Essays > Published on September 17th, 2011

Developing a Theme

Our first furnace was an oil stove that sat just outside the kitchen door, crowding the dinner table on one side of the living room.  The stove was square, standing waist-high with slots for vents in the top.  A stove pipe ran out the back, a sheet-metal tube that ran up the wall behind the stove, and disappeared into a hole near the ceiling, connecting the stove to the brick chimney behind the plaster.

The stove had a baked-on paint, a smooth enamel glaze like on old metal pans, brown and swirled to look like burled walnut, but it was really just painted metal.

The stove burned heating oil, gravity fed from a cow-sized tank that stood on tall legs outside the kitchen window, and that’s how it made the house smell.  Like diesel oil.  Not like a cow.  Like trucks idling in the gravel parking lot of Francisco’s diner on the highway.  Or like tailgating too close, trying to pass a slow flatbed or cement mixer on your way to the hospital in town.

No fan pushed the warm air out of the stove so on cold days you had to stand next to it in your Bugs Bunny pajamas, holding your hands over the slotted vents as the heat rose out the top.

In the basement was a cast-iron stove that burned wood.  The kind of cook stove with thick iron burner lids you lifted off with a long handle.  Heavy as little manhole covers.  The kind of stove with a warming oven on top.  The cook stove stood on nickel-plated legs with feet shaped like lions paws, but gripping round balls.  Our one bathroom had a bathtub that stood on eagle claws, but gripping the same kind of balls and painted white. 

If you dropped anything between the wall and the bathtub, you could just forget it.  A pile of slippery soaps were dead back there.  Nobody could reach into that tight space.  Not Mom or Dad.  Nobody.

If you rolled anything under the cook stove in the basement – even a quarter or a Kennedy half dollar -- same deal.  You lost it to a nest of scorpions who lived in the cracked concrete under that stove.

This story starts the day my Mom told us kids to get in the car.  She said our grandma was coming, to drive us into town.  My Mom was holding the edge of the kitchen counter, leaning with most of her body over the counter, gripping with both hands, and saying, “Just, please, get in the car…”

She’d close her eyes, saying, “Hurry.”  But saying it slow, eyes closed, taking long breaths in and out.  In and out.  Still holding the phone after calling our grandma to come get us.  To drive us into Pasco, Washington, a drive long as twenty radio songs, two news casts, Paul Harvey, the farm report, maybe the same radio commercials fifty times for the Columbia Basin Department Store and Haas Western Wear.

With only the straight-line horizon to watch the whole trip to Our Lady of Lourdes Emergency Room where they had antidote for scorpion bites.

In the kitchen, Mom was standing on one bare foot, her other bare foot hung loose from her bent knee.  Her loose foot getting fat and red, already the foot of a huge red person instead of the skinny white person the rest of her was.

In slow motion, she yelled for somebody to turn off the sprinkler in the yard.

If you left the sprinklers on to water the lawn, you’d come home to find the grass full of rattlesnakes that would crawl out of the desert sagebrush and prickly pear cactus.

Scorpions lived in the house.  Rattlesnakes lived in the lawn.  If it snowed, you had to remember where the cactus grew or risk sledding and bombing out, impaled in your nylon snowsuit, a pincushion landed on too many cactus spines as long as a mattress needle.

If you raked leaves, same deal, you’d have to sort through them first, leaf-by-leaf, before you jumped into the pile.  There in the desert, with almost no trees and no rocks, only sand, the bats would burrow under the leaves to sleep in cold weather.  Any dive into a pile meant getting bit by those two long bat teeth.  Maybe rabies.  If nothing else, another trip hearing the car’s AM radio all the way to Pasco.

My grandpa chewed tobacco while he drove, and the backseat window behind his was always a yellow-brown smear you had to look through.

Our little town was 600 people who lived in houses between the two-lane highway, the train tracks, and the river.  This was right where the Snake River met the Columbia River in eastern Washington state, a town called Burbank after the Burbank Public Power Company which was named after the botanist Luther Burbank.  These people lived where people had always lived, along the river, and every house had a little collection of Indian knives and maybe a stone grinding bowl.  Arrowheads behind glass, displayed on white cotton wool in black, wood frames.  Obsidian knives.  Flint arrowheads and beads made of bone and shell.  Found in the river’s gravel bars or dug out of burial mounds. 

