Discover more from Chuck Palahniuk's Plot Spoiler
Gloves Off: Round VIII
Embrace your inner evil, scheming genius
In the wild your hand is a watch. Just parallel it to the horizon, add 15 minutes a finger until you touch the sun, and voila, you got time to sunset. But if Marcus can’t spark a fire in less than three fingers, his monster will gnaw our watches into stumps.
My comments: I see what you’re trying to do, but this is a little bulky for a lead. It does raise a big question, but it also gives the reader a lot to assimilate. Consider paring it down to something along these lines, “In the wild your hand is a watch. Hold it parallel to the horizon, add fifteen minutes a finger until you touch the sun, and voila, we’re looking at death in three fingers.”
What’s good is that the action instantly made me hold my hand up to measure the time.
“Really?” Marcus’s breath condensates into a cloud. He’s pointing a fire bow at the Sony. “Told you it doesn’t matter anymore.”
I say it matters even more now. How if he’s right, every second is worth a thousand bucks. Studios will kill for the footage. Werner Herzog will narrate. It’ll win an Oscar like Grizzly Man.
Marcus places a stick in a nest of aspen shavings even though I told him cedar burns better. “Didn’t he die?”
I ask him who.
He says, “Grizzly Man.”
I shrug, snatch the Sony from the tripod, and turn it on Marcus. The producer with the fugly star tattoo on his foream said we always had to be rolling. Use a second camera for a “two-shot.” His words. Not mine. But the Pacific Ocean ate my second camera on Day 15 and when Marcus stumbled into my camp on Day 34, he’d already traded his gear for his life.
My comments: Beware of tennis match dialog, here. If you cut the two lines after, “Didn’t he die?” and go right to the shrug, or use the man’s name — Timothy Treadwell — in Marcus’s second line, that might create more tension.
Keep in mind that stories about money aren’t very emotionally engaging. It’s what people hope/plan to do with the money that puts something at stake. Can you infer what the character wants the money for?
Marcus threads the bow over the stick, places a rock on top, and makes a sawing motion. Later, when an editor strings this footage together, a “survival fact” will appear on screen. Survival Fact: A friction fire is made when friction creates enough heat to spark an ember.
“What would you have done with the prize money?” He asks as he saws.
I ask if he thinks I had a shot.
He chuckles. “Girl’s never lasted all hundred days. Best was Connie Cooper three seasons back. Tapped out on Day 62.” This next part he embellishes like he’s crying. “Missed her kids so much.” But only for fake. Marcus, the self-titled “Mountain Man of Montauk” would rather die before tears could soften his masculinity.
I tell him I’m going to try again.
He says, “waste of time,” then leans down and blows on an ember that isn’t there. He says, “bet.”
I leave the camera to witness Marcus’s failures and duck under our bivouac’s electric blue tarp. Survival Fact: A bivouac is an improvised camp site.
Atop the camera gear’s hardshell case sits my pack. I reach inside and feel my only personal item. The puffy dragonfly sticker on its front grazes my finger and aches my heart. I picture those red ribbons, the ones you never let me take out, bouncing in your hair as you lick the sticker and place it on the envelope. I want to open it, but it’s too soon. I’ll need you later. Not now. Now I need to prove my suspicions. So I unearth the sat phone and pull it free.
My comments: Consider that the Survival Facts should be sexier. And they should morph. Early on, use them to establish authority with arcane details about each point. Nothing obvious. Then gradually use them to express arcane or deeper personal aspects about the narrator. They’re a chance to externalize and overtly express emotion. That’s why I created the “I am Jack’s white knuckles” device in Fight Club and the “Flash” device in Invisible Monsters. Minimalism forbids you from baldly stating emotion, so you have to be clever to put across a character’s emotional state. After the first couple uses of the Survival Facts device, you can begin to make it alude to emotional or personal information.
Also, don’t state “…feel my only personal item.” Go on-the-body and describe the feel of the moment — for example, a fuzzy, soft, slick something that brings to mind your hair, the red ribbons tied in your hair, brings to mind you licking a sticker and pressing a dragonfly, a sticker, a padded sticker in the shape of a dragonfly, and pressing it on an envelop you pressed into my hands…” Really step on that sticker and burn the language like song lyrics so it stands out compared to your physical actions.
“Well?” Marcus asks between pulls of the fire bow.
I shush him with the phone’s thick antenna.
