmness and a confidence about him. Not only in his ability as an actor but in the characters that he played.
The second rule of greatness is the opening scene of the Breaking Bad pilot. It is a perfect example of drawing the audience in and forcing them to stay.
It is fast, it is confusing and it is impossible to look away.
For those who have never seen it here is a breakdown of what you missed:
- The driver is wearing a gas mask.
- He is a middle age man.
- Partially nude.
- A panic look on his face.
- He is racing a Winnebago through a desert landscape.
- A passenger is passed out. He is also wearing a gas mask.
Spencer Tracy and Breaking Bad succeeded in one thing: They kept the viewer interested.
It’s easy to forget we are in the entertainment business. For those who are writing for pleasure please ignore what I just said. But for those who wish to see their novel in print with the goal of entertaining the vast majority, you my friend are in the entertainment business.
Our goal is to create characters who can grip the page the same way Spencer Tracy gripped the screen. Our goal is to capture the reader’s imagination in the same breath that Breaking Bad captured ours.
Not everyone is a fan of Spencer Tracy or Breaking Bad and that’s fine. We all have our favorites and non-favorites.
But if you fall in the non-favorite category here is why you need to push those opinions aside:
Spencer Tracy had the ability to create real people. His characters were our parents, our friends or our neighbors. They were small town grocery store owners, your friend’s dad who farmed a hundred acres or your favorite teacher who taught math.
The people he portrayed were real. There was an instant connection between his characters and the viewer.
He was the hero of the story and wishing for him to fail was out of the question. He had to succeed and for those who tried to stop him were immediately despised.
Spencer Tracy was short and stocky and far from the Hollywood handsome. He was a normal guy but his characters were bigger than life.
He was us and that’s why we cared.
The Breaking Bad pilot was full of surprises and the writers did an excellent job in making the viewer ask why.
Why is this middle aged partially naked man driving a Winnebago like a bat out of hell in the middle of nowhere and why is he and the other guy wearing gas masks?
Why is the other guy passed out?
Or is he dead?
The viewer wouldn’t dream of turning away until the answers were met.
Which brings us back to page one
We get one chance to make a first impression. That first page is the most important page of our book.
We cannot over write it nor can we underwrite it. Whatever we do one thing is certain: The balance of our words and the action of our scene has to be strong.
We have to be at the top of our game and we’ve got one page to get it right.
So what do we do? Where do we start?
By forcing the reader to ask questions and by giving them a character they can connect with, chances are good….really good, that they will turn the page.
When you are creating your opening scene give it a punch. Give them Spencer in a Winnebago driving like a bat out of hell. Yes, I’m laughing too. But it works and that’s all that matters on page one.
Give them something they’ll remember and when they do they will turn the page.
We get one chance to hold the readers interest. On a positive note we welcome these kinds of challenges because that’s who we are.
So create your own Spencer and your own Breaking Bad. Whatever you do make it memorable and the reader will come back for more.