Writing “The Ordeal of the Fish”

by Daniel Brenton on October 24, 2010

in Writing

In which the author shares the inspiration, the original story, and final “working script” of his winning contest speech, and some thoughts on how this made him a better writer.

Ordeal of the FishStart: I‘ve been writing about a prize-winning Toastmaster contest speech of mine for nearly two weeks now, but I haven’t really told you anything about the speech.

If you’ve viewed the video file provided to me by Jackpot Speakers founder Narayanan Doraswamy, you’ve seen the finished product. I posted the embedded Google Video on my last post, and if you missed it there (you deprived creature) here’s another chance:

And now … you are about to learn more about this speech than you probably ever would want to know.

The Story of the Story

“The Ordeal of the Fish” is a whimsical, slightly jaded idyll of a story about a talking fish that was caught in a flash drought (Arizona and Nevada are prone to those) and was forced to come into my neighborhood — on fin — to find water.

About twenty years ago I wrote a handful of short vignettes I later came to call “new age fairy tales.” These were odd, playful, snippets built on strange situations filled with wordplay made against obscure references. One vignette was about a man who slowed down in time, changed direction, and wound up accelerating constantly, blasted through Palm Springs and blew all the golf carts off the road, and eventually broke the Light barrier. Another, shorter bit was about Hell actually freezing over. It took a particular frame of mind to “slide into” writing this kind of material, and I haven’t successfully recaptured that mindset since. (Though, perhaps, maybe that’s not such a bad thing …)

The inspiration for these traces very clearly to John Lennon. John wrote odd little vignettes much like I’m describing, though much more mischievous and shocking. Two collections of these were published back in the early 1970s, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. My sense is that his main influence was the later writings of James Joyce, due to a similar use of puns and wordplay.

Originally I called this story “The Ordeal of the Fish: a Sufi Tale” mostly because my circle of friends at the time were constantly surrounding themselves with metaphysical materials. (I know nothing about Sufi tales, but, hey, it sounded funny.)

The Original … er … Tail

The Ordeal of the Fish: a Sufi Tale

And the Fish came, yea, dripping and squishing at my doorstep, and asked so kindly for a dip in my bathtub. Fresh out of dips, I told the poor aquarian of my situation and offered him merely water. He accepted cheerily, muttering an oath against the blind leading the blind, yet praising that the ditch was filled with overflow.

In the bathtub the fish found two dancing reindeer which posed him many riddles: the first of which being their presence there, the second of which being their presence there, the third of which being where they had learned to foxtrot (they were not very good).

Gasping, the fish shouted at the reindeer to get out of my bathtub. The reindeer, however, could make no sense of the King’s English (nor the Queen’s). They could, however, understand my King’s Norwegian, and soon the fish was splashing about playfully in my bathtub. After a short time he felt refreshed, and, after leafing briefly through my copy of Field and Stream, began to explain himself.

The fish explained to me (in his fish-like way) that he had been caught in a flash drought several hours before, and was forced to flee on fin to the nearest safety.

He first sought help at a house near his dried-up lake and was met at the door by a man with simply hideous breath. The fish explained his situation to him and the man told him he had no water, for he considered water sinful; that he bathed weekly in glycerine and drank nothing but wood alcohol. The man then put a cigarette to his lips and was about to light it when the fish fled in sheer panic.

The second house he tried he met a woman at the door, and was able to peer past her into her living room, where he could see dozens of hundred-gallon glass bowls filled to the brims with water. The fish began to explain his situation to her, and the woman snapped sharply that she had no water and slammed the door in the fish’s face.

At the third house the fish came to the owner looked at the fish and quickly saw the fish’s distress. He took the fading fish’s fin and led him into his backyard and pushed him into his swimming pool. Momentarily the fish was relieved, but soon he began to choke on the chlorine, and he crawled out of the pool and ran from the man lest he do him another favor.

It was dusk, and the fish came to an orchard. He came upon the Wise Owl, and said to him: “Oh Owl; I go to many for water and there is none for me. Why cannot I find what I seek?”

