Essays > Published on September 15th, 2011

A Story from Scratch, Act Three

Note:  To date, we’ve established the three human characters, plus the dog and tennis ball.  We’ve established the narrator’s motivation: to win Jenny’s affection.  We’ve created the obstacle of Hank, and the counter-motive of the tennis ball… which wants to retrieve some gold coins and do – something unknown with them.  At this point, the narrator has stolen the gold and is fleeing with it, trying to escape the tennis ball.

Remember to keep all the previous on-the-body details present: the narrator’s bloodied nose, the fact his clothes are soaked with water, his feet are cut and scraped, and the jar of gold feels very heavy.  Now, back to ‘Fetch’…

My every running step through the wood, mud slides under me shoes.  The jar swings me sideways, almost off balance, spinning me when I jerk to far the other way.  My chest aches, my ribcage feeling collapsed.  With every landing I just about fall on my face, grabbing the jar so tight that, if I fell, the glass would bust and stab straight into my eyes and heart.  I’d bleed right to death, slipped here, face-down in a puddle of mud and gold and broken glass.  From behind, the tennis ball shoots through the leaves, snapping twigs and branches, whistling the same zing noise as a bullet ripping through the Vietnam jungle next to your head in some television war movie.

Maybe one good bounce before the ball catches me, I duck low.  The rotted trunk of a cottonwood has busted and fallen, and I stuff the heavy jar deep into the boggy center of the roots, the mud cave where they’ve pulled out from the ground on one side.  Hidden.  The ball probably doesn’t see because it keeps after me as I run faster, jumping and crashing my way through blackberry vines and saplings, stomping up sprays of muddy water until I hit the gravel of Turner Road.  My shoes chew up the gravel, my every long jump shakes the water from my clothes.  The cemetery sprinkler water replaced by dog piss replaced by Skinner Creek replaced by me sweating, the legs of my jeans rub me, the denim stiff with stuck-on dust.  Me, panting so hard I’m ready to blow both lungs out my mouth, turned inside-out, my insides puked out like pink bubble-gum bubbles.

Note:  Do not explain why a character takes an action: i.e. “I hid the gold under the tree  so I could come back for it, later.”  Simply take the action.  Also, by revisiting each of the fluids which have soaked our narrator, we can summarize the various segments of the story, keeping them all present in the reader’s mind.  The dog piss keeps the dog around as a character, too.  The summary helps pace the on-going physical action and implies time and distance passing.

About language, decide what words your narrator does NOT know, and avoid them.  For example, my narrator doesn’t know the word “stride.”  Using too great a variety of words can sound “writerly” as if the story is told by a writer instead of the narrator.

Midway, between one running step and the next, the moment both my legs are stretched out, one in front and the other in back of me, in midair, something slams me in the back.  Stumbling forward, I recover, but this something smacks me again, square in my backbone between my shoulder blades.  Just as hard, arching my back, something hits me, a third go-round.  It hits the back of my head, hard as a foul ball or a bunt in softball.  Fast as a line drive fresh off the sweet spot of a Louisville Slugger, slamming you dead-on, this something hits me another time.  Stars and comets swimming in my eyes, I pitch forward still on my feet, running full tilt.

Note:  Since the ball is behind the narrator, let’s not assume the thing hitting him is the ball.  Instead, describe the effect using comparable things which will describe the narrator’s life history: baseball, television, sports, etc.  We know the attacker is the tennis ball so this sequence is an opportunity to describe the narrator by how he describes his immediate experience. 

Winded, sucking air and blinded with sweat, my feet tangle together, the something wings me one more time, beaning the top of my skull, and I go down.  The bare skin of my elbows plow the gravel.  My knees and face dive into the dust of my landing.  My teeth grit with the dirt in my mouth, and my eyes squeeze shut.  The mystery something punches my ribs, slugs my kidneys as I squirm on the road.  This something bounces, hard, to break my arms.  It keeps bouncing, pile driving its massive impact, drilling me in my gut, slugging my ears while I curl tight to protect my nuts.

Note:  See how much fun verbs can be?  A good action sequence feels like writing for a sports broadcas, just using one dynamic verb after another.

Past the moment I could still walk back and show the ball where the gold’s hidden, almost to the total black of being knocked out, I’m pounded.  Beat on.  Until a gigantic honk wakes me up.  A second honk so loud it echoes back from the nowhere over the horizon, all the bottomland cottonwoods and tall weeds all around me, filled with Hank’s loud car horn.  Hank skids to stop. 

