Tuesday 24 May 2011

Chapter One: Fight Club

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 dont expect.

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Alleged Author said...

Unexpected things do happen in my first chapter. I wanted to get this novel for my hubby because he loves (and quotes) the movie. Think I will just pick it on up at Amazon now. Great analysis!

Golden Eagle said...

This sounds like a good book--it certainly seems to pack a lot into the beginning of the story.

My first chapter needs a lot of work, with regards to what happens in it and the way the characters react. I've got stuff to do, once rewrites are done. :P

Ella said...

This does sound good; thanks for sharing!

Alexis Bass said...

I love this post praising the genius that is Fight Club. Such a quote-worthy book too. I also love how he puts a relatable guy in an odd situation. Classic.

McKenzie McCann said...

I have a lot of strong feelings on show vs tell. I truly support telling. Sometimes readers don't want to have to interpret anything. Showing has its place when it comes to conveying simple meaning, but telling should be reserved for complex matters.

mooderino said...

@Alleged - yes, good book, well worth grabbing a copy. Thanks for the comment.

@Eagle - I think first chapters are the hardest. You don't know anyone and nothing's happened yet. I've got a lot of work to doon my wip too.

@Ella - cheers.

@Alexis - there are some great lines in this book. Good movie too.

@McKenzie - my only rule about writing is this: make it interesting. How you go about that is up to you. Show vs tell is often simplified to a point where it becomes misunderstood. My own views on it can be found here.

Ted Cross said...

I've only seen the movie, but I really should get around to reading this. Nice work on this.

mooderino said...

@Ted - thanks. It's worth reading purely for an appreciation of how voice can drive a narrative. Plus it's quite a short book. And it's good.

Laura Pauling said...

Voice will almost always hook me in a first chapter. And a great plot keeps me hooked. :) I strive for voice and internals with a major hint of the main conflict. The balance is always hard!

Talli Roland said...

I'm with Laura - striking a balance in that first chapter is so hard.

Sophia said...

Another way Palahnuik took what could have been an info-dump and made it interesting was the context in which the conversation took place. When the narrator talks about the different number of rounds in various makes of guns it's interesting because at the time he's threatening his boss (hypothetically) with the idea that he'll use one of them on his colleagues. Suddenly we care very much about just how many bullets each gun has.
- Sophia.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

This is the second blog post today I've come across talking about Chuck's writing.

mooderino said...

@Laura, @Talli-I think it's a very tricky thing to capture a realistic but engaging voice so quickly. wish i was better at it.

@Sophie-good point. Context makes all the difference.

@Michael-not sure if you mean that's a good thing or not. Feel free to post a link to the other post if you thought it was good.

Many thanks for all the great comments.
Don't forget to look me up on twitter if you're on there.


Stina said...

So that's what the minimalist approach means. Darn it, I was hoping it meant I could skip on the setting details. I'm brilliant at that. ;)

Deana said...

I love Fight Club and first chapters! Great combo. My first chapter isn't as crazy as my last I worked on but it is needed. Does that count?

Lydia Kang said...

I've been wanting to read this book. Thanks for the great analysis!

Jennifer Hillier said...

This is a fantastic analysis. Explains why FIGHT CLUB is one of my favorite books of all time.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Haven't read this book - like most people I have seen the movie. You make it enticing enough to want to read. Sounds like he starts off with a bang.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Anonymous said...

Sounds very gritty. Is this the one that was made into a film with Patrick Swayze?
Yes unexpected things happen in my 1st chapter of my WIP. :O)

mooderino said...

@Stina - I think it's better to skip them than spend three hundred words on them. Although something in between is probably best.

@Deana - needed is good.

@Lydia - definitely worth a read.

@Jennifer - mine too (I did try to be objective).

@Charmaine - the movie did a good job. Book is pretty explosive.

@Madeleine - No, Brad Pitt. Are you thinking of Roadhouse? (Yours was my favourite comment so far).

Please hit me up on twitter @mooderino

Nate Wilson said...

I've read other Palahniuk, but none since I decided to become a writer, and never this one (in part because I'd already seen the film). Great analysis here of why the beginning works so well. I think I may now have to add it to my already overflowing "to read" pile.

Southpaw said...

Great analysis and overview of Palahniuk's chapter and style.

Langley Cornwell said...

Excellent analysis. I've seen the movie but now I really want to read the book. Thanks for this.

Angela Ackerman said...

Very cool breakdown of the first chapter--what a great idea to make this a series! Thanks so much!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

mooderino said...

@Nate — add it!

@Holly - cheers.

@Langley - cool.

@Angela - thank you for tweeting about the series.

Please follow me on twitter here: @mooderino

Donna K. Weaver said...

Wow. Great analysis.

I'm following you now on Twitter.

Unknown said...

I love the minimalist writing style. I would love to learn more about it. I think this book would be a good read. I loved the movie.

mooderino said...

@Donna - cheers, I'm following you too.

@Clarissa - minimalism is my preferred style. Am thinking of doing my next post on one of the techniques I picked up over at Chuck's fansite writer's workshop.

Anyone on twitter please follow me @mooderino

Michael David Lockhart said...

Palahniuk is one of my favs. I have this reoccurring fantasy where I'm sitting at a table with him and Iain Banks of "The Wasp Factory" fame over Americanos. Strong ones...

Oh. Enjoyed this.

Donna Shields said...

What a great post! This has made me look at my first chapter again.

And I have a new book to read. Thanks!

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