When I was in grade school—between WW II and Korea—I went to the Lincoln Theater every Saturday afternoon, along with hundreds of other little boys. We came to see the double-feature: two cowboy movies.
The Lincoln Theater, the most decrepit of the three movie houses in Elyria, Ohio, was a big wooden building on the town’s main drag, whose rotting clapboards were black with age and lack of paint. The inside walls were also black and so was the pressed metal ceiling, I think. I don’t know if the color came from paint or dirt—it could have been either.
Our parents parked us here on Saturday afternoons, entrusting us to the crotchety old man and his wife who sold and took tickets, manned the refreshment stand and made a half-hearted attempt to keep the mayhem to a minimum. My mother was a worrier, but I don’t think even she was concerned about my safety. We were living in a Norman Rockwell America, long before kids were routinely instructed not to talk to strangers. Besides, what strangers? There were no strangers here.
What we were, inside this cave, was a restless mob of grade school boys, all of us in stripped t-shirts, chinos and Keds. I don’t remember ever seeing a girl at the Lincoln theater, by the way. No official policy had made it a boys’ club, but I’m sure that if any girls dared to enter, even in groups, they would have been considered brazen trespassers and mercilessly and continually teased.
Precisely at 1 p.m., the lights went down and the show started—cowboys and Indians (or robbers or greedy landowners), in living black-and-white, accompanied by the roar of pounding hoofs and six-shooter fusillades. But the soundtrack didn’t really have a chance. Most of the time, it was drowned out by the rolling thunder from the audience, a cacophony of chatter, laughter, hooting, yelling and the occasional outraged or terrified scream erupting from the grade school boys sitting in the dark, at each other’s mercy.
We were not only noisy, we were a squirming, swarming, leaderless mass, a hive in constant motion, shifting seats to get closer to friends or to escape tormentors, desperately scurrying to the bathroom during a breather between gunfights, leaping out of our seats and shoving past a row of kids to raid the candy counter or just plain cruising up and down the aisle because no one stopped us.
As the movies played, a series of skirmishes took place, most of which involved launching volleys of Jujubes or Juicyfruits toward seats occupied by hostile forces. Jujubes, in case you’ve never had the pleasure, were like pellets of colored Tupperware—practically unchewable transparent red, yellow or green candies about the size of pencil erasers. You could suck them—they melted about as quickly as ball bearings–or risk your teeth in the attempt to chew them. Either way, each one of these things lasted for hours, if not days—unless, of course, you spit-launched it toward someone in one of the rows ahead of you.
Most of the candy we threw or spit-launched hit the mark, I think—I remember the frequent angry outcries of “What the heck!” or “Cut that out!” or Hey, who threw that!?” (I never heard a kid swear back then). But some bounced off the screen, adding to its random pattern of pockmarks, and a lot ended up on the floor, melting there, and making it perpetually sticky, so that every step produced a sound like ripping paper.
We also ate popcorn, of course. I remember watching the crotchety old man and his wife operating a free-standing antique glass-walled popcorn popper, and angrily scooping the stuff into cardboard boxes. They didn’t douse it with butter—no theater did back then—and even now, I am puzzled by this notion. After all, you eat popcorn for the crunch. Butter makes it soggy. So isn’t buttering counterproductive?
While we munched our popcorn, sucked our Jujubes or caused what mischief we could, Hollywood’s version of the American West flickered on the screen, in films like Raiders of the Border with Johnny Mac Brown, or Hopalong Cassidy Returns, with Bill Boyd and Gabby Hayes, or Marked Trails with Bob Steele and Hoot Gibson. or Death Valley Manhunt with Wild Bill Elliot.
Gene Autry and Roy Rogers provided the only important stylistic variation in these movies. But we boys loathed both of these guys. We considered the very idea of singing cowboys offensive and unnatural. We had an active aversion to any hint of romance. We demanded that our heroes restrict themselves to riding, shooting, breaking out of jail and mercilessly slaughtering bad guys or Indians (without visible blood, of course).
Oddly enough, the cowboy double-features were not the highlight of our afternoon movie experience. That honor goes to a particular kind of short subject, the movie serial, a ten or fifteen part story shown one episode a week, featuring Captain America, Buck Rogers, the Son of Zorro, the Tiger woman or, the greatest of them all, Flash Gordon.
What made us love the serials? The unremitting violence and danger, of course—and the cliff-hanger ending, in which the hero was always about to die a horrible death. It was absolutely riveting. Wild horses couldn’t have stopped us from coming back next week to see the next episode.
Years later, as I began writing fiction and casting about for writing techniques to ratchet up the suspense, I found myself remembering the old days at the Lincoln Theater. Now, that was suspense. The serials had paralyzed us, silenced us and taken our breath away. Why? How had they done that to us? What was their secret?
Thinking about it now, the mystery isn’t such a mystery. Serials put the hero (or the hero’s girlfriend, his dog or someone else innocent and/or vulnerable) in danger, grave danger, mortal danger. And they keep him there, his life at stake, and not only that, but also his noble work, saving the world or whatever. The villain is on the verge of winning, with grave consequences for all.
This was the serial’s writing lesson, I realized. Put the hero in danger. Put something at stake—his life, a relationship, world peace, a crucial business deal, buried treasure—anything will do. And once you get him in danger, drag it out. Tighten the screws, then tighten them some more, until they almost pop, then, finally, in the very nick of time, rescue him.
Of course, the serials took that one step further. The moment the hero is safe, they put him back into danger, something even worse than before. And they do this again and again, week after week, the stakes rising every time. Why not write a book this wayI asked myself. Put your hero at risk, then save him. Then put him at greater risk, and even greater risk, again and again, and save him again and again, saving the greatest risk for last, and make that one a surprise.
Turns out you never know when life is going to teach you something about writing. The lesson might even be lurking in a childhood memory.