Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

A Story from Scratch, Act One

Years ago, Ira Levin wrote a very polite rejection letter to me.  As the author of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives and Deathtrap, Levin’s my hero of tight, fast plotting.  I’d written to thank him for endorsing my book, Diary, and asking if he could offer any advice based on his method of writing fiction.  In response, Levin told the story about a very, very old man with a long beard.  Once someone asked if the man slept with his beard inside or outside the blankets, and the old man couldn’t readily say.  That night, going to bed, the old man was so aware of his beard that neither tucking it under the covers nor leaving it out seemed comfortable.  After that, he was so overly aware of his beard, that he just couldn’t sleep.  And not sleeping, he died.

At that, Levin declined to discuss the process of writing out of the fear that exploring his practices would make him too self-conscious to work.  I can accept that.

Ever since I began writing these essays about process or style or technique – whatever you want to call this – people have asked me to present the rough, evolving drafts of a short story.  My first drafts are always such a disaster that I’ve never done this, until now.  The bookstore Dark Delicacies has asked me to contribute a 5000-word horror story to their next anthology so over the next three months I’ll present the rough first, second and third acts of a story called Fetch.  A ghost story.  In each section of the story, I’ll insert notes explaining my reasoning.  In Tom Spanbauer’s workshop, Tom would sometimes stop an author mid-story and ask him or her to justify using a certain word or image.  That’s always stayed in my mind, the idea of being challenged and having to argue for each detail of my work.

Be warned, this will suck the way most first drafts suck.  To see the finished version, free of failed experiments and excess details, look for the story in the next Dark Delicacies anthology.  I’ll give the details of that in an up-coming essay.  For now, here’s the first act of Fetch.


Note:  A decade ago, as a branding device, my editor Gerry Howard asked me to give single-word titles to my books.  My preference is to use verbs that can have multiple meanings, like “choke” or “snuff.”  Especially verbs with hard “ch” or “k” or long vowels like the ‘eye’ sound in Fight Club or the ‘ee’ sound in Pygmy.

Also, there’s no rule about staging every story in three acts, but for a first draft it’s the easiest way for me to imagine the plot.  The first act will be approximately 2000 words, the second act 1500 words, and the final act 1500 words.  Now the story...

Hank stands with one foot a step in front of his other.  He crouches back on his rear leg, squatting low on that behind leg, his knee bent, his torso, shoulders and head all twisted and pulled back to the farthest point from the toe of his forward foot.  At the moment he exhales, Hank’s rear leg explodes straight, the hip flexing to throw his whole body forward.  His torso twists to throw one shoulder forward.  His shoulder throws his elbow.  His elbow throws his wrist.  All of that one arm swings in a curve, cracking fast as a bullwhip.  His every muscle snaps that one hand forward, and at the point where Hank should fall onto his face, his hand releases the ball.  A tennis ball, bright yellow, flying fast as a cannon.  It shoots until almost disappearing into the blue sky, following a yellow arch as high as the sun.

Note:  My preference is to always begin with a physical action.  Gesture always trumps dialogue.  Verbs connect with readers in a more immediate way, coming in under our radar and resonating with more basic structures of the brain.  Because this is a story, I’ll use present tense to create more immediacy, and less sense of distance between the reader and the on-going action.

Hank throws the tennis ball with his entire body, the way a man’s supposed to throw.  Jenny’s Labrador retriever bounds after it, a black smear shooting toward the horizon, dodging between the tombstones, then bounding back, tail wagging, and drops the ball at my feet.

Note:  This will be told in first person, “I”, but I need to “submerge the I” so it’s less likely to distract the reader.

How I throw the ball, I only use my fingers.  Maybe my wrist.  Nobody ever taught me any better so my throw bounces off the first row of tombstones, ricocheting off a mausoleum, rolling through the grass and disappearing behind a grave marker, while Hank grins at his feet and shakes his head from side to side, saying, “Good throw.”  From deep down in his throat, Hank hawks a wad and spits a fat oyster into the grass between my bare feet.

Note:  Establish the setting through action, the moving ball has to carry our vision to the tombstones and grass to avoid just stating we’re in a cemetery on a sunny day.  Also, depict body language that contradicts what’s actually said in dialogue.  The spitting is an on-the-body moment to demonstrate distain, cut with repeating vowels, D’s and B’s.

