Flash fiction challenge: The car chase

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Chuck Wendig issued a flash fiction challenge: write a car chase in 2,000 words. I’m cheating a bit, because while my antagonist leads the chase in a car, the scene is about the chaser, not the chasee. And the chaser is a food truck. But, hey. There’s a car in there. Somewhere. Comments welcome!

When the Eklunds broke away from the race and sped across town, Karen Renfrew turned from the orange and blue paisley–painted, Indian-themed food truck and stared as the small cavalcade—the electric sports cars driven by the investors, and then the electric support vehicle—bashed their way through the traffic cones that marked the route and peeled off in the wrong direction.

“Well, that’s really weird,” she said to Uncle Boo-boo, who had taken her to his sister’s startup food truck and was introducing her to the tasty miracle that was chicken tikka masala. “Why are those cars going off the track? Why is Phoebe following them?”

“Perhaps it is secret CIA business!” Uncle Boo-boo said, beaming.

“What are you talking about?” Sanjay asked, sticking his head out of the food truck’s order window. “What CIA business? What’s Phoebe up to now?”

“We don’t know!” Karen said, frowning after the cars. “It’s very odd.”

“I think it’s secret CIA business!” Uncle Boo-boo said.

“Maybe we should follow them,” Sanjay said. “Phoebe has a exhibited a distressing habit of taking risks. Perhaps she could use our help.”

“An excellent suggestion!” Uncle Boo-boo said. “Let’s go!” He unhooked the chalkboard menu that hung from the side of the truck and stashed it on the counter. Sanjay disappeared inside, and in seconds, a cloud of black smoke erupted from the tailpipe as the truck roared to life.

“We’re chasing them in the food truck?” Karen didn’t think they could catch them in the food truck. Or even keep them in sight, no matter how bright those ghastly yellow cars were and how tall the cones stood out on the vehicles’ roofs.

“With what else do we have to chase them? By all means, in the food truck!” Uncle Boo-boo clipped the menu securely to the counter and then nudged her toward a small door in the side of the truck. “You do not see any other vehicles here, do you? The food truck is what we have. The food truck is what we’ll take.”

Karen heard a shout from inside the truck, and a skinny teenaged boy started slamming down the window covers. In seconds, the truck was secured and ready to go.

“No time to lose!” Uncle Boo-boo beamed and opened the side door.

In for a penny, Karen thought, and tripped up the steps in her killer heels. At the top she bumped into the teenager. “Oh, sorry!” she said.

“This is the nephew of my nephew Sanjay,” Uncle Boo-boo said. “Justin.”

“Justin?” The teenager, a beautiful younger replica of Sanjay with dark brown, almond-shaped eyes, dark hair, and pants at least four sizes too big, shrugged.

“Don’t ask me.”

“Better sit!” Sanjay yelled from the driver’s seat. He ground the gears into first and stepped on the gas. The truck was heavy and slow, but even so, the lurch sent Karen flying into Uncle Boo-boo.

“Here, we have seats in the back,” he said, holding onto her firmly. “With belts. Better than an airplane.”

They staggered to the back of the truck, where Uncle Boo-boo pulled down a jump seat for the two of them, and Justin braced himself in a crevice between two built-in cupboards.

“Hang on!” Uncle Boo-boo called gaily as Sanjay ground the gears into second and the truck lurched again. Uncle Boo-boo grabbed Karen’s leg for emphasis, which was a lot less irritating than she thought it would be. She looked into his twinkling eyes and smiled.

“Where are we going?” she asked. “Can we still see them?”

“We will catch them,” Sanjay called, glaring into the traffic, his eyes focused on the road. “They will not get away.” With one hand on the wheel, he dug his phone out of his pocket, and hit the speed dial.

“Phoebe!” he said. “What are you doing?” He listened for a minute, swerving around traffic with one hand, leaning on the horn when he had to. “We’re right behind you! Alert the hotel!” He disconnected and shoved the phone back in his pocket.

“The Swedish-Korean terrorists are making their move!” he said to his passengers. “We have to step on it!”

