Previous examples of my Chapter One Analysis series can be found here. If you want to read the first chapter of Fight Club for yourself you can find it here.
Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.
In a publishing climate where men are considered a poor demographic to aim a book at, I thought I’d take a look at one of the leading lights of what is called transgressive fiction. No holds barred, down and dirty, psychologically and morally questionable and questioning.
Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel, Fight Club, was published in 1996. Satire, thriller, minimalist, transgressive comedy. A bona fide cult classic. And the first chapter is an excellent example of how to capture the reader’s attention by starting at a moment of crisis in what is a fairly philosophical story.
Chuck himself is a very strong advocate of the minimalist school. This isn’t, as some people think, about writing in a sparse style. It is more to do with having a narrow focus. About breaking things down to their most basic parts. Dealing with actions, behaviour, avoid adverbs, avoid telling in favour of showing. In many ways it is the epitome of the modern approach to fiction as described in most how-to books.
Often, those basic building blocks are so revealing that you don’t have to describe the big picture, it all there in miniature. So, if say an old man wakes to find his wife has died in the night, he gets dressed, goes downstairs and has a grapefruit for breakfast, a minimalist writer might just write about the grapefruit bit, and the reader would be able to infer the death of the wife.
This technique is best used for short stories, and the greatest proponents (Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel) have tended to eschew the novel. However, those basic techniques, with a little adaptation, form the basis of much of modern contemporary fiction.
But at the same time, Chuck breaks these rules all the time. Reading his work, what becomes obvious very quickly is that even more important than following those rules is to create a voice, a person you are invested in and whose story you want to know.
Fight Club is written in first person POV, present tense. It has a non-linear structure, with chapters jumping backward and forward in time all over the shop. The first chapter is a short four pages and part of a framing device. We start (and end) the book in a moment of extreme peril for the narrator. Everything in between is flashback.
The style is very much of someone telling you their story and their presence is very strong. Repetition in particular is used a lot (the most famous line from the book The first rule of fight club... is a good example of how to use repetition in an inventive way). I think what stops it becoming annoying or feeling repetitive is consistency and rhythm. You get used to him talking like that. And of course, what he’s telling you is interesting. And often very funny.
“This isn’t really death,” says Tyler. “We’ll be legend. We won’t grow old.”
I tongue the barrel into my cheek and say, Tyler, you’re thinking of vampires.
Foreshadowing in the first chapter is off the chart. In terms of how the story ends and who Tyler Durden turns out to be, lots of clues are left in plain sight. The wording is constructed in such a way that when you later find out Tyler Durden’s true nature, it all still makes sense, even all the way back in the beginning. And seemingly random details about how to create explosives from household products pay-off big time.
It creates an overall feeling off completion and satisfaction in the story. It all comes together at the end, and when you go back to the start, you see how it was all there in the beginning too.
There is a great level of detail in the first chapter, about things like how to make explosives or how a silencer for a gun works. These are classic minimalism techniques. They establish authenticity, they engender a feeling in the reader that the narrator knows what he’s talking about. This enables the author to create a sense of authority, which he can later use to manipulate the reader (if he so wishes).
But what makes a detailed description of bathtub explosives more than just info dumping? Would it be as interesting if someone was describing the shoes they were wearing in extreme detail? Part of what makes it more than that, I think, is that he’s talking about something that people innately find interesting.
How to make a bomb from the stuff under your sink is going to catch people’s attention. If you told me the shoes you’re wearing cost $500 I won’t be that impressed or interested — it's within my frame of reference. If you told me they’re worth $50,000 I might start asking you some questions. Working out what’s interesting to people requires using your judgement.
Generally speaking, the unusual, the unexpected, is what catches the eye. It isn’t good enough to think, well, people might find this interesting, you have to think, people will definitely find this interesting.
My shoes were hand crafted by an Italian cobbler born into a family of artisans reaching back a thousand years. Each pair of shoes takes six months to complete... is not interesting. Expensive shoes are handmade and take a lot of skill and time to make, big surprise.
The shoe maker travels to farms all over Italy until he finds the exact right cow, which he kills himself with a silver bullet. The reason he uses a silver bullet is... now this story is interesting, because I’m telling you something you don’t know and that you can’t easily guess the answer to (even if my example is a little silly).
Another technique Chuck uses in this opening chapter is to have a lot of stuff going on, which he makes sure is all linked together. Tyler is holding a gun in the narrator’s mouth on top of a building primed with explosives. Teams of his followers (the Space Monkeys) are in the offices below, throwing filing cabinets out of the windows, destroying papers. There’s an end of the world feel to it. Everything is going to hell and a bullet in the head is imminent. And then there’s the girl.
Tone is established through the narrator’s voice, his odd syntax, his preoccupations.
Tyler and me at the edge of the roof, the gun in my mouth, I’m wondering how clean this gun is.
His attitude is very clearly defined. All this shit is going on around him, but his responses aren’t what you expect. The things he’s focused on aren’t straightforward and direct. If you punch someone in the face you expect them to go Ow! You don’t expect them to say, Hit me again. That approach of not what you expect, not business as usual, keeps even the most mundane activity (making soap) into something interesting (making soap out of human fat).
But it isn’t just: man with gun in mouth, how did thathappen? That wouldn’t be enough. He uses the first chapter to build a sense of who the narrator is and that he is not just the regular scared guy who doesn’t want to die. The author’s credentials are established by telling the reader things the reader never knew. More than one thing happening at a time keeps the reader busy. The stakes are high. There’s no easy way out. The narrator is in obvious peril, but he’s working on it, even with a gun barrel in his mouth. You can sense these two guys are close. Very, very close. And they ended up like this. How did that happen? End of Chapter One.
What about your first chapter? Do unexpected things happen? Do characters react in surprising ways? Whether it’s high impact stuff like this chapter or not, consider taking the reader in the direction they don’t expect.
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