Jenny’s dog stands there, part black lab, part stupid, looking at Jenny.  Jenny looking at Hank.  Hank looking at me and saying, “What’re you waiting for, boy, go fetch.”  Hank jerks his head at where the tennis ball has vanished, lost among the headstones.

Jenny twists a strand of her long hair between the fingers of one hand, looking behind us to where Hank’s car sits in the empty parking lot.  The sunlight shining through her skirt, no slip, outlining her legs all the way up, she says, “We’ll wait.  I swear.”

Note:  The first act needs to establish the rivalry between the narrator and Hank.  Establish the setting and the activity and important objects.

Written on the close-up tombstones, no dates come any newer than 1880-something.  Just guessing, my throw landed around the 1930’s.  Hank’s throw went all the way back to the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. 

With my first step I feel wet against the underneath of my foot, some ooze, sticky and still warm.  Hank’s spit smeared under my toes, I drag my foot on the grass to wipe it.  Behind me, Jenny laughs while I drag that foot up the slope toward the first row of graves.  Bouquets of plastic roses stick in the ground.  Little American flags twitch in the breeze.  The black lab runs ahead, sniffing at the dead, brown spots in the grass, then adding its piss.  The tennis ball isn’t behind the row of 1870’s graves.  Behind the 1860’s, more nothing. 

Note:  Measure distance in a way specific to the situation.

With my next step, the ground explodes, the mowed grass geysers with landmines of cold water, hosing my jeans and shirt.  A booby trap of sheer, freezing cold.  The underground lawn sprinklers drive sprays of water,  blasting my eyes shut, washing my hair flat.  Cold water hits from every direction.  From behind me comes laughter, Hank and Jenny laughing so hard they fall into each other for support.  They fall to the grass still hugging, and their laughter stops as their mouths come together.

Jenny’s stupid Labrador barks and snaps at a jet of water, biting the sprinkler head next to me.  Just as fast, the automatic sprinklers drop back into the ground.  My t-shirt drips.  Water runs down my face from the soaked mop of my hair.  Sopping wet, my jeans feel stiff and heavy as concrete.

Not two graves away, the ball sits behind a tombstone.  Pointing my finger, I tell the dog, “Fetch,” and he runs over, sniffs the tennis ball, growls at it, then runs back without it.  Walking over, I pick up the yellow fuzz wet from the sprinklers.

When I turn to throw the ball back to Jenny, the grass sloping down below me is empty.  Beyond that, the parking lot spreads, empty.  No Hank or Jenny.  No car.  All that’s left is a puddle of black oil dripped out of Hank’s engine pan.

In one huge throw, every skinny muscle the length of my arm whips, heaving the ball downhill to the spot where Hank’s spit wet the grass.  I tell the dog, “Fetch”, and it only looks at me.  Still dragging one foot, I start back downhill, until my toes feel warm, again.  This time, dog piss.  Where I stand, the grass feels coarse.  Dead.  When I look up, the ball sits next to me, as if it’s rolled uphill.  Where I can see, the cemetery looks empty. 

Throwing the ball, again, down the long slope, I tell the dog, “Fetch.”  The dog just looks at me, but in the distance the ball rolls closer and closer. Returning to me.  Rolling up the slope.  Rolling uphill.

One of my feet burning, the scratches and bunions of my barefoot stinging with dog piss.  My other foot, the toes webbed with Hank’s foaming, gray spit.  My shoes, in his car.  Gone.  Me dumped here to baby-sit her stupid pooch while Jenny’s run off.

Walking back through the graves, I drag one foot to wipe it clean on the grass.  With the next step, I drag the other foot.  Dragging each foot, I leave a trail of flattened skid marks in the lawn all the way to the empty parking lot.

Note:  Keep the narrator aware of the cumulative sensations of his or her body.  Describe the narrator’s walk  in terms that will suggest a zombie or monster staggering through a dark setting.  And, mention creating a “trail” to foreshadow the up-coming plot point.