“Terrorists?” Karen said. “What terrorists? I never heard anything about terrorists.” She’d never really been positive that Phoebe had worked for the CIA. Her daughter just seemed to have a boring desk job at some gray agency in Washington where she sat all day and pushed paper around. She was a spy? When did that happen? And—chasing after terrorists like this, somebody was bound to get hurt.

“The Swedish-Koreans! I told you! They have guns! They are on the move! We must stop them!” Sanjay stamped on the accelerator. Hungry pedestrians, seeing the food truck barreling down the street, tried to flag him down, but he gestured wildly to get them to move out of the way. Then he turned on the truck’s exterior speakers and hit a button. Music from a Bollywood musical blared out into the Las Vegas desert.

“Ah,” Uncle Boo-boo said. “That is Lat Lag Gayee. Very nice tune.”

“What?” Karen said, hanging on to Uncle Boo-boo for dear life as Sanjay careened around a corner.

“From Race 2,” Uncle Boo-boo said, holding Karen firmly. “Not my favorite film, but I do like the music, don’t you?”

“Ah, sure,” Karen said. The truck sped down the street, music streaming out to the public. Several other vehicles honked. Sanjay honked back. From her position on the jump seat, Karen could see only a tiny sliver of the front-facing windshield. Buildings sped by, but she had a hard time orienting herself to where they were. And then Sanjay slammed on the brakes, and they all lurched forward.

“We’re here!” Sanjay threw open the driver-side door and leaped out of the truck. Uncle Boo-boo helped Karen to her feet and she, feeling unexpectedly hampered by her stilettos, followed him out the side door, gratefully taking his helpful hand. Justin jumped down and hiked up his pants with one hand after he landed. Karen looked up at the imposing façade of the Desert Dunes casino and the yellow electric SUV parked in front. What was Phoebe doing here? What was happening?

“Hey!” the liveried valet parking guy said. “You can’t park here!”

“CIA!” Sanjay flashed his food vendor’s permit for less than a second.

The valet parking guy grabbed Uncle Boo-boo’s arm. “Stop right there!”

“They’re with me,” Sanjay said. “National security!”

“At least turn off that music!”

“CIA!” Uncle Boo-boo said, shaking his arm loose and flashing his realtor’s license. “It’s most urgent.”

“I’m the cocktail waitress,” Karen said, wondering if the valet parking guy might actually hold her back. She thought that might be a good idea. He was kind of cute, and her feet were killing her. When she’d accepted the date with Uncle Boo-boo to see the race, she hadn’t expected to do so much running herself.

“Hey! Wait!” The valet guy said, but Sanjay ran to the revolving doors without looking back. Uncle Boo-boo towed Karen, who tripped along as fast as she could, and Justin slouched behind.

“We’re in,” Sanjay said, looking around the lobby for Phoebe, or alternatively, any sign of trouble. “Now let’s go save us a Secretary of State.”

Selective blindness

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Watch this 1999 video by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. You won’t be sorry, I promise.

Did you get the number of ball passes correct? I really focused, and I did count correctly.

For those who didn’t see the 300-pound gorilla in the room, which I did not, this phenomenon is entirely normal. Did you ever not notice a friend’s new haircut? Or not realize that a sibling had gained weight over the last 10 years? If so, it’s not because you’re too self-involved. According to researchers, it’s how our brains are wired. It’s called “change blindness,” and it’s the phenomenon of not noticing something—even a 300-pound gorilla—when it stares us in the face.

There’s also “inattentional blindness,” when we don’t see the difference because we’re not looking for it. In the video, if didn’t see the gorilla, it’s because you were told to count the number of ball passes. If you’d been told to look for the gorilla, you’d have seen it. Which I did, easily, when I played the video back.

These blindnesses are shortcuts our brains take. There’s too much information to process everything constantly, so the brain fills in the space we don’t much care about. The brain assumes. And we know how assumptions can sometimes get us into trouble!

While inattentional blindness can be fun when it’s about gorilla videos or video games, it can have serious consequences, because if you’re not looking for gorillas, you won’t see them. So if you’re not consciously looking for motorcycles or dogs in the road, you might miss those, too.

So be careful out there! You never know when a 300-pound gorilla will be in the room.