The Owl looked upon him in an owl-like way and answered, saying: “Wouldst thou look beyond thineself for aught, when all ye seek is within?”

The fish realized the Owl was an idiot, and he left him, and that is when he came to my home, and found safety.

I listened to the fish’s story and felt compassion toward him, and held his fin, comforting him as best I could. I invited him to dinner, and found to my delight he made an excellent entree.

The “Production Script”

Below is the final “script.” A few notes:

  • The notes that are in brackets (“[ ]“) and bolded are, to use theatrical parlance, stage direction. Though I did not write all this down in the actual “script” originally, I’ve included it here to give you a sense of what action or stage “business” I was doing at a given moment.
  • A “beat,” for those who don’t know, is dialogue direction, a pause that works within the rhythm of the dialogue. For instance, in the old M.A.S.H. TV series, when Frank Burns would say something stupid, Hawkeye’s line would come just the right amount of time to produce the best comic effect. What constitutes the right amount of time (or the right number of “beats”) is dictated by the rhythm of the material and the context in which it is delivered.
  • The locations noted on the stage are from my vantage point, not the audience’s.

The Ordeal of the Fish

It was only two weeks ago I had the most remarkable experience. I had a fish – must have been about, hmm … [hold hands about a foot apart, stretch the space to about three feet, then hold one hand four feet above floor] this big – come to my front door. His visit moved me, [unbutton jacket to show fish tie] and left me a changed man.

[Cross to prop area on left.] This fish came dripping and squishing to my doorstep, holding a humble cardboard sign before him in his outstretched fins: [hold up sign leaning against prop chair] Will Work for Water. As I stared at him in open astonishment, he asked me, so very kindly, “Sir, may I take a dip in your bathtub?”

[Beat, shrug] What else could I do? I invited him into my home.

[Cross to center.] When we reached my bathroom, we were both wincing from the teeth-shattering volume of the big band music that was booming through the door.

The fish looked up at me, clearly perplexed.

I shouted: “My housekeeper likes to practice the foxtrot in the bathtub.”

The fish responded: “Why does she do that?”

I was not sure exactly how to answer the fish. Finally I said, [shrug] “she’s Canadian,” [beat] which seemed to satisfy him.

I hammered on the door and my housekeeper, Yvette, cracked it open a few inches, peeked out, and froze in amazement as she caught sight of the fish. I shouted to her in her native French that it was the fish’s turn to practice, and soon he was in a now quiet bathroom, splashing about playfully in my bathtub. After a short time he felt refreshed, and, after looking briefly with puzzlement through my copy of Field and Stream, began to tell me his true fish story.

[Cross to center right.] The fish related to me (in his fish-like way) that he had been caught in a flash drought [do a take, mouth “flash drought?”, wait a beat] several hours before, and had been forced to flee [lift up a foot and motion to it] on fin to the nearest safety.

He first sought help at a house near his dried-up lake and met by a woman at the door. She glanced at him for a moment, smiled broadly, and called into the room, “Hey guys! Here’s another one!” She then swung her front door wide open [mime flinging open a door.] In her enormous living room the fish could see a dozen hundred gallon glass aquariums. As if on cue, every fish in each aquarium came to the surface and stuck out their tongues at him. [Beat] Then wham! [Fall back as if door was slammed in face.] The woman slammed the door in the fish’s face.

[Cross to left center.] The next house he tried he was met at the door by a man with simply hideous breath. The fish explained his predicament to him and the man told him he had no water, for he considered water sinful; that he bathed weekly in kerosene [beat] and drank nothing but wood alcohol. The man then put a cigarette to his lips and was about to light it [do “fishwalk” crossing right] when the fish fled in sheer panic.

[Stage right.] It was dusk, and the fish came to an orchard. He came upon the Wise Owl, and said onto him: “oh Owl,” [aside to audience] — they talk like that — “I go to many for water and there is none for me. Why cannot I find what I seek?”

The Owl looked upon him (in an owl-like way) and answered, saying: “Wouldst thou look beyond thineself for aught, when all ye seek is within?”