All the contestants have one. A sat phone. “Only for emergencies,” shitty star tattoo producer told us. Production basecamp sits on the far north end of the island, over a mountain ridge none of us are equipped to scale. They delivered us to our sites on those floaty boats. The ones Navy SEALS use. The ones that look like inflated condoms. The ride only took one finger. Safety within reach.
Until it wasn’t.
The night he stumbled into my camp all sweat-drowned and crazy-eyed Marcus tried my phone five times with not so much as a “hiya” from basecamp. He’d left his gear back at his own camp after being attacked by a quote, “bigass monster.”
I just call them Black Bears.
The next morning we tried again. Still no dice. We discussed all the possibilities – World War 3, flesh-eating virus – but it didn’t matter. Each hypothetical ended the same way. Help wasn’t coming. But it wasn’t until this morning that I’d considered another possibility.
Marcus is lying.
Reality shows are anything but. For all I know, Marcus works for the show. For all I know, Marcus running scared into my camp was written by a room of dudes back in Studio City. “And then we scare the shit out of the girl.” How original. It’s why I put Marcus on fire duty. Test his skills. If he’s just a paid extra, we’ll die of starvation before he gets a fire started.
I dial the phone that nobody will answer. Rehearse the words that nobody will hear. Not because the producers are all eating their own faces. But because not answering makes good TV.
My comments: Cut “All the contestants have one. A sat phone.” Put “Only for emergencies” in italics. Insert contestants into the line, “Us contestants, they delivered to our sites…” This is all expository information, so I’m trying to tighten it up. It’s only said for the reader’s benefit.
Another option is to use the butterfly girl — a child I assume — as your foil. This would allow you to get closer into the narrator’s head. For example, to have the narrator talk about herself in the third person: “They delivered Mommy and the other contestants to our sites on those floaty boats. The ride only took one finger. The boats Navy SEALS use. The ones that look like inflated condoms.”
The contrast between the baby-talk of saying, “Mommy has to go now,” things in the third-person, and later saying “condoms” creates humor by being inappropriate.
Consider cutting, “I just call them Black Bears.” Allow “monster” to hang in the reader’s mind without being resolved too quickly.
Also, you might have the narrator call the little girl and get no answer, or get Voicemail. That might be a good way to externalize emotion along the lines of, “Mommy just called to say good night” as a message that can sound concerned and ominous. It escalates the tension because the narrator begins to worry about the child in a possible catastrophe.
“Anything?” Marcus asks, still fumbling with the fire bow.
The phone rings. And rings. I almost laugh. “Nothing.”
He says, “told you.” And I can’t hold it any longer. The laugh bubbles over my tongue. But when smoke starts to billow from Marcus’s surprisingly successful friction fire, I nearly choke.
He says in a high-pitched voice that’s supposed to be my voice, “cedar’s better than aspen.” He says in a voice that’s his voice. “My ass.”
Survival Tip: To stoke the male ego, let him be right on occasion.
I ask him if he wants a cookie. Not a real one. Even if I had one, which I don’t, I wouldn’t share with him.
He says, “Rather have a ribeye.”
I tell him I’m going to check the net before it gets dark. He tells me to take my friend. I tell him the Sony stays with him. The producer with the trashy star tattoo said to always maintain coverage, and if Marcus is the liar I think he is, I’m not getting disqualified on a technicality. So I get a GoPro and cinch it around my head.
As I weave through the trees, Marcus’s fire crackles and pops behind me, flames dancing shadows across pine-needled ground. But instead of the “bigass monster” Marcus swears comes at night, I’m thinking about a bowl of Rice Krispies drowning in chocolate milk.
The real stuff.
As I’m walking I’m telling my mic, which is telling you – my red-ribboned dragonfly – about the migrating patterns of steelhead salmon. About how this time of year, when cold comes like a snap, they head south for warmer waters. You’ve been watching, so you know I’ve only caught three. Crunched the bones of the last ones into a broth days earlier. Here’s hoping for lucky number four.
My comments: Instead of the exchange about the cookie and the ribeye, consider having the narrator fake a phone conversation. You want to escalate tension, so she tells the dial tone or unanswered call, “Yes, this is Evelyn, I’m here with Marcus.” Pause. She exchanges a look with Marcus. “Right. He says he was attacked.” Pause. Look him up and down. “No, he looks fine.” Marcus reaches to take the phone, but she pulls away from him. “Good, we’ll watch for your signal,” she says. She ends the call.
This way we’ll know she’s lying to Marcus. Now the reader is smarter than Marcus, thus the reader will be hooked.
Also, it will demonstrate that your narrator can lie. Therefore she becomes unreliable and might be lying to us.