In the sand along the river, you could find shotgun shells not exploded.  And blasting caps that were still good.

This was Burbank until the Columbia River’s last dam, the McNary Dam, when the federal government condemned everything upstream that might be flooded and moved all the houses up, away from the river, to a high plateau where the wind always blew.  The highway was re-routed, taking it somewhere else.  The rivers got fatter and fatter behind the new dam, and all the people who used to have farms went to work at the paper mill or refining uranium for atomic reactor fuel.   

Where the town used to be, the river lapped close by, but never did cover.  All the left-behind basements and wells became rumors, warnings, covered with wood planks the desert sun dried, brittle and rotted.  Along the river, the cottonwood groves were haunted by those hidden wells that no one could remember.  The Tops’ family well.  Or the Armstrongs’ old well.  Rotten wood waiting to break under one wrong step and drop a kid down into bottomless dark water.  The cottonwood groves criss-crossed with left-behind, nameless streets.  Abandoned lilac bushes growing tree-high.  Orphaned rose bushes that never bloomed. 

One Saturday, my cousin Jason went missing, waddled off from his playpen in the yard next to their trailer, and half the town wandered all day through the woods along the river.  Kneeling next to broken well covers, shouting his name down into each narrow pit.  All day, until they found him curled up, asleep under their trailer.

Even in the new town, high up in the wind, some of the houses stood moved but not wanted.  They stood balanced on wood blocks, brushed with tall, dead weeds, with chickens or panting dogs resting in the dusty shade underneath.  Witches houses.  House after house.  One or two on every block.  Empty houses with no paint left on the silver wood siding, the glass busted out of every window.  Broken beer bottles and used rubbers and faded Hustler magazines left inside.

Streets where loose boards lay everywhere, rusted nails stuck up to step on.

Busted glass.  Rusted nails.  Another trip to town, for a tetanus shot. 

At night, with my Dad gone at work for the railroad, my Mom ran from room to room pulling curtains.  Even in daytime, if it was winter you had to pull the curtains closed before you could turn on a light.  Before you could change clothes in a bedroom.   The big house rule.

One day, while pulling weeds in the flower beds outside the house, Mom had found a few cigarette butts.  A few outside every window.  Outside my sisters’ bedroom window, the ground was paved with cigarette butts.  They were the brand of cigarette smoked by our neighbor down the road, a skinny, stooped man with daughters who wore dirty clothes to school and never spoke or made eye contact.

There in the flower beds, where Mom weeded, this neighbor dropped empty matchbooks.  Written inside each one, all capital letters, it said:  YOU BEING A WOMAN WOULD YOU LET ME EAT YOU FOR 50 DOLLARS.  And his phone number.  Outside every window, the beds of iris and petunias were littered with cigarette butts and these little notes.

Every night with our Dad at the railroad, our Mom’s chorus, every evening:  “Close the curtains.  Close the curtains.”  Flipping on the porchlight and saying, “Close the curtains…”

Summers, red ants boiled up in busy nests, everywhere.  Fat red ants that stung as bad as bees.  Scorpions and rattlesnakes.  Bats and skunks with rabies.  The sour smell of dead skunks, shot-gunned or run over, that sour smell was always in the air.  Sometimes along the river lived porcupines, and your dog came home crying, his nose huge with quills your Dad had to pull out with pliers.

Summers, the county sent trucks up and down every road to fog for mosquitoes.  Trucks driven by our high school teachers, off work like the rest of us.  All us kids running along behind in the thick, white fog of insecticide, getting high on the tangy smell of the gasoline they mixed the spray with.  If you left the windows open, the house filled with the fog.  That tangy smell in our new, wall-to-wall shag carpet.  In the furniture.

The most-popular high school teacher always hired the head cheerleader as his assistant, a different assistant each summer, and they’d spray all night, driving and screwing in their fog of white poison.

