Essays > Published on September 15th, 2011

A Story from Scratch, Act Two

Note:  At the moment I’m writing this, my neck hurts like all-get-out.  Yesterday I was driving northbound on Interstate Five, when a driver two lanes to my right hit his brakes on wet pavement, spun 180 degrees and slid to the left, then continued southbound into north-bound traffic, and collided with me head-on.  My pick up truck is trashed.  Totaled.  Not a great day.  That’s a strange comfort about writing... years later, as you read your past work, it reminds you of landmark events that you might otherwise forget.  In a way it’s like keeping a diary in code.  So many biographical details – physical details, emotions – are translated into fiction, and it’s a comfort to be reminded of the problems you’ve survived. 

That way, it’s similar to the old Dale Carnegie exercise:  At any crisis point of your life, write your worse problems and fears on paper and hide them in a drawer.  After a year has passed, retrieve and read the list, and you’ll laugh about how many of those horrible problems eventually amounted to nothing. 
In addition, writing this type of fictional diary makes you more aware of actual circumstances – I’m less likely to see this accident as an on-going danger.  It happened once in the 30 years I’ve been driving.  That’s the reason I love reading biographies, because they demonstrate how most successful people have suffered countless failures, but we know them because they didn’t quit and managed to score a small, regular number of successes.

Now, let’s continue with Act Two of Fetch.  The first act established a basic reality of characters and action within a setting, then something miraculous happened to lead us on a quest with the narrator.  His feet are bleeding, his clothes are wet, and he’s stepped in spit and dog piss – these are physical details to keep in the reader’s mind.  The animated tennis ball is stained with oil.

Sitting behind the steering wheel, Hank twists one shoulder backward, hooking his arm over the seat back and pinching the tab of the door lock between two fingers.  Pulling up the tab, he reaches down and yanks the handle to throw open the door, saying, “Get in the car.”  He says, “Get in the fucking car, now.”

Note:  Damn I hate repeating “backward” and “back” so close together, but that’s fixable in the next draft.  All of this action serves to reintroduce Hank to the reader and place him in the drivers seat.  That way we avoid passive statements like “Hank was driving” or “Hank’s at the steering wheel.”  Don’t show the reader anything unless that thing is moving or acting in relation to other things.  Yeah, like in a movie.  Remember:  People hate slide shows, but they love movies.

Jenny swings her hand, dropping my tennis shoes so they fly halfway to where I stand, flapping down in the roadside gravel.

Note:  Again, Jenny takes action, and we use the shoes as props or objects. 

Standing here, my feet dark as hooves or church shoes, so coated with dried blood and dust, all I can do is point at the dirty tennis ball.  Except the ball only sits there, not moving, not leading me anywhere, stopped along the edge of the blacktop where the pigweeds begin.

Note:  Describing the bloody feet is an on-the-body passage.  It’s followed by a gesture.  Please avoid dialogue if you can use gesture, instead.

Hank punches the middle of his steering wheel, blasting me with a gigantic honk.  A second honk so loud it echoes back from the nowhere over the horizon.  All the flat sugar beet fields, the crops all around me and their car, filled with Hank’s loud horn.  Under the car hood the engine revs, the pushrods banging and cams knocking, and Jenny leans out her shotgun window, saying, “Don’t make him pissed off.”  She says, “Just get in the car.”

Note:  Let’s talk about ‘Burnt Tongue.’  You can prompt your reader to stay more focused by misstating something.  Especially in dialogue:  “Don’t make him pissed off.”  We’ve already demonstrated the anger, with the hostile sound of horns and the engine.  The dialogue merely summarizes that.  To make it do more – help characterize Jenny – you can spin her slang any “wrong” way you’d like. 

A flash of black jumps past my legs, and the stupid Labrador jumps in the door Hank holds open.  With his twisted-around arm, Hank yanks the door shut and cranks the steering wheel hard to one side.  Flipping a big U-turn, his beater car tears off.  Gravel rattling inside the wheel wells.  Jenny’s one hand still trailing out her open window.

Note:  A comic reveal:  Hank and Jenny don’t give a shit about the narrator.  They only wanted to collect the dog.  This places the narrator in a lower status than the animal, totally abandoned in his quest.

