What Can We Steal From Ron Rash’s “Speckle Trout”?

Title of Work and its Form: ”Speckle Trout,” short story
Author: Ron Rash
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its auspicious debut in the Spring 2003 issue of The Kenyon Review, one of the best journals around.  As of this writing, it seems that JSTOR is offering free access to the story here.  Take advantage!  The story won a well-deserved O. Henry Award in 2005 and was reprinted in that year’s anthology.

Bonuses:  Here is a poem Mr. Rash wrote that is titled “Speckled Trout.”  Here is Mr. Rash’s biography at the Poetry Foundation web site.  Here is a Daily Beast article in which Mr. Rash tells you how he writes.  (Sadly, sipping tea while composing doesn’t get you an instant O. Henry Award.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

First line: “Lanny came upon the pot plants while fishing Caney Creek.”  The teenager was minding his own business and trying to catch some speckle trout on a beautiful day.  Then he saw the massive pot garden.  “He rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money to him,” so he stole five plants.  Lanny sells them to a dealer, then has a beer and propositions a woman…he’s going through adolescence in overdrive.  Lanny goes back to the pot farm and steals more plants.  Everything works out.  Lanny goes back a third time…and things don’t really work out.

So I first read this story in a Lee K. Abbott class at Ohio State and it knocked me out.  It still knocks me out.  Mr. Rash is fulfilling the most important of the writer’s responsibilities; when you read the story, you can sense him twirling a chair around and saying, “Have I got a story for you…”  I won’t name any titles, but I can tell when I read some stories that the author has other things on his or her mind.  I guess I just mean that I enjoy a lot of stories in which the author intends to dazzle you with language or to teach you about another culture…but my greatest joys as a reader come from folks including (but not limited to) Joyce Carol Oates or Tom Perrotta or Harlan Ellison or Ron Carlson or Erin McGraw or Ben Fountain.  When I read a story by one of these kinds of writers, I feel as though they’re telling me, very politely, to sit down and to shut up because they have a life-changing yarn to tell me.

Okay, let’s look at the basic structure of the story:

  1. Lanny goes fishing and finds a pot farm.  He takes some.
  2. Lanny goes and steals more pot.
  3. Lanny goes to steal more pot and his leg is caught in a bear trap.  The awesomely named Linwood Toomey’s going to kill Lanny.

What do you notice?  Mr. Rash adheres to the Rule of Threes.  He’s also making use of Freytag’s Pyramid.  Think about the amount of pot Lanny steals (or intends to steal).  It keeps getting bigger.  I’m guessing Mr. Rash didn’t sit down and plot these elements on a chart.  He knows instinctively that three is the right number of trips for Lanny to take to the pot farm and that Lanny’s ambition will grow…until it results in his untimely demise.  These are the natural rhythms of our lives and they just feel right when they are represented faithfully in fiction.

Look at the white-knuckle final two pages of the story.  Poor Lanny has his leg in the bear trap.  Linwood Toomey’s getting ready to “do what needs to be done.”  Mr. Rash uses the word “word” or “words” eight times:

  • “Lanny liked the way Linwood Toomey spoke.  The words were soothing…”
  • “Linwood Toomey’s words had started to blur…”
  • “what he did understand was Linwood Toomey’s words weren’t said…”
  • “to do so would mean having several sentences of words to pull apart from one another…”
  • “He tried to think of a small string of words he might untangle.”
  • “Lanny thought of something he could say in just a few words.”
  • “It seemed to him that Linwood Toomey’s words had soothed…”
  • “Linwood Toomey said something else but each word was like a balloon…”

Mr. Rash leaves the details of the ending (and Lanny’s ending) up to the reader.  Why is it okay that Mr. Rash didn’t include a five-page Quentin Tarantino-esque torture scene?  He didn’t need to.  The repetition of “words” puts so much emphasis on what Toomey says that you know what will happen.  Toomey’s dialogue is calm and cold and unnerving.  The repetition also facilitates the last paragraph of the story.  Lanny experiences the story through speech and silence and his memories of the titular fish.

Mr. Rash’s very cool first line also names the inciting incident of the story.  From there, Mr. Rash’s third person limited narrator describes Lanny’s life and provides all of the necessary exposition.  On the third page of the story, Lanny reaches “where the creek forked” and finds the pot plans.  This distribution of exposition is very elegant.  Why?  Mr. Rash gives us the promise of an inciting incident and pays it off very quickly in a manner that is connected to the events of the first three pages.

Sometimes, writers (including myself) have the inclination to begin a story with a big block of exposition before getting into the narrative.  Now, there are a zillion great stories that begin this way, but such a construction can be problematic.  Here’s one I’m making up:

Bob Johnson was a baker.  He woke at three in the morning-every morning-so he could drag himself to the bakery early enough to sift, mix, shape, proof and bake everything his customers needed.  The divorce took a lot out of him, but the job was keeping him sane.  The early hours tired him out and prevented him from thinking about Diane and what she had said to him the day she left.

What if I begin in the dramatic present?

Bob Johnson, recent divorcee, squeezed the butt of the gun to make sure it was still in his shoulder holster.  He entered the bakery for the last time, anticipating the sweetness of Diane’s confession.

See how the latter example is more compelling?  Instead of wading through the who, what, when, where and why, we’re jazzed; Bob Johnson’s entering the bakery with the intention of shooting SOMEONE.  What’s going to happen?

What Should We Steal?

  • Ensure that the structure of your piece reflects the structure of our lives.  Childhood and adolescence are each a series of increasingly big and meaningful events.  (The apex seems to be the birth of a child…it’s all downhill after that.)  Allow your story to mimic the natural rhythms of our lives.
  • Employ repetition to train your reader.  By repeatedly mentioning “words,” the reader is trained to focus on dialogue.
  • Bind your opening exposition to the narrative with hoops of steel.  The reader shouldn’t have to wait for your “story” to start several pages into your story.