Jenny’s voice says, “Don’t make him pissed off.”  She says, “Just get in the car.”

I pop open my eyes, glued with blood and dust, and the ball just sits next to me in the road.  Hank’s pulled up, idling his engine.  Under the car hood the engine revs, the pushrods banging and cams knocking.

Note:  Here’s a good ‘buried gun.’  Anytime I need to interrupt the action, I need only bring Hank’s car back around.  All of my seemingly wasted years of cruising in cars with bored friends, they keep this story moving.  Another aspect of using limited elements – characters, settings, repeated actions – is that you can recycle previous passages for comic effect, or simply to create an event with economy.  For example, once we know what a gesture means, we no longer need it defined.  The character only performs the gesture, and it’s already loaded with previous meaning.

Looking up at Jenny, I spit blood.  Pink drool leaks out, running down my chin, and my tongue can feel my chipped teeth.  One eye almost swelled shut, I say, “Jenny?”  I say, “Will you marry me?”

The filthy tennis ball, waiting.  Jenny’s dog, panting in the backseat of the car.

My ears glow hot and raw.  My lips, split and bleeding, I say, “If I can beat Hank Richardson just one game in tennis, will you marry me?”

Note:  A character with nothing left to lose can reveal his deepest desire.

Spitting blood, I say, “If I lose, I’ll buy you a car.  I swear.”  I say, “Brand-new with electric windows, power steering, a stereo, the works…”

The tennis ball sits, nested in the gravel, listening.  Behind his steering wheel, Hank shakes his head side to side.  “Deal,” Hank says.  “Hell, yeah, she’ll marry you.”

Sitting shotgun, her face framed in the car window, Jenny says, “It’s your funeral.”  She says, “Now climb in.”

Getting to my feet, standing, I stoop over and grab the tennis ball.  Just something rubber filled with air.  Not alive, in my hand, just wet with the creek water, soft with a layer of gravel dust.  We drive to the tennis courts behind the high school, where nobody plays, and the white lines look faded.  The chain-link fences flake red rust, they were built so long ago.  Weeds grow through the cracked concrete, and the tennis net sags in the middle.  

Jenny flips a quarter-dollar, and Hanks gets to serve, first.

His racquet whacks the ball, faster than I can see, into a corner where I could never reach, and Hank gets the first point.  The same with his second point.  The same with the whole first game.

Note:  To create tension, we need to suggest that Hank might win.  This will generate more sympathy for the narrator and make the obvious impending plot reversal seem like more of a victory.  For a stronger effect, I need to reread the opening of this story and borrow some of that earlier wording to echo the scene where Hank was clearly superior.  Just a few well-chosen words can keep that earlier scene present in the reader’s mind.

When the serve comes to me, I hold the tennis ball close-by my lips and whisper my deal.  My bargain.  If the ball helps me win the match.  To win Jenny.  I’ll help with the gold.  But if I lose to Hank, it can pound me dead and I’ll never tell where the gold is hid.

“Serve, already,” Hank  yells.  He says, “Stop kissing the damned ball…”

My first serve drills Hank, pow, in his nuts.  My second takes out his left eye.  Hank returns my third serve, fast and low, but the tennis ball slows to almost stop and bounces right in front of me.  My every serve, the ball knocks another tooth out of Hank’s mouth.  Any returns, the ball swerves to me, slows and bounces where I can hit it back.

No surprise, but I win. 

Even crippled as I look, Hank looks worse, his eyes almost swollen shut.  His knuckles puffed up and scabbed over.  Hank’s limping from so many drives straight to his crotch.  Jenny helps him lay down in the backseat of his car so she can drive him home.

I tell her, “Even if I won, you don’t have to go out with me…”

And Jenny says, “Good.”

I ask if it would make any difference if I was rich.

And Jenny says, “Are you?”

Sitting, alone on the cracked tennis court, the ball looks red, stained with Hank’s blood.

I wait and wait, then I shake my head, No.

Note:  My preference is to limit dialogue, and to confine exchanges to a few lines.  The goal is to sort and separate action and speech, because they engage different parts of the reader’s mind.  And – please – always avoid perfect “tennis match” exchanges where characters respond exactly to what they’ve been asked.   If you can resolve a situation with a gesture instead of dialogue – use the gesture. 