Watching them go, I bend over to pick up my shoes.  It’s right then when – pock – something slams into the back of my head.  Rubbing my scalp with one hand I turn to look what hit me, and already the tennis ball is on the move, bouncing down the road in an opposite direction than Hank’s car.

Kneeled down, knotting my shoes, I yell, “Wait.”  Only the ball keeps going.

Running after it, I yell, “Hold up.”  And the ball keeps bouncing, bouncing, big jumps right in line with the road.  At the stop sign for Fisher Road, mid-jump, at the highest point in one bounce, the ball cuts to the right.  Turning the corner in mid-air, and bouncing down Fisher, me still trucking along behind.  Down Fisher, past the junkyard where it turns into Millers Road, then the ball turns left at Turner Road and starts going upriver, parallel to the bank of Skinners Creek.  Staying out of the trees, the oil-soaked, dust-packed tennis ball really flies along, puffing up a little cloud of dust every time it smacks down in the road.

Note:  Describe your world only as some object or person moves through it.  In a film, the camera would be the motion, continually pushing through the static landscape, adding a sense of motion to the naturally slow movement of the sun, the wind, the plants.  The added action of the camera would heighten all that and justify the viewers interest.  In fiction, consider always introducing your world through the objects that move through it.

Where two old wheel ruts leave the road and run through the weeds, the ball turns right, rolling now.  The ball rolls along the dried mud of one rut, swerving to go around the worst puddles and potholes.  My shoelaces dangle and whip against my ankles.  Me panting, shuffling along after it, losing sight of the ball in the tall grass.  Catching sight of it when the ball bounces, bouncing in one place until I find it, there.  Then, rolling along the rut, leading me into the cottonwood trees that grow along the creek side.

Note:  Here, action implies time passing.  I’d never want to say:  “Fifteen minutes later...” or “All afternoon...”  By linking verbs, I can suggest lapsed time.

Nobody’s standing in line to give me any scholarship.  Not after my three big, fat D grades Mr. Lockard handed me in Algebra, Geometry and Physics.  But I’m almost sure no ball should be able to roll uphill, not forever.  No tennis ball can stop perfectly still in one place, then start up bouncing off by itself.  It’s an impossibility, how this ball comes flying out of nowhere, socking me in the forehead to grab my attention any time I even look away.

Note:  The previous paragraph is an example of cutting to “big voice” and leaving the narrative “little voice” scene for a moment.  The goal is to vary the texture of the narrative and imply more time and distance passing.

One step into the trees, I need to stop and let my eyes adjust.  Just that one little wait, and – pow – I have dirty tennis ball imprinted on my face.  My skin greasy and smelling like motor oil.  Both my hands raised up by reflex, swatting at air the way you’d fight off a hornet too fast to see.  I’m waving away nothing but air, and the tennis ball is already jumping out ahead of me, the thumping, thudding sound going off through the woods.

Going all the way to the creek bank, the ball leaps out ahead, until it stops.  In the mud between two roots of a cottonwood tree, the ball rolls to a standstill.  As I catch up, it makes a little bounce, not knee high.  It makes a second bounce, this time waist high.  The ball bounces shoulder high, head high, always landing in the same exact spot, with every landing pushing itself deeper into the mud.  Bouncing more high than I could reach, up around the leaves of the tree, the ball clears away a little hole, there, between the roots.

Note:  We’re full-on into a fable or tall tale by now.  The language can risk getting looser and more choppy or coarse, anything that will support the chaos and immediate danger of the moment.

The sound of birds, the magpies, stopped to silence.  No mosquitoes or buzz of deer flies.  Nothing makes any sound except this ball and my heartbeat in my chest.  Both, thudding more and more fast.

Another bounce, and the ball clinks against metal.  Not a sharp sound, more a clank like hitting a home run off the gutter of old Mr. Lloyd’s house, or skipping a rock off the roof of a car parked at Lovers Lane.  The ball hits dirt, hard as if it’s pulled with a magnet, stops, and rolls to one side.  And deep in the hole it’s dug, a little brass shines out.  The metal of something buried.  The brass lid of a canning jar, printed Mason, same as your Mom would put up tomatoes inside for the winter.

Note:  You describe a character by how the character describes his or her world.  The more specific, the better.  Not “vegetables” but “tomatoes.”  Not “the gutter of a house” but “the gutter of Mr. Lloyd’s house.”  You can risk these odd extra details because, at this point, your plot is moving so well.  People will read along, looking for the next verb.