My beach faces West. Only a finger fits between it and the fiery goddess in the sky. It’s enough time. I pick my way across a slate shattered shore towards the gill net. Survival Fact: A gill net catches fish by the gills. The sight of the sagging net rolls thunder through my stomach. Glad I brought the GoPro. Now Mr. Star-Tattoo-Producer-Man gets his coverage and I get to have my hands free. Tucking my pants into my waders I notice a lumpy pile of beige floating in the net. My stomach shrinks. Looks like my big catch is just another algae bloom.
Still, better check just to be sure.
Standing in front of the net, ice water spilling into my boots, I’m thinking again of Rice Krispies. They’re crackling and popping across the pile of beige that’s definitely not algae. I know what they really are, the beige thing too, but my stomach doesn’t care. I pinch a Rice Krispie between my fingers and dangle it near my lips. Protein is protein. Then the smell hits. The sticky stench of raw venison gone sour. The copper tang of elk liver left in the sun. My stomach lurches and I heave dry air. Once. Twice. I wipe a string of bile from my lip and leave before I can taste the rest of my insides.
But no salmon will swim near a net with a rotting carcass.
On the beach, I find a skinny piece of driftwood then slosh back. I bite my tongue, try poking the remains free, but only manage to lance a bloated bubble of flesh. Luckily my stomach has steeled. Placing my heel against a submerged rock, I poke the carcass again. It doesn’t budge. I pry harder but the stick slides off, taking with it a layer of maggots. It takes me too. I grab the net just in time, face inches from the rot. Closer now, I notice a black mark on the pale skin. Probably just a brand. Probably a just cow. Probably just a farmer’s cow. Survival Fact: The closest cow is on the mainland over 70km away.
I should be thinking a lot of things. Helpful things. Survival things. But when I see the shitty star tattoo on the rotten flesh, I’m only thinking one thing:
Marcus isn’t lying.
My comments: A wonderful visual pay-off. And if you’ve made her fake a phone call, now she’ll know that Marcus knows she’s a liar. My only point of confusion is regarding the beige sludge. Does she initially think it’s fish eggs?
Batteries are scarce now. One GoPro left. This Sony’s at 27%. Producers use to boat in a fresh batch every week. The batteries. Now the nearest producer is a bloated buoy floating in the bay.
Gotta keep this clinical.
Marcus says we should wait for help. On Day 100, show’s end, maybe someone will come. Or maybe when we beat that bitch Connie Cooper to Day 63. He’s sleeping in the bivouac now. Was up all night tending fire. I say we head north to basecamp. He says there is no more basecamp. The crew. The other contestants. All killed by the “bigass monster.” His proof?
Exhibit A: the producer’s dismembered arm.
Marcus swears it came last night, giant footsteps muddled by the rain. It mauled the last of our food stash. Marcus, he grabbed the Sony to capture evidence but caught only a blurry shape lumbering through the trees.
I’m still not convinced. Mostly because I don’t want to be convinced. When Marcus wakes, I’m going to convince him we need to hightail it to basecamp.
His monster may not be real. But starvation is.
My comments: Careful. This mostly recaps what we know. You can escalate by phoning elsewhere. Keep the fire present. Maybe Marcus steals the phone and makes a call, and the narrator won’t know if he’s faking the call like she did. The staple of Second Acts is in-fighting and game playing.
Also, they can have sex. Yes, sex.
They come every night now. Yes, I said they. You can hear them talking to each other. Pops and pings like a pod of bi-pedal Orcas calling from the trees. Clickity click click pop! All around us. Nature’s surround sound. Clickity click click pop! Coordinating. Testing our perimeter.
Marcus spent the day carving spears. But the thing about spears? You have to get close enough to use them. Judging by the size of footprints circling camp, we’d be dead before we got close.
“Tell ‘em you believe me now.” Marcus points a spear at the Sony.
I look at the camera but really I’m looking at you, Dragonfly. Just you. I am there with you, wherever you are when you watch this, with your red ribbons. With your grin.
I tell Marcus if he goes to basecamp with me I’ll–
Sony died the day before we left camp.
Maybe I shouldn’t use the word “die.”
Guess who decided to join me on my trek to basecamp after all? Say Hi Marcus. I hold the last GoPro over my shoulder, but Marcus won’t say boo. He hasn’t said a word in days. He just grunts. In the end, it wasn’t the monsters that scared him the most.
It was being alone.
So much for the Mountain Man of Montauk.