[“Fish” looks up at owl in puzzlement, looks down, back up, then drop character and look to audience.] The fish realized the Owl was an idiot, and he left him, [cross to center, wait beat for laughter] and this is when he came to my home, and found safety.

I listened to the fish’s story and felt compassion toward him. I held his fin, [“hold” fin supportively with both hands] comforting him as best I could, though in all honesty I felt I was floundering terribly. [A few beats, cross left to prop area.] Thankfully, my housekeeper came in at that moment and offered to make up a radicchio and black truffle salad, and some potato gratin, so I invited the fish to dinner.

And I found to my delight [beat, pull chef’s had out of box on prop chair and quickly slip it on] that he made an excellent entree. [Rub hands together in fiendish delight.]

• • •

I think by in large the two versions convey pretty much the same thing, but naturally there are differences. Most of this was because it became a performance in front of an audience, rather than ink passively sitting on paper or liquid crystals being stimulated on a screen.

Here’s the “why” behind some of the obvious differences:

  • The material isn’t so opaque. I wasn’t thinking about working with an audience when I wrote the original piece, but more like letting the readers figure it out for themselves. (I will begrudgingly admit there is something to be said for being accessible.)
  • In the original there was the business with the two dancing reindeer in the bathtub. I remember the now President of my home club, Bryant Pergerson, shooting that one down — it was too far out. He suggested it should be the housemaid. This, of course changes the dynamics of the scene — obviously the fish and I can’t walk in on her dancing in the bathtub.
  • Also, the reindeer couldn’t understand the King’s English, though being reindeer they must be from far north, so it made sense they would understand Norwegian. (Wouldn’t they?)

    I wanted to have a language barrier with the maid just as I had with the reindeer in the original, so I went with her being French-Canadian, and speaking only French. In the original, the “reindeer posed him (the fish) many riddles” and this wound up translating into the fish asking “why does she do that (foxtrot in the bathtub)?” and me offering “she’s Canadian” as the answer.

  • I had to cut the third house the fish visited in the story from the speech version due to time. A Tall Tales speech target length is three to five minutes long, and there are 30 second margins built into both ends (it can technically run as short as two minutes 30 seconds and as long as five minutes 30 seconds, which has to include interruptions — laughter, stage issues, etc.). If it runs short or long the speech can be disqualified, so it is critical to be mindful of the running time.

Found (not Lost) in Translation

Since this was a speech, there were a whole range of aspects I could do to enhance the presentation. Gestures, expressions, changes in voice to represent different characters (the Wise Owl naturally had to have an aloof, “wise” voice, and the fish was more nasal — you’d be pretty nasal if you didn’t have a nose, too). But comparing the original material to the final version of the speech, the core of the original story remained intact.

The process of changing the story into something better suited for what is basically a stage presentation was driven largely by presenting it several times before my home Toastmaster club, and my second club Jackpot Speakers. Some suggestions from the two clubs fit and some wouldn’t, and ideas on changing the drift of the speech didn’t work but suggested other approaches that did.

As is turned out, this took only seven rewrites to “translate” it from prose to spoken presentation. My humorous speech from the following contest season took over twenty revisions, so, needless to say, I consider “Ordeal of the Fish” as a happy marriage between material I had written for other reasons long ago and the Toastmaster Tall Tale competition.

If you’re a writer of short fiction, I would highly recommend taking a shot at converting some of your material into a spoken presentation, and a Toastmaster contest environment would be a ready framework for this effort. For me, the process changed how I look at writing prose, and reminded me of the importance of editing, of maintaining the momentum of a story, and the need to keep the audience engaged.

Besides all this, despite all the work this entailed, it really was a lot of fun. You might enjoy it, too.

The other articles in this series:
1. Yes, Talking Fish
2. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – The Arena
3. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – First Area Contest
4. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – To the Area Again, and Beyond
5. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – The Summit

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.

This article is revised from a previous version (no longer available)
which was published on this site October 13, 2006.

End

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