No ball has to tell me.  I dig, my hands clawing away the mud, my fingers slippery around the buried glass outsides of the jar.  The tennis ball waiting, I kneel there and pull this dirty jar out from the sucking mud, big around as a blue-ribbon turnip.  The glass so smeared with mud I can’t see what’s so heavy inside.

Using spit, spit and my t-shirt still wet from the graveyard sprinklers, I wipe.  The lid stuck on, tight, swollen with rust and crud.  I spit and wipe until something gold is looking back from inside the glass.  Gold coins.  Same as you’d find if you followed a leprechaun to the base of a rainbow -- if you believed that crap -- here’s a quart jar filled with gold coins packed so tight together they don’t rattle.  They don’t roll.  All they do is shine bright as the alloy wheels I’m going to buy to blow Hank’s crap burner car off the road.  Bright as the ring I’ll take Jenny to buy at the Crossroad Mall.  Right here in my two hands – and, pow.

Note:  Ah, money...  It represents the ultimate possibility.  Money alone is boring, abstract shit, so make it equivalent to a character’s dreams and priorities.  Build a character by describing what he or she would do with a new fortune.

The bright gold, replaced with shooting stars.  The smell of motor oil.

The next smell, my own nose collapsed and filling with blood.  Busted.

Note:  If you read your work aloud, you learn to love repeating sounds.  The most-fun ones are explosive B’s or P’s.  They act like a full-stop, and you can really “pop” them into a microphone.  “... blood, busted, blasted, bouncing, back...”  Like a series of good jabs in boxing.

The tennis ball, blasted off my face, bouncing angry as a hornet.  The ball flies in my face while I fight it back with the heavy jar.  Shielding my eyes with my arm muscles burning from the weight.  Blood running down from my nose, sputtered out by my yelling.  Twisting one foot in the slick mud, I launch over the creek bank.  Same as Cub Scouts teaches you to do in a wasp attack, I splash into the water and wade out to over my head.

From underwater, between me and the sky, the ball floats on the surface of the creek.  Waiting.  The jar of gold coins, holds me tight to the rocks on the creek bed, but rolling it along, my chest full of my breath, I work my way upstream.  The current takes the tennis ball downstream.  Working my way into the shallows, the moment my breath gives out and the ball’s nowhere to be seen, I pop my head up for a gasp.  One big breath, and I duck back under.  The ball’s floated, bobbing, maybe a half-mile downstream, hard to tell because it looks so oily black on the water, but the ball’s following the trail of my nose blood, tracking me in the direction of the current.

Note:  You want a fast way to create tension?  Hold a character underwater.  It’s worked in a million movies, from “The Poseidon Adventure” to “Aliens IV.”  It worked well in “Guts” and that’s why I don’t want to over-use it, here.  But a jar of gold makes a nice symbol for attachment to material possessions and the cost of being greedy.

When my new air gives out, I stand up, half out of the water and wade to shore, making as little splash and noise as possible.  Sniffing the blood back up my busted nose.  One look backward, over my shoulder, and already the ball’s swimming, slow as a paddling mallard, against the current coming toward me.

Another Sir Isaac Newton impossibility.

Note:  Once you establish the theme or “horse” of physics, it doesn’t take much to revisit it in the reader’s mind, to create a beat of time and better pace your actions.  Here, it acts as a fragment of “big voice.”

My arms both wrapped around that jar full of gold, I scramble up the creek side, the water squishing in my shoes, and I take off running through the woods.

Note: This is the end of Act Two, in this draft.  The quest has led to an ethical choice.   At this point I’m at roughly 1420 words so I’ll stop.  The goal is 1500 words for the second act, and this gives me some wiggle room in case I need to add another paragraph.

Note:  Here’s another concept:  “The Vertical versus the Horizontal” of a story.  The Horizontal means the string of plot events from beginning to end.  The Vertical means the accumulation of emotion that leads to a character’s “transformation” near the end of the story.  Most first drafts are limited to establishing the horizontal – the plotting, scene, characters.  It’s usually in reflection that a writer finds and heightens the emotional or vertical aspects of a story.


My congratulations to Rachael Stodard for winning the contest for the “Choke” movie.  There’s some legal work to complete, but you can look for your name in “Pygmy” when it’s released this next May. 

For your homework:  Drive carefully.

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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