After they drive away, I pick up the tennis ball and head back toward Skinner Creek.  From under the roots of the downed cottonwood tree, I lift out the Mason jar heavy with gold coins.  Carrying the jar, I drop the ball.  As it rolls away, I follow.  Rolling uphill, violating every law of gravity, the ball rolls all afternoon.  Rolling through weeds and sand, the ball rolls into the twilight.  All this time, I follow behind, lugging that jar of gold treasure.  Down Turner Road, down ???? Road, north along the old highway, then west-bound along dirt roads with no name.

Note:  We’ve resolved the rivalry with Hank a little too easily, but the next draft can unpack tha into a better action sequencet.  For now, we need to sprint to the finish line.  A laundry list of roads and landmarks will condense our journey into one paragraph.

A bump rides the horizon, the sun setting behind it.  As we get closer, the bump grows into a lump.  A shack.  From closer up, the shack is a house sitting in a nest of paint curls peeled off  its wood by the weather and fallen to make a ring around its brick foundation.  The bare wood curves and warps.  On the roof, the tarpaper shingles buckle and ripple.  Stapled to the front door, a sheet of yellow-color paper says, “Condemned.”

The tennis ball rolls up the road, up the dirt driveway.  It bounces up the brick steps, hitting the front door with a hollow sound.  Bouncing off the porch, the ball beats the door, again.  From inside the house come footsteps echoing on bare wood.  From behind the closed door, the “Condemned” sign, a voice says, “Hello?”

A witch voice, cracked and brittle as the warped wood siding.  A voice faint as the faded colors of paint flaked on the ground.

I knock, saying, “I have a delivery, I think…”

The jar of gold, stretching my arm muscles into thin wire, into almost breaking.

The tennis ball bounces off the door, again, beating one drumbeat.

The witch’s voice says, “Go away, please.”

The ball bounces against the wood door, only now the sound is metal.  A clack of metal.  A clank.  Across the bottom of the door stretches a slot framed in gold-color metal, written with the word, “Letters.”

Crouching down, then kneeling, I unscrew the Mason jar.  Twisting off the cap, I put the lip of the jar against the “Letters” slot and tip the jar, shaking it to loosen up the coins inside.  Kneeling there, on the front porch, I pour the gold through the slot in the door.  The coins rattle and ring, tumbling inside and rolling across the bare floor.  A jackpot spilling out where I can’t see.  When the glass jar is empty, I leave it on the porch and start down the steps.  Behind me, the doorknob pops, the snap of a lock turning, a bolt sliding open.  The hinges creak, and a crack of inside darkness appears along one edge of the frame.

From that inside darkness, the witch voice says, “My husband’s coin collection…”

The tennis ball, sticky with blood, coated with dirt, the ball rolls along at my heels, following me the way Jenny’s dog follows her.  Tagging along, the way I used to follow Jenny.

The witch voice says, “How did you find them?”

But me, I only keep walking away.  

Note:  We’ve fulfilled the social contract.  And the narrator has abandoned his childhood goals after finding they had little value.  Jenny was not his salvation.  Neither was money.   In the next revision it would be good to develop the theme of physical versus metaphysical strength – how at the narrator’s time of greatest infirmity he wins the tennis contest by trusting in something he can’t explain.  Like Luke Skywalker closing his blast shield, becoming blind, then trusting the ‘force.’  People love that shit.  Once more, notice that your characters can ask questions, and these don’t have to be answered by another character.  Your reader knows the answer.

Also, consider a different final line.  It would be nice to have the dog present in this last scene, to point up the narrator’s humanity, possibly to retrieve the ball and thus demonstrate that the ball is no longer possessed, and the spirit which occupied it is now at peace.  The sun is setting.  The heroic narrator is battered and bloody and limping home.  Perhaps the old woman will call after him, shouting a kind-of existential chorus:  “Who are you?  What do I owe you?  God bless you…”.  Those are all elements to keep in mind.

So far this is the “horizontal” of the story, the chain of plot events.  The vertical will come, with it the emotions and symbols.

Again, the goal is 6000 words.  It was 5000, but Dark Delicacies has expanded that.  If you want to see the finished story, it will be included in an upcoming anthology.  Dennis will post the details about where and when that will be available.


My congratulations to Rachael Stodard.  She is now part of the fevered mind of Pygmy, right there on page 233, right alongside radon and radium. 

Please, have a merry Christmas.

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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