Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chuck Palahniuk - Developping a Theme


In the workshop where I started writing, Tom Spanbauer called theseth-emes, "Horses." He used the metaphor of a wagon pulled by horses,crosscountry. The horses that started on the East Coast would be thesame horsesthat ended on the West Coast. By keeping the themes, or"horses," limitedyou were able to build the depth of the story.Another metaphor for Minimalism is a symphony that starts with a sim-plemelody. Over time, that melody builds and varies, getting richer andmorepowerful as more instruments contribute, but at its core it's still thesamebasic melody until the very end.None of this made much sense to me until nafter workshop, visitingafriend nI saw a commercial on television for Skipper's Seafood restaur-ants.In thirty seconds, the stream of images included flashes of drinkcups, food,restaurant signs, employees working the counter, and papertake-out bags.But all those images said "Skippers" in some way. To alesser degree, they allsaid "good food" and "happiness" or "pleasure."With smiles and peopleeating in groups.In a television commercial, no one eats alone and sad at a greasyplastictable.The commercial was doing what a lawyer does in court.What goodMin-imalist writing should do. It presents a focussed case, a series of image-sor details that will prompt the viewer to a specific decision.In effect: Skipper's is a good place to eat.Or, Burbank, Washington is aspooky, spooky little town.Only my most-distant relatives still live there, but my grandpa did makethe metal street signs. The old people down the road from us, the Pur-cells,kept a little monkey they tied to a weeping willow tree in their yard.Summerafternoons, us kids would feed the monkey thick, green caterpil-lars we'dpicked off Mom's tomato plants. So, no, Burbank isn't all bad.The point is, this is how you shape the reader's perception of yourfiction-al world. By presenting a limited message, but that same message as-many ways as possible.In my book Choke, the repeated message or theme or "horse" is: Thing-sthat are NOT what they appear. The coded security announcements,thesymptoms of disease, the female protagonist. That's why we musteachdetermine our own reality.In my book Invisible Monsters, the theme is: Youth and beauty are-power, but not the strongest kind. That's why we must keep growingandfinding new forms of power.In Diary, the theme is: How can we communicate across time and stop-making the same mistakes over and over?
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This might sound limiting, but once you begin to develop yourthemeyou'll find constant new ways to present it. One of my favoritemethods hasalways been to go out to a party. There, I'll drop the themeintoconversation. Crowd seeding. I'II tell a personal anecdote such as:Thosescary wells from childhood. Then, I can kick back and just listen aseveryonegives their own nmuch better nversion of my story. This way,you havedozens of people fleshing out your theme. Maybe hundreds.And you'll findthat theme becomes universal, expanding to toucheveryone's life.Beyond that, party people will love you because you're actually listen-ingto them. You're paying attention and loving the value in their story.Youmight only say ten words all night, but people will remember you asadazzling entertainer nwhen you were really just doing your job. Har-vesting.Listening. Developing your themes. Running to the bathroom,occasionally, towrite the best stuff on toilet paper and stick it in yoursock.Once you have a critical mass of details, you can start recognizingrepeat-ing patterns.In the above essay, those patterns include:1. Bad things2. Trying to fix bad things, but creating more bad thingsThat's it. You could recognize sub-categories such as:Furnaces… Predators… Reckless acts… Sex… Death… Poverty… . Butit's reallyjust the two basic themes.Once you recognize the patterns, you can arrange and re-arrange themonthe page. Cutting and pasting, seeing how each is affected by theonepresented next to it. Like a collage.Whole books are written thisway. Thosearen't my favorite books, but they can be beautiful.As a method, the collage works well if you contrast it against concretesceneswhere people interact to further the plot nthose chapters whereevents orplot points happen. The collage chapters are best used to slowthe plot orimply time passing in your fictional world.But for scene setting or establishing a tone or mood na collage worksgreat.Make a list. Go to a party. Keep adding to your list. Look for pat-terns. Thenshape your list to best effect.*For homework, read Amy Hemple's short story The Harvest. It's a beau-tiful list of details, all steering you along to heartbreak.If you can't find that story, look for her story, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried. If you're really ambitious, hunt down a copy of Tom
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Spanbauer's short story, Sea Animals in a back issue of The Quarterlymagazine.Then, write out your worst fears from childhood. Work on that list for afew days, adding details as you remember them. Flesh out those fears.Then, get together with people and share enough to get them talkingabout their childhood monsters. Look for patterns between yourself andother people. Add new material to your list. Then, arrange and re-ar-range your expanded list to create the best effect. Like editing a movie.Cut and re-cut. If anything seems thin or under-developed go back outand talk to people.Identify the themes or "horses" in last month's essay about authority.Identify the themes in The Great Gatsby. Identify the themes inSlaughterhouse 5.

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