Happy birthday today

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Like lots of people, I like to stroll through the internet, and today while looking up some biographical material, I got caught up in what happened on April 4. Among other things, many cool writerly type people were born.

Robert_Downey_JrFor those who like action films, Robert Downey, Jr., an actor, singer, producer, and screenwriter, was born in 1965.

For those who like television shows (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, Boston Legal, and Harry’s Law), writer David E. Kelley was born in 1956.

Kitty_Kelley_Photo_by_Raymond_BoydIf you like to read about scandal, another Kelley, this time Kitty Kelley, was born in 1942. She’s the author of many best-selling, unauthorized biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Oprah Winfrey, and Nancy Reagan, among others. Called “the consummate gossip monger,” she claimed to be an “unabashed admirer of transparency.” However, when critics scrutinized her work more carefully, many of her “facts” were found to be unsubstantiated. Readers might not have cared.

MayaAngelouMaya Angelou was born on this day in 1928. To know her life story is to wonder what you’ve been doing with your own. She was a supper club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana, and professor. She was friends with Malcolm X and Billie Holiday. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than 50 years. Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), brought her international recognition and acclaim. Some cities have tried to ban her books from public libraries, but her works, based on themes such as racism, identity, family, and travel, are widely used in schools and universities worldwide.

Robert_E__SherwoodFinally, in 1896, Robert E. Sherwood, playwright and four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was born. One of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, Sherwood was close friends with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Edna Ferber, and at six feet eight inches, was the tallest among them. He co-wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Best wishes to all.

 

It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to

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poetryWhat with one thing and another, it’s been a rough week. I took a hiatus and wandered over to Jenny Crusie‘s site, where I learned about The Toast, which is a blast and just what I needed when I was done assembling receipts for Uncle Sam. For a fun look at oppressive activities, take a look at “Women Having A Terrible Time At Parties In Western Art History” by Mallory Ortberg. In fact, her entire “Western Art History” oeuvre is not to be missed. As one of her women who’s having a terrible time at a party would say, it’s bears.

Farewell, my lovely

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pine_treeThe neighbor kitty-corner to my yard is taking down a 100-year-old (or older) pine tree. It is enormous—by far the largest tree on the block—and towers over all the buildings in my residential area. The workmen have been at it for two days already. The buzz of their chain saws is both irritating and heartbreaking. I don’t know if the tree is diseased—it didn’t look it—and I was often annoyed at how it shaded my vegetable garden. But over the buzz of the chainsaw, I think I can hear it weeping.

A great time was had by all

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IMG_0057I recently returned from a trip to Arizona, where I spent a week with writerly friends. Three of us took a fabulous trip to the northern high country, watching the sun come up over the Grand Canyon, strolling through a slot canyon at noon, and revisiting John Ford’s old stomping ground, Monument Valley. One of us sets her series in Arizona, and what more excuse could anyone want for a field trip? And I’d never heard of slot canyons, although, when showed a photo, I recognized a million calendar shots. Like this photo? You’ll see many more. And even better—I got a book plotted.

Got plot?

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thinkerPlotting is hard for many people. Sage advice says to start with characters, and when you know those people well enough, their behavior alone will launch the conflict. But you have to get to know them, and to do that, you need to start somewhere. What kind of story do you want to write? What sort of plot structure should you choose? If you have trouble answering those questions, maybe these plot suggestions will give you some ideas.

Start with high school English

In high school English class, Mrs. Miehlmanns, my teacher, taught me that all of literature has only three plot types: wo/man against wo/man, wo/man against self, and wo/man against nature. According to a teaching collection from the Internet Public Library (or IPL2), Mrs. Miehlmanns was wrong about those three plots. Or at least, underreporting.

According to this IPL compilation, there can be as few as one or three basic plot structures, but also as many as seven, 20, or 36. I’m thinking, this could really help my brainstorming, not to mention, my output. Bring on those 36 basic plot types!

First there was 1

But let’s start at the beginning. The single basic plot is described by William Foster-Harris in The Basic Patterns of Plot. What, says Mr. Foster-Harris, is the single basic plot? Conflict. Yeah, big help there, Bill. Moving right along.

