Essays > Published on September 17th, 2011

Beware the ‘Thesis Statement’

To start work at the Freightliner Truck plant, I had to bring a sledgehammer I’d never, ever use. 

The “required tools list” called for three socket sets in metric and English sizes.  It called for a lady-foot pry bar.  You had to bring sets of fixed and adjustable crescent wrenches.  You had to bring a ball-peen hammer.  Two sets of screwdrivers in Phillips and standard-head sizes.   A fifty-foot tape measure.  Wire cutters.  Snub-nosed pliers.  Adjustable pliers.  Needle-nosed pliers.  And vise-grips.  And safety glasses.  And all of these had to be engraved with your Social Security number and fit into a tool box you could carry from your car in the parking lot, for 157 back-breaking steps to your work station.

All these tools cost a total of almost one thousand bucks – money I had to borrow.

Then, on the job, the foreman handed you a company-owned speed wrench, and you never touched those shiny new tools you’d lugged to work.  Maybe you sat on your tool box during break, but you’d almost never open it.

My point is – this essay series is about giving you tools just in case you’ll need them.  Each of these essay topics will point out an aspect of weak writing and how to make it stronger.  Your work might not have every weakness, but it never hurts to be aware of them all.

This month’s topic kills more stories than almost any other problem. Any story that starts out, saying:

“Robert woke up, hating his life.”

Or, “Lydia never could get along with her upstairs neighbors.”

Or, “Harrisburg was a tough place to find work.”

These are all blanket statements that reveal the purpose of the paragraph that follows.  Because of that, we’ll call them ‘Thesis Statements.’   Sometimes called, ‘Thesis Sentences.’  And while this works well in a dry essay or thesis – where you must follow rules about structure and presentation.  And where content is more important than entertainment.  In fiction, opening with a Thesis Sentence will suck all the joy and energy and intrigue out of your work.

Boom – and all your energy is killed.  Completed.  Settled.

Instead -- you want to raise a question in your reader’s mind.

Picture a stripper walking out on stage.  First, she might just tug a little at each fingertip of her black, elbow-length gloves.   Or, she might reach both hands to play with the hair at the back of her head – a move that always pulls her breasts up and a position that suggests bondage.  A woman without hands.  Helplessness.  All this in a single pose. 

Now, instead of a slow, gesture-by-gesture ritual of erotic undressing…  imagine the stripper just walking out on stage, dropping his or her g-string, pushing his or her tired, ordinary genitals in your face and saying, “Any questions?”

As a writer, you are the stripper.     

At the opening of this essay, if I’d just said:  “Freightliner required you bring a lot of tools you’d never need.”  It would’ve seemed abstract and boring.  But by ‘unpacking’ the tools, you get the ‘burnt-tongue’ poetic quality of their odd names.  And you, the reader, get to decide ‘hey, this is a LOT of tools…’

In your own writing, instead of saying:  Brian felt sick.

Begin with:  ‘Maybe it was the mayonnaise.  The sour glop that looked a little yellow where it leaked from between the edges of the ham sandwich.  Maybe it was all the shit flies, buzzing loud as traffic, big around as black jellybeans, that swarmed the meat behind the deli counter.  Alfalfa sprouts, all wet and crunchy, they’re a breeding ground for ecoli bacteria…’

My point is:  Don’t tell your audience too much, too fast.  Unpack every detail of the sandwich until your audience feels sick.

Unpack every gesture or physical symptom.  Especially if this is the opening of a story.

As a cheat, deep into the story, you can still use your original Thesis Sentence, but by then you probably won’t need it. 

Of course, with all this unpacking of details – you need to know, going into each scene, just what plot point you’re going to accomplish.  Too much unpacked detail is just as boring as too many vague Thesis Sentences. 

Consider this another tool for you to monkey around with your fiction and make it work better.   If the opening is slow and fails to grab attention – look out for a Thesis Sentence.  Too much, too fast.  Then get rid of it.

As homework, look at your existing work, and find examples where you started with a vague Thesis Sentence.  Then, keep reading until you find the strong detail that should’ve been your opening.  Some strong, tangible, compelling fact.  This might not even be on the first page, but it’s somewhere. 

Most times, you can just bring that detail to the beginning of the story, and it gives the work a new, powerful life.  Often, writers will start with a vague first paragraph, then a stronger, detailed second paragraph.  Consider scrapping all your weak, opening paragraphs.  Then, just begin with a single strong detail and keep adding details until they accumulate to let your reader know what you’d started to tell them with your original Thesis Sentence.

Besides this, look at a few of your favorite stories or novels and find examples of solid, specific details that the authors have used as the start.  Compare those stories with work that opens with more general Thesis Sentences.  Notice how the specific detail can have a “teasing” quality that hooks the reader.  And how the Thesis Sentence has a more “make believe” storytelling or yarn-spinning quality – more like a fairy tale.  In some fiction, that quality is perfect.  Find examples where the Specific Detail or the Thesis Sentence fits the style of the overall story.

If you’re reading this, I’m still on book tour.  Already, more than a thousand inscribed and signed copies of Fight Club are arriving in Iraq – thanks to Second Lieutenant Joshua Samuels, who agreed to distribute them.  My thanks to everyone who stepped forward and offered to help with this project.  After tour, I’ll keep signing and shipping books until they run out.

Regarding the tour, please take a look at the special Reality Check note that begins my responses to the September questions.  Book tour is such a monkey fuck – running between hotel rooms and airports and book stores – that half of what I get from folks gets lost. 

Instead of passing me a letter, please mail it during this fall’s window.  That will be – insert drum roll, here – the month of November.  I’ll answer all mail postmarked during November.  All except the creepy, demanding, threatening shit which goes right in the wood stove.

Most Important…  When you write me, please use this as a chance to state your goals for next year.  In 2005, what will you accomplish?  Sit down, and get a clear list of what you will get done.  Then, tell as many people as possible, including me, so people can support you in reaching those goals.  For years before I was published, I told my friends what I was writing, where I’d submitted work, and who might be reading it.  Even if people just tease you about your mission, that’s still a back-handed kind of support. 

Do not use the word “try” or phrases such as “plan to.”  Approach this as “what WILL you get done?”  Don’t start hedging.

Of course, some folks will call you an idiot, but seldom to your face.

Well, fuck ‘em.

After Fight Club was published in 1996, a guy at Freightliner always needled me, asking when my book was going to hit the New York Times Bestseller List…  That book never did, but Choke, and every book since then has hit the list.  So hey, thanks to Ken at Freightliner for his teasing.

Writing to me to say “hello” is fine.  Writing to say “thanks” is fine.  But, really, use this letter to create some big goals for yourself.  Get beyond being embarrassed by your dreams, and start putting them down on paper.  Then, share them.  That’s the only way, I know of, to make them happen.

Again, please do not send packages.  At my request, the agency will not forward them to me.  Save yourself the heartache and postage.  If you have a finished manuscript, submit it to the people who can make your career:  agents or editors.  If you have a mess of dirty diapers, I don’t want them.  I got that stinky package last year so… no more, please.

Enough said.  Remember to mail your letters to me, care of Donadio and Olson in New York, during the month of November. 

And again, thank you for reading my work.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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