Anatomy of an Opening Scene: Wrecking Balls
I have trouble opening novels, and the start of Wrecking Balls is actually my third choice. Two other openings exist. The first chronicled the original childhood meeting of Charleston and Gary (the two wrecking balls). The scene is still in the book but pushed back slightly later in the story now.
The problems with the childhood opening were twofold. When you start to read a story about children it registers as a children’s story, and this is most certainly not. The tone, however, was almost correct. These aren’t your average 10-year-olds. But, with the childhood perspective it felt slightly off and I didn’t want to mislead at the opening.
These Wrecking Balls may act out like perpetual children, but the point of the book is that they are adults in an adult business — stand-up comedy — a cutthroat business with economic pressures that warp one’s sense of ethics.
The second issue with the childhood opening was that it didn’t delineate the plot, the current time frame, or explain why there is a book about these two guys. Their conflicts have escalated in the current time frame, and I needed to indicate that information up front. The current conflict is the bulk of the book. Those childhood scenes began with conflict, of course, but by the end of that sequence it dissipates and resolves itself.
The current opening scene is a police detective scene in a hospital. This moment was not written at all, and so it was the very last thing to occur to me. It first seemed obligatory and rote, so I skipped it in favor of what happens at the very end of the book. But, after months of simmering, it bubbled up that here was an opportunity to take a peek at Charleston at the exact moment when he became Chazz, his stage alter-ego. The evolution of his character is the plot of the book. It’s a character study primarily.
It became a bookend story frame.
It jumps back in time after the initial scene, and so I had to insure there was enough meat on the bone in that first scene to keep readers chomping. I hate when a story begins with something inconsequential and then flashes back in time, failing to interest me with what was in the present moment. That is the major pitfall in most bookend-structured stories.
Wrecking Balls’ present time frame scene unloads a hell of a lot of information quickly to launch these screwballs on a downhill trajectory.
Charleston Cranston awakens unable to move, and he assumes that he is paralyzed. The gag is that he’s pumped full of morphine. His eye is patched, and his neck is in a brace. So that doesn’t help with his mobility. He instantly panics, as he often overreacts. That’s who he is: tightly wound and fully committed to the ideas that pop into his head. A drama queen.
We see a blurry African American police detective hovering over his hospital bed attempting to interrogate him.
“So you were drinking?” The detective’s deep voice berated.
“Yeah. Of course. You have my blood already. The hell else do you want? Bloodsucker.”
Charleston, the comic, has to crack wise. There’s nothing else he can possibly do. He is the embodiment of a fucked-up comedian beyond the point of redemption. That choice was already made long ago, and he’s chosen to go down with that ship.
We learn that there was a crash.
“I have no recollection senator. Why don’t you ask Giordano? I’m the victim here. I need care.”
… “Is that so? The victim?”
“You’re fuckin’ A right. Fat fuck was trying to kill me. It’s on the video.”
In Charleston’s mind he is most certainly the victim. There is zero room for doubt. It IS on video, and that’s a subtle point that plays into the plot extensively later on. The two comedians prank each other for Youtube clicks throughout the book.
We learn that Gary Giordano is indeed a fat fuck, a “plus size funny man,” and not some delicate snowflake. His character has weight to throw around on several levels and usually at Charleston.
Another subtle point is made when Charleston is offered his one phone call, but he realizes that he has no one to call. He is friendless now, a skeleton key to his character.
Unable to dodge the detective’s interrogation with one-liners, Charleston must face reality. The questions aren’t going away, and the detective is simply doing his job. That detective is a stand-in for society, and he has to account for whatever the hell just happened. He’s not a flashy character, not a cop who wishes he were a pirate, or an Astronaut, or an alien. He’s simply taking care of the business of keeping society functioning in the face of potentially crazy, dangerous individuals beyond the reins of the law.
Then it’s time for Charleston’s wake-up call:
The cop flipped through his pad. “The eyewitnesses said you rammed your vehicle into Giordano’s.”
Charleston’s jaw, inhibited by a neck brace, forced his mouth open. “No that’s not right. I defended myself. Self-defense.”
The man cocked his head. “So you remember the crash now?”
Charleston suddenly realizes that he doesn’t know what happened to Gary afterward. He’s not in the room, and they’re in an Emergency Room. Charleston is surrounded by only police.
Charleston’s un-bandaged eye peered up, pinned wide. “Is he uh? Is he all right? Gary? Is he okay?”
The detective now takes control of the conversation, a reversal, a power shift. He’s not going to answer, and he’s not going to let Charleston off the hook. This was the best possible development, from his perspective, and now he drops Charleston into icy water.
“I’m askin’ the questions. Get it?”
“Well he’s not dead, is he?”
“Did you crash your car intentionally?”
This rapid-fire exchange serves as the climax of the scene. It has built up to this moment where the stakes are clear; the jokes have disappeared.
What would it mean to Charleston if Giordano was dead? Beyond criminal charges, what about their relationship?
In his confusion, Charleston still has to process what it would all mean. This leads inevitably back to how it all started, the conflict, the plot, the story of Wrecking Balls. Who are these guys?
“He fucks with me. That’s how all of this shit started. He’s a real fuckin’ asshole.”
Or is he just a damn good comedian? Perhaps even funnier than Charleston?
Joe Giambrone is the author of Wrecking Balls and other titles available through Amazon and stores beyond.