Winters, grade schoolers had to bring sack lunches for special fire drills where we pretended the nuclear reactors upriver had been bombed.  The yellow school buses would drive us out, all the way until lunchtime, into the desert.  There we’d sit in sand dunes, eating out of our brown bags until time to drive back.

After Dad pulled the wood cook stove out of the basement, he put in a furnace that burned oil.  To replace the upstairs one made of metal painted to look like polished wood.  Dad buried the oil tank so only the delivery cap stuck out of the ground.  This is what separated the nice people.  White trash still left their oil tanks where you could see, next to the house and dripping, screened with a little forsythia or flowering almond bushes.  The tank painted white or blue to match their house.

After that, we had a furnace in the basement that chugged to let you know the house would get warm.  The furnace filled the middle of the basement, between the doors to the two bedrooms:  the boys’ bedroom and the girls’ bedroom.  It went all the way to the ceiling, boxes of sheet metal riveted and folded together at the corners, and Mom painted all of it chocolate brown and the concrete-block wall around the basement tangerine orange.  She put a Kelly green lounge chair with its back to the furnace.  Then a tangerine-orange sofa, and that was our Family Room with a color television and an ashtray so big it covered half the coffee table.

The chocolate-brown furnace was the size of a little factory, and the only controls were two On/Off switches down low on one side.  They were the same as On/Off light switches, but painted brown, and they controlled the power to the furnace fan.

One Sunday, my cousin Bobby went missing.  It was a fishing trip to the river, the summer the radio played Karen Carpenter singing Close to You until everyone knew every word.  Bobby was on a rock next to the river.  The next minute, he wasn’t.

Again, half the town went looking.  All day.  Then, all week.  Then the next week until he washed up along the dock of a marina downstream, across the stateline in Oregon.

My Dad was with them, and my grandpa.  All my uncles and aunts.  Us kids all stayed home.

If anyone ever turned off those two switches on the new furnace, my Dad said the furnace burner might start up and the heat would have no place to go.  It would get hotter and hotter until the furnace would explode.

Those two switches down low where anybody could touch them.  Mom had painted them brown so many times it would take a hammer to turn them off.  But every night, every time I woke up and went to the bathroom, I’d check those switches.  Summer or winter.  Some nights, two or three times.  To make sure they were still turned on.

This second essay is about using a limited number of themes – perhaps the core of what I call Minimalism. 

In the workshop where I started writing, Tom Spanbauer called these themes,  “Horses.”  He used the metaphor of a wagon pulled by horses, cross country.  The horses that started on the East Coast would be the same horses that ended on the West Coast.  By keeping the themes, or “horses,” limited you were able to build the depth of the story. 

Another metaphor for Minimalism is a symphony that starts with a simple melody.  Over time, that melody builds and varies, getting richer and more powerful as more instruments contribute, but at its core it’s still the same basic melody until the very end.

None of this made much sense to me until – after workshop, visiting a friend – I saw a commercial on television for Skipper’s Seafood restaurants.  In thirty seconds, the stream of images included flashes of drink cups, food, restaurant signs, employees working the counter, and paper take-out bags.  But all those images said “Skippers” in some way.  To a lesser degree, they all said “good food” and “happiness” or “pleasure.”  With smiles and people eating in groups.

In a television commercial, no one eats alone and sad at a greasy plastic table.

The commercial was doing what a lawyer does in court.  What good Minimalist writing should do.  It presents a focussed case, a series of images or details that will prompt the viewer to a specific decision.

In effect:   Skipper’s is a good place to eat.

Or, Burbank, Washington is a spooky, spooky little town.

Only my most-distant relatives still live there, but my grandpa did make the metal street signs.  The old people down the road from us, the Purcells, kept a little monkey they tied to a weeping willow tree in their yard.  Summer afternoons, us kids would feed the monkey thick, green caterpillars we’d picked off Mom’s tomato plants.  So, no, Burbank isn’t all bad.

The point is, this is how you shape the reader’s perception of your fictional world.  By presenting a limited message, but that same message as many ways as possible.

In my book Choke, the repeated message or theme or “horse” is:  Things that are NOT what they appear.  The coded security announcements, the symptoms of disease, the female protagonist.  That’s why we must each determine our own reality.

