Discover more from Chuck Palahniuk's Plot Spoiler
Your Through-Line Action
With Objects as a Bonus!
First a word from Mark Twain:
Suppose a party of armed foreigners were to enter a village church in America and break ornaments from altar railings for curiosities, and climb and walk upon the Bible and pulpit cushions?
Ah, travel writing. Before he was a novelist, Twain wrote “color” pieces for newspapers. Feature stories about events. Snark. Lots of snark. His bestselling work was The Innocents Abroad, a nonfiction book about a pious group of tourists who travel to Europe and the Holy Land in 1867. You can find it here. The tourists are small-minded, sanctimonious dicks. Twain is a chauvinistic dick who compares everything in the Old World to California and finds the former always lacking. All in all, the book is a hoot.
Consider that travel writing is a great vehicle. For fiction. For reinventing a genre such as a mystery. It launches the story with the authority of nonfiction—the truth—but can quickly veer off the rails. For example The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which took the tiresome travel guide Europe on Five Dollars a Day by Arthur Frommer, mashed it up with all the backpacking guides of the day—jet travel had just opened Europe to a flood of young Baby Boomers—and used that familiar form to tell an outlandish story. The Lonely Planet guides seem ripe for such a take-off.
As always, a nonfiction form gives you your entire structure. Your set-up, your transitions, all your tricks and devices for elapsing time and moving the reader forward. It allows you to flesh out the fun parts and invent a world within the authority of nonfiction. John Berendt was a travel writer taking budget flights to obscure cities and writing local-color features, then he stumbled across a murder mystery in Savannah, Georgia, and wrote Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Likewise, Truman Capote was a kid reporter in the ’50s when he wrote The Muses Are Heard, about an opera company traveling by train to Moscow at the height of the Cold War. It’s snarky as hell. It’s Lillian Hellman’s Julia except that it plays the espionage for laughs.
Think of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Think I’ll Never Do Again. For more funny travel writing, look for A World View, Fran Lebowitz’s account of her Fran-centric tour through Europe:
In Milan you do not get matches for free. A double book of matches costs one hundred lire, which is more than fifteen cents in real money…
But enough about travel writing as a great nonfiction form. Let’s talk about the through-line activity. What is the task or action that is repeated like a ritual through the story, repeated first with success, then repeated with a diminishing margin of returns, then repeated until it breaks down into chaos? In Fight Club it’s the clubs, but more importantly it’s going to the support groups. In Choke the through-line activity is pretending to choke on food. In Rant, the activity is the consensual demolition derby of Party Crashing. Each through-line activity begins well, then escalates, then fails spectacularly.
In The Innocents Abroad the party of tourists seek souvenirs. As cited in the opening quote, each tourist carries a small hammer. The moment they arrive at a landmark—be it a cathedral or pyramid or The Parthenon—they descend on it with their hammers. To Mark Twain’s horror, they each bash off a chunk of stone to carry home.
The activity becomes repeating schtick. It’s horrifying at first—as Americans swarm to chip away at the Rock of Gibraltar and the Pantheon—but it becomes funny and ultimately comforting as it marks time. The rock souvenirs become the through-line objects—the diamond ring from Heartburn or the cigarette case from Cabaret—as they become a larger and heavier burden to carry along the journey.
We all feel the impulse. Years back in my Berlin hotel room the minibar offered a spray-painted concrete chunk of the Berlin Wall. This fist-sized piece of rubble cost five Euros, and I almost took it. No doubt someone’s still making such “relics” by painting graffiti on old concrete and sledgehammering it to travel-sized chunks. We all crave “a piece of history.” The appeal of souvenirs or objects in fiction is that they keep the past present. They’re memory cues. A character need only cast eyes upon them to dredge up a flashback scene.
Twain’s through-line activity is that plundering of the Old World with every destination. And he keeps the entire trip present as the tourists return to their ship to boastfully compare their busted-off bits of St. Peter’s Basilica and Versailles and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They reinvent classic vandalism by destroying what they claim to revere. A wonderful trick:
We went in picturesque procession to the American Consuls; to the great gardens; to Cleopatra’s Needles… One of our most inveterate relic-hunters had his hammer with him and tried to break a fragment off the upright Needle and could not do it; he tried the prostrate one and failed; he borrowed a heavy sledge hammer from a mason… The relic-hunter battered at these persistently and sweated profusely over his work.
To further trivialize the Old World, the travelers begin to refer to every tour guide as “Ferguson” and to every city as “Jacksonville.” They can’t be bothered to learn the names of anyone or anywhere.
We looked indifferent -- unconcerned. The doctor examined the document very deliberately, during a painful pause. -- Then he said, without any show of interest: "Ah -- Ferguson -- what -- what did you say was the name of the party who wrote this?"
"Christopher Colombo! ze great Christopher Colombo!"
Another deliberate examination.
"Ah -- did he write it himself; or -- or how?"
"He write it himself!--Christopher Colombo! He's own hand-writing, write by himself!"
Then the doctor laid the document down and said: "Why, I have seen boys in America only fourteen years old that could write better than that."
To my mind, if a book does not have a through-line activity it fails. The story just becomes dialog and architecture. By that, I mean it becomes people talking and descriptions of setting. A two-dimensional thing. So if you find your story drags, ask yourself if there’s a through-line activity. Do you revisit a physical activity? Do you accumulate or revisit objects?
As for chaos, that’s Twain’s masterstroke. After the landmarks of Europe and the Middle East have been ripped apart, the tourists settle in for their return voyage home on the steamship Quaker City. Assembled in the ship’s lounge, they unbox their souvenirs and attempt to sort and label each chunk. Trouble is, each broken-off piece looks like every other. There’s no telling a chunk of Reims Cathedral from a chunk of the Hagia Sophia. In an instant the souvenirs have no meaning, no association to any particular touchstone. In short, no value. Humans have taken the most noble achievements of humanity and reduced them to pointless rubble. The through-line activity has escalated to chaos.
In the neatest trick of Twain’s career, he shows us the high-minded tourists and scholars, halfway home on the Atlantic Ocean. Their souvenirs have become a meaningless jumble of rocks. This junk carries no memories. It’s nothing but a burden, so the whole party throws their trove over the side of the ship.
Too much history is hard to keep track of. History is hard. So all the treasures of history are dropped into the ocean like the necklace at the end of Titanic. The through-line activity and objects are resolved. A very neat trick, Mr. Twain. Funny and sad and profound. And a trick worth stealing.
The take-away. Consider how you can use the forms of nonfiction travel writing. Above all, look for a through-line activity for your characters—a ritual, a discovery process, whatever. And create through-line objects you can use and morph and eventually resolve.
Some housekeeping. If you were a Photo Contest Winner, please let me know via Dennis if your prize does not arrive in the coming weeks. The farthest flung went to Croatia, so be patient.
I’ve been talking to Jason at The Cavern, about a Christmas-themed reading night. Consider that a good theme would be “Letters to Santa Claus.” Write a letter, and that letter could go anywhere, tell anything from funny to tragic. Please chime in and let me know if you’re interested in presenting such a mini-story to a club full of drunks on an upcoming weeknight. The actual date has yet to be decided. Most likely a Tuesday or Wednesday. But let’s see how much interest this generates, first.