This tennis ball, now the dog won’t go near it.  In the parking lot, I stand next to the pool of dripped crankcase oil, and I throw the ball, again, chucking it hard as I’m able.  The ball rolls back, spiraling around me, forcing me to keep turning to watch it, circling me until my head’s spinning, dizzy.  When the ball stops at my foot, I throw it, again.  Rolling back to me, this time the ball takes a detour, rolling against the grade, breaking the Law of Gravity, the ball circles in the pool of Hank’s crankcase oil, soaking up the black muck.  Stained black, the tennis ball rolls within kicking distance of my bare foot.  Looping, jumping, doubling back on itself, the ball leaves a trail of black across the gray concrete, then it stops.  A black tennis ball, round as the period at the end of a sentence.  The dot at the bottom of an exclamation point. 

Note:  Using a simile is always less effective than stating the quality that’s similar.  Instead of “the tennis ball looks like the period at the...”  use this moment as a chance to state the qualities of the ball – round, black – then state the similarity to a punctuation mark.

The stupid black lab shakes, too close, spraying me with dog water from its sopping fur.  The stink of wet dog and spatters of mud stick everywhere on my jeans and t-shirt.

Note:  Keep the dog present in the scene, but only depicting its actions.  Also, cutting to the dog for a moment will create better tension before the imminent reveal.

The ball’s oily, black trail forms letter, those letters spelling words across the concrete parking lot, writing the sentence:  “Please help me!”

The ball returns to the puddle of engine oil, soaking its fuzz with black, then rolling, writing in big, loopy handwriting:  “We need to rescue her.”

As I reach to pick it up, just squatting down to grab the tennis ball, it bounces a few steps away.  I take a step, and the ball bounces, again, reaching the edge of the parking lot.  As I follow, it bounces, coming to a complete stop as if glued to the road, leading me out of the cemetery.  The blacktop, hot and sharp under my bare feet, I follow, hopping from one foot to the other.  The ball leads, bouncing a row of black dots down the road ahead of me.  The black lab follows.  A sheriff’s patrol car cruises past, not stopping.  At the stop sign, where the cemetery road meets the county road, the ball stops, waiting for me to catch up.  With each bounce, the ball leaves less oil.  Me, not feeling much, I’m so pulled forward by this vision of the impossible.  The ball stops bouncing, stuck in one spot.  A car trails us, crawling along at the same speed.  The horn honks, and I turn to see Hank behind the wheel, Jenny sits beside him in the front seat.  Rolling down the shotgun window, Jenny leans her head out, her long hair hanging down the outside of the car door, and she says, “Are you crazy?  Are you high?”  With one arm, Jenny reaches into the backseat, then reaches out the car window, holding my shoes in her hand.  She says, “For crying out loud, just look at your feet...”

With each step, my raw feet leave behind a little more red, blood, my footprints stamped in blood on the pavement, marking my path all the way from the cemetery parking lot.  Stopped in this one spot, I’m standing in a puddle of my own red juice, not feeling the sharp gravel and broken glass on the roadside.

One bounce ahead of me, the tennis ball waits.  

Note:  First plot point accomplished.  The story has started from something fairly familiar – playing fetch with a tennis ball in a cemetery – and moved to something miraculous, raising lots of questions.  Does the reference to rescuing “her” mean Jenny?  What will the quest be?  How is the tennis ball animated?  At this point, the word count is roughly 1500 so there’s room for more details as they might be needed in subsequent revisions.  Also, there’s an old method for creating a sympathetic, physical response in the reader:  describe either the inside of a character’s mouth or the soles of his feet.  Another old saying goes: If you’re going to do something in a story, do it three times.  So, here I’m using the soles of the narrator’s feet under three escalating conditions: contact with spit, urine, then bleeding.  This gives a nice balance between the ball writing in black oil, and the narrator marking his journey with a map of red blood.

Next Month, I’ll present the second act of Fetch in all it’s gruesome, first-draft clumsiness. 

In closing, my special thanks to everyone who went to see Clark Gregg’s film of Choke.  After seeing it four times, I’m still discovering connections and details I wish I’d made in the book.  Clark and Sam have done a great job of showing how a movie can improve on the original version of a story.If you’re looking for homework, see the film.  Then, read a copy of the short story, “Girl With Curious Hair” by David Foster Wallace.  David was among the writers whose work made me excited to read, and write.  In secret, I always thought that his rave critical reviews were a no-fail guarantee of happiness, but that’s not the case.  We were both born on the same date, February 21st, 1962, and with his death I feel the same sadness I felt for Ken Kesey.  I hope everyone will remember David for the cut-loose chaos and fun of his work, not the circumstances of his death.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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