In my book Invisible Monsters, the theme is:  Youth and beauty are power, but not the strongest kind.  That’s why we must keep growing and finding new forms of power.

In Diary, the theme is:  How can we communicate across time and stop making the same mistakes over and over?

This might sound limiting, but once you begin to develop your theme you’ll find constant new ways to present it.  One of my favorite methods has always been to go out to a party.  There, I’ll drop the theme into conversation.  Crowd seeding.  I’ll tell a personal anecdote such as:  Those scary wells from childhood.  Then, I can kick back and just listen as everyone gives their own – much better – version of my story.  This way, you have dozens of people fleshing out your theme.  Maybe hundreds.  And you’ll find that theme becomes universal, expanding to touch everyone’s life.

Beyond that, party people will love you because you’re actually listening to them.  You’re paying attention and loving the value in their story.  You might only say ten words all night, but people will remember you as a dazzling entertainer – when you were really just doing your job.  Harvesting.  Listening.  Developing your themes.  Running to the bathroom, occasionally, to write the best stuff on toilet paper and stick it in your sock.

Once you have a critical mass of details, you can start recognizing repeating patterns. 

In the above essay, those patterns include:

  1. Bad things
  2. Trying to fix bad things, but creating more bad things

That’s it.  You could recognize sub-categories such as: Furnaces…  Predators…  Reckless acts…  Sex…  Death….   Poverty…  But it’s really just the two basic themes.

Once you recognize the patterns, you can arrange and re-arrange them on the page.  Cutting and pasting, seeing how each is affected by the one presented next to it.  Like a collage.  Whole books are written this way.  Those aren’t my favorite books, but they can be beautiful.

As a method, the collage works well if you contrast it against concrete scenes where people interact to further the plot – those chapters where events or plot points happen.  The collage chapters are best used to slow the plot or imply time passing in your fictional world. 

But for scene setting or establishing a tone or mood – a collage works great.  Make a list.  Go to a party.  Keep adding to your list.  Look for patterns.  Then shape your list to best effect.

For homework, read Amy Hemple’s short story The Harvest.  It’s a beautiful list of details, all steering you along to heartbreak.  If you can’t find that story, look for her story, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.

If you’re really ambitious, hunt down a copy of Tom Spanbauer’s short story, Sea Animals in a back issue of The Quarterly magazine.

Then, write out your worst fears from childhood.  Work on that list for a few days, adding details as you remember them.  Flesh out those fears.  Then, get together with people and share enough to get them talking about their childhood monsters.  Look for patterns between yourself and other people.  Add new material to your list.  Then, arrange and re-arrange your expanded list to create the best effect.  Like editing a movie.  Cut and re-cut.  If anything seems thin or under-developed go back out and talk to people.

Identify the themes or “horses” in last month’s essay about authority.  Identify the themes in The Great Gatsby.  Identify the themes in Slaughterhouse 5.

Speaking of lists, my story Guts is just a list of things people are too ashamed to talk about.  If you haven’t heard it, I’ll be reading Guts and other stories in Las Vegas this month.  The reading will be at the Clark County Library, at 7 PM on Friday, February 13th.  The hall only seats 400 folks so you might want to arrive early.  I’ll be there early to sign books.

On Saturday, February 21st, I’ll be appearing at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco.  This will be part of a panel discussion on storytelling, similar to the one I attended two years ago.  I’ll be yakking with writers William Gibson, Terry Brooks and Michael Cunningham.  This may only be open to art students and faculty.  If you’re dead-set on going, please call the college and check.   

Again, thanks to everyone who wrote me in 2003.  I’ll be answering the letters postmarked by Dec. 15, 2003.  At this point, the stack is still knee-high, but I will get through it.  

Later this year, I’ll answer more letters – but only those sent between two dates yet to be announced.  If you’d like a personal response, please keep checking the website for that future mailing “window,” and make sure to write between the two dates.

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.

Learning | Free Lesson — LitReactor | 2024-05

Try Reedsy's novel writing masterclass — 100% free

Sign up for a free video lesson and learn how to make readers care about your main character.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.