Storyville: Using a Chorus in Your Fiction
A Greek chorus, or simply chorus (in the context of Ancient Greek tragedy, comedy, satyr plays, and modern works inspired by them), is a homogeneous, non-individualized group of performers, who comment with a collective voice on the dramatic action. The chorus consisted of between 12 and 50 players, who variously danced, sang or spoke their lines in unison, and sometimes wore masks.
Today we’re talking about how you can use a chorus in your fiction to give the reader more information, to slowly reveal facts and truths, in support of your main narrative. I’ve been writing stories and novels with choruses in them for quite some time, and I think they can be very effective. You don’t always need a dedicated scene, or additional POV, to get to certain aspects of your work. Here are some examples of how various choruses make the reading experience more layered, intense, and deep.
Because of the way that Chuck Palahniuk sprinkled his chorus through Fight Club, you may not have even recognized it as being a chorus at all. But it is. The repetition of “you” to address the reader not only slides into second person, but it addresses the reader in a way that supports the themes of anarchy, identity, and change. Some examples are listed below.
This passage is pretty famous—“ You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”
And then this longer exchange: "As long as you’re at fight club, you’re not how much money you’ve got in the bank. You’re not your job. You’re not your family, and you’re not who you tell yourself.”
The mechanic yells into the wind, "You’re not your name.”
A space monkey in the back seat picks it up: "You’re not your problems.”
The mechanic yells, "You’re not your problems.”
A space monkey shouts, "You’re not your age.”
The mechanic yells, "You’re not your age.”
We often identify and label ourselves based on these very things—our job, our money (or lack thereof), our clothing and status, our dysfunctions, our age, etc. The way this is scattered throughout this novel, it’s a compelling addition to the main plot.
In my second novel, Disintegration, I use a chorus that is a continuous voice message revealed bit by bit over time. This adds to the tension, it continues to rip the scab off the wound that is our unnamed protagonist’s grief, and it slowly gets to a secret at the end of the message that gives us the truth behind everything that has gone wrong in his life. Here is part of that passage (don’t want to spoil the ending for you), in various lengths.
The first time—“Hey baby, I guess you’re working late again...”
Second time— “Hey baby, I guess you’re working late again. Taylor wants Daddy’s Special Chicken, and Robbie...”
Near the end—“Hey baby, I guess you’re working late again. Taylor wants Daddy’s Special Chicken, and Robbie, well you know twins, they either totally agree, or don’t agree at all. He wants Macaroni and Cheese, so we’re going to hit the grocery store real quick. I’ll get you some Ben and Jerry’s, sweetheart, New York Super Fudge Chunk. I have the cell phone, call me if you get home before we do. I miss you honey, you’ve been working too hard lately, and I miss you so much. If you want to meet us at the store, we’ll be there for a bit, so come catch up with us. The kids would love to spend a little time with you. Wait, somebody’s honking at me, what the hell...”
I use this chorus in NINE different instances to slowly give you a bit of his back story, his family, and then just after the LAST quote there, the truth of what happened. And it changes EVERYTHING.
Ring of Fire
In my novelette, “Ring of Fire,” I have three threads running through the story: my main narrative, which is relatively straight forward and traditional, chronological, one point of view; the secondary commentary is by two disembodied voices, which I never explain, talking about what’s going on, providing clues about the truth of the narrative; and third, a list of items. While the second POV could be considered a chorus as well, I consider it a second perspective, and so I don’t call it one. Semantics, I guess. The list of items, because I don’t explain it, because it adds up to something more, I see it as giving you details that you just couldn’t get anywhere else. Here are a few examples, see if you can figure out what they have in common.
First list: Indium, veskin, tellurium, adamantium, cryolite, kashalt, palladium, etrium, hascum, rhodium, fepronor, soskite, veskin.
Second list: Tristan da Cunha, Saint Helena; Motuo, Tibet; Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland; McMurdo Station, (Ross Island) Antarctica; Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile; Kerguelen Islands (southern Indian Ocean); Pitcairn Island, South Pacific; Hawaii; Oymyakon, Siberia; Socotra Island (Yemen).
Third list: Goldfish, hermit crab, hamster, tarantula, turtle, mouse, lizard, snake, fish, kitten, puppy, parrot, guinea pig, ferret, rabbit.
I have NINE examples of lists scattered throughout the 15,000-word story. Hard to see what this all eludes to here, unless you have the other perspectives, but if you can figure out the first list by itself, then the second, then the third…you may be able to start sniffing out the truth of my story.
So the next time you want to break up a short story or novel, think about how a chorus can add another layer to your narrative. Maybe it’s a group of mice singing in the shadows, maybe it’s a catch phrase that keeps reoccurring and then twisting to get to new information, maybe it's a stranger standing under a street light quoting from Shakespeare (or The Beastie Boys) to help clue you in to something you can’t quite see. Either way, have fun with it, be clever, be original, and make sure this isn’t information you can give to us in a more traditional, straight forward way. These tricks, techniques, and methods are only advisable when they work. So ask yourself if this is indeed ADDING to your story, and not just a weird distraction. Good luck!
OTHER EXAMPLES OF CHORUSES IN LITERATURE: Anthem by Ayn Rand, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides.
FILMS THAT USE A CHORUS: Do the Right Thing, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Big Lebowski, There’s Something About Mary, and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
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