Fire still keeps them away at night. For now…
My comments: Careful with your tone. Anything clever at this point — “nature’s surround sound” — undermines your tension. Keep your objects present, the phone, the letter, the dead body. Does she build a new fish trap? Does she take Marcus back to the body?
Eat your heart out Connie Cooper.
Morning at the top of the mountain ridge and Marcus is gone. Not eaten by bigass monsters gone. Just gone gone. Without a trace gone. It’s just me and you now, Dragonfly. Just me and you.
My comments: It’s good to see the narrator addressing the child. Note, you make a promise to the reader with the line, “I’ll need you later.” At some point this must be fulfilled. The letter must be opened and read. Or destroyed.
Also, consider that during the escalation Marcus burns the letter…
Also, consider that the narrator has stuck a spear through Marcus, out of anger or competition or hunger. Escalate.
Keep in mind that the sat phone is a good device for externalizing thoughts and emotions. It worked nicely in the films Session 9 as the citizens-band radio did in Sunshine Cleaning.
This should be a day of celebration. A day of celebration for a couple reasons. One, I’ve reached basecamp and two, I’ve lasted all 100 days.
My comments: Consider cutting the preceding two lines. They state the obvious. Instead, open this passage with “I’m the winner.”
If by now we’ve begun to question the narrator’s ethics — she lied, she fucked Marcus, she killed Marcus, she ate Marcus, she’s been playing this game against itself — she’ll be much more interesting. “Winning” will take on a sardonic tone. We love a devious genius.
I’m the winner.
I’m going home.
This is the part of the show when my family surprises me on the island to tell me I won. This is when you surprise me, Dragonfly. Red ribbons bouncing in your hair as you cocoon your arms around me. But Marcus was right. There’s nothing here but trampled tents and bloody puddles.
My comments: Careful, you undercut your mood and tension when you dismiss trampled tents and bloody puddles. They seem rather ho-hum. Really unpack this tableau to set-up the tension. Use the sat phone to dial basecamp and hear the basecamp phone ringing and ringing, then find it discarded.
Also, don’t telegraph your narrator’s actions. Cut transition lines such as “So I’ll settle for the next best thing” and just go to the action of retrieving the letter — if Marcus didn’t already burn it. That goes for “I’m taking one of them with me.”
They’re not here.
You’re not here.
So I’ll have to settle for the next best thing.
I reach into my pack just as rain begins to pelt the ground. I feel the puffy sticker on the envelope, pull it out, and hug it to my chest. Your smell lingers everywhere. Brown sugar and rose water. I pry open the seal carefully and remove the letter folded in three. I just start to read when a sound interrupts our reunion.
Clickity click click pop!.
There’s still a finger ’til sundown, but they know I’m alone now. They know I’m weak. They know I know my time has come. But you know what they don’t know?
I’m taking one of them with me.
I stumble to the tree line. A bush rustles in front of me. With your letter clutched like a shield, I hoist the last of Marcus’s spears over my head and let out a guttural growl. Someone yells “Stop!“ but I’m too busy impaling the sneaky bush monster to hear.
I feel the spear hesitate before piercing its flesh. The softness of it going in. Blood mists the air. The monster cries out.
The monster, it sounds familiar.
The monster, it wears red ribbons.
Someone yells cut. Someone yells medic.
And Dragonfly flutters from my fingertips, adrift on an ocean breeze.
Survival Fact: The human heart can bleed out in less than half a finger.
My comments: Good ending. But consider throwing the spear, then revealing the child, then cutting the scene as the spear is still in midair headed straight toward the kid. A short story should end with an explosion of new possibility or dread, so cut at that, your moment of greatest tension. Also, since the narrator might be unreliable you might hint that she’s stated her hysterical story in order to intentionally kill the child. In that case, you might make the kid into her husband who she knows has been having an affair. In effect, stating, “I know things have been lousy between us for a while, but once I win this damned contest you can quit your terrible job.”
If you infer that a character is insincere you have carte blanche to write just as wrongly as you’d like. Every bi-pedal Orca and Blair Witch Project nighttime noise can be justified… because she’s lying. This is a wonderful trick, and allows you to run amuck with tropes, because that’s what liars do. She can even have sex with Marcus — THAT would spice up your Second Act.
Consider that a likeable, sympathetic character is ho-hum. Readers will adore a clever character that fools everyone except us. She wins. We feel smart. She gets revenge on her husband. She doesn’t have to share the prize money. And you… you get to really go bat shit crazy with this story. It’s Gone Girl but better, much better. You’ve just got to embrace your inner evil, scheming genius.