Then there were 3

Mr. Foster-Harris was not enthusiastic about the idea of a single plot. He really thinks there are three basic plots (yay, Mrs. Miehlmanns again!), although the three plots that Mr. Foster-Harris favors don’t jibe with my ninth-grade lesson. Mr. Foster-Harris says the three basic plots are:

  1. The happy ending. In this plot structure, the central character makes a sacrifice (a decision that seems logically “wrong”) for the sake of another.
  2. The unhappy ending. The protagonist does what seems logically “right,” and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice.
  3. The literary plot. This plot hinges on fate, not a decision, and the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows from that event is inevitable, often tragedy.

Now there are 7

If you like the sound of seven basic plots, IPL2 volunteer librarian Jessamyn West assembled them:

  1. Wo/man v. nature
  2. Wo/man v. wo/man
  3. Wo/man v. the environment
  4. Wo/man v. machines/technology
  5. Wo/man v. the supernatural
  6. Wo/man v. Self
  7. Wo/man v. god/religion

I think some of these are hair-splitting just a bit. Doesn’t “nature” sound like a subset of “the environment”? Don’t “machines/technology” and “supernatural” fit in the same category? Okay, just kidding there. A little.

Too quickly, 20

Ronald B. Tobias defined 20 master plots in his book, 20 Master Plots. The title there really says it all. His 20:

  1. Quest
  2. Adventure
  3. Pursuit
  4. Rescue
  5. Escape
  6. Revenge
  7. The riddle
  8. Rivalry
  9. Underdog
  10. Temptation
  11. Metamorphosis
  12. Transformation
  13. Maturation
  14. Love
  15. Forbidden love
  16. Sacrifice
  17. Discovery
  18. Wretched excess
  19. Ascension
  20. Descension

And again, I ask: Aren’t “Metamorphosis” and “Transformation” sort of the same thing? In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, when that guy woke up, he was a cockroach. I’d call that a transformation of the first order. Notice that plot #16, “Sacrifice,” nicely ties in with Mr. Foster-Harris’s notion of the happy-ending or unhappy-ending plot. Experts think alike!

At long last, 36

Georges Polti wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations in 1916 or thereabouts. His purpose in doing so, he claims, was to reconstruct the 36 plots that Goethe said that Carlo Gozzi (author of Turandot) identified. Got that?

Some of the plots in the 36 sound downright unpleasant, but here they are, free for you to adapt:

  1. Supplication (in which the supplicant must beg something from power in authority)
  2. Deliverance
  3. Crime pursued by vengeance
  4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
  5. Pursuit
  6. Disaster
  7. Falling prey to cruelty of misfortune
  8. Revolt
  9. Daring enterprise
  10. Abduction
  11. The enigma (temptation or a riddle)
  12. Obtaining
  13. Enmity of kinsmen
  14. Rivalry of kinsmen
  15. Murderous adultery
  16. Madness
  17. Fatal imprudence
  18. Involuntary crimes of love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother or sister)
  19. Slaying of a kinsman unrecognized
  20. Self-sacrificing for an ideal
  21. Self-sacrifice for kindred
  22. All sacrificed for passion
  23. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
  24. Rivalry of superior and inferior
  25. Adultery
  26. Crimes of love
  27. Discovery of the dishonor of a loved one
  28. Obstacles to love
  29. An enemy loved
  30. Ambition
  31. Conflict with a god
  32. Mistaken jealousy
  33. Erroneous judgment
  34. Remorse
  35. Recovery of a lost one
  36. Loss of loved ones

Got story?

Do any of these ideas stir up anything for you? I must confess, they made me think a bit. And in the event you’ve got some holiday gift cards to spend, all these books are available on Amazon and perhaps other fine retailers. The plot’s a-foot!

The IPL2 is a nonprofit reference site run by the IPL Consortium, a group of 15 colleges, and hosted by Drexel University. The collections themselves originate from and are maintained by volunteer librarians and graduate students. I am sad to report that after 30 years in business and 100,000 queries answered, IPL2 will not be maintained after the end of 2014.

This post originally appeared on the WritersFunZone.