Essays > Published on September 17th, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Using Choruses

If you listen to the way people talk, you’ll notice that most of what this lecture series will be about is mimicking that conversational style.  Then, using that style to create a more honest-sounding, compelling piece of fiction.  Most of oral storytelling seems to be dead, except for stand-up comedians.  Only comics seem to practice delivery methods like timing and pacing and repetition.  Aspects of rhetoric that made public speakers famous a hundred years ago. 

Comparing a story written in standard, correct “writerly” style to that same story told by an excited, breathless, maybe slightly-drunk friend – it’s easy to imagine which teller would make the story seem more interesting.  Which teller would have more authority.  We expect a writer to invent made-up events.  But, a story told by a friend will suck us in, make us lower our defenses and really listen and believe.

That’s why we learn to write by, first, listening.

This month, let’s talk about Choruses.

You already use them, almost every time you talk.  These are set, scripted phrases that serve a purpose in conversation.  Someone says, “How are you?”  And you say, “Fine.”  Only then, do the two of you talk about what really matters in the world.

With a little practice and attention, you can create your own choruses and use them to make your fiction faster and more natural-sounding.

A chorus can serve three different functions – that I can think of.  They are:
A transitional device, bridging two different aspects of a story.
A reminder, recalling an earlier moment of insight, emotion or motivation.
Or, a beat of bland time, a pause needed for suspense before the axe falls. 

As a transitional device, think of a chorus as the “bumper” music that plays on the radio as a station newscast begins and ends.  That burst of music – a few notes or a “phrase” – announces the start of the news or the end.  It separates the news from the radio commercials, or the music or whatever.  Framing the news program, and giving it more authority.  This way, the ad for linoleum that follows won’t undermine the serious nature of the radio journalism stuff.

In another sense, the chorus is doing what you did as a kid, every time you yelled, “Mom!  Hey, Mom!  Look at me!  Mom, are you watching?  Watch this…”   The chorus draws the attention you need for the big moment that will follow.

In another sense, the chorus resolves the previous moment so the story can move on despite some horror.  The same way old Catholics will still cross themselves at the sight of car accidents or miniskirts.  Or, other people might say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish…”  The chorus is a way to shrug and keep going.  To acknowledge the moment, but not be stopped.  In Invisible Monsters, every time the narrator says “Sorry Mom.  Sorry God” she’s admitting some shame or regret, but always so she can move forward.  In Slaughterhouse Five, each time anything dies, the narrator says, “So it goes.”   Same effect.

This way, as a writer, you can give a moment that attention it needs but always keep your story moving.

And you can make sure each moment gets the attention it should have, by first waving and shouting, “Mom!  Watch what’s about to happen…”  

My friend – Ina – when she’s bored with listening to you, she’ll say, “Daffodils grow in my yard,” a line from The Simpsons.  Or (with a heavy German accent) she’ll say, “This idle chit chat grows tiresome,” a line from Sprockets on Saturday Night Live.  Both lines let you know she heard you, but allow her to swing the conversation to herself and her subject.

You and your friends and family do this, every day.  Just pay attention.

Anytime someone wants to resolve what you’ve said – then change the subject – they will inject some form of chorus.  Like:

“That’s nice, honey.  Did I tell you what happened…”

“That sounds awful.  Did I tell you what happened…”

If your friends are really boring and really don’t give a crap, they’ll say, “WHAT-ever…”  or “ANY-way…”

So, a chorus resolves a topic and lets the writer move to a new topic.

The second use of a chorus is to remind us of a previous shared experience.  And what we learned from it. 

Years ago, a friend and I used to go to a strip club called The Carriage Room.  Sitting ringside at the chest-high stage, an old man used to sit, wearing a white suit with a Panama hat.  He’d lick dollar bills along the long edge, then roll them into pencil-thin tubes.  These tubes, he’d stick together end-to-end until he created a long cane of rolled money.  He also had a rumbling, croaking voice.  Sitting with his elbows on the stage, he’d tell each stripper to get down on her hands and knees with her butt in his face.  Then, in his throat-cancer-y voice, he’d say:  “Arch your back, Baby.  Arch your back…”

The stripper would arch her lower back.  Her ass would spread open.  And this old man would whip his money cane – always leaving just a single, rolled dollar stuck in the dancer’s butt.

Even twenty years later, this friend and I only have to say “Arch your back, baby” in a deep, rumbling voice.  And we both still laugh.

That’s another use for a chorus.  To remind your reader of some earlier moment, and how that moment shapes this moment.  In Choke, it’s “What Would Jesus NOT Do?”.  Each time that chorus comes, the narrator has his ready-made reason to misbehave.

In Diary, it’s “The weather today is partly confused with a slight chance of a nervous breakdown.”  Because that reminds us of the “coma diary” form the book takes.

In Fight Club, it’s “I am Joe’s White Knuckles.” Because that reminds us of a better time, when the narrator and Tyler Durden were still good friends.

Another aspect of using a chorus this way is – it bonds you and your friends, tighter and tighter, because it excludes people who didn’t share the original experience. 

Ever since we were in college, when an old friend has food on their face while eating, another friend will point and say, “You have a gazelle out of the park…”  Because that’s a clever way we invented in college.  It’s a subtle, useful phrase – like, “Your barn door’s open” – and it reminds us of our youth, together.

All of us, we all invent our private community of language.  These little “macro” programs that instantly communicate a huge amount about our relationships, our history, and the event of the moment --  that gross smear of mayonnaise on your chin.

Using just a handful of choruses, or variations on a basic chorus (I am Joe’s Galled Bladder… twisted testicles… etc.) a writer can keep the entire plot of a book, fresh in the reader’s mind.  You can keep all your previous plot points in the present moment.  By the end of the book, all you have to do is list your choruses to trigger a cascade of reactions and instant associations for greater dramatic impact.

In effect, it’s the way your whole life is supposed to flash before your eyes as you die.

The third use for a chorus is to create a pause.  A kind-of white space where nothing happens.  In order to build up tension before some inevitable event.

In a way, the chorus is a countdown.  Very tantric.

In Lullaby, it’s Carl Streater actually counting, “Counting 1, counting 2, counting 3…”  With the word counting spelled out to make the chorus even more bland and less likely for the reader to sub-vocalize.

In Invisible Monsters, it’s the narrator mocking fashion photographers by saying “Give me Anger.  Give me Drama.  Give me Detached Existentialist Ennui…”

With this kind of chorus, you’re milking a dramatic moment, drawing it out, longer and longer – but always “in character.”  You’re always using words and metaphors that only your character would. 

This kind of verbal “tease” is more effective the LESS you use it, but it’s another good way to use your existing choruses.  In a way, it’s a Transitional Device, but it’s not needed to introduce a new subject.  In this case, the subject is coming fast enough. 

Like Victor in Choke, as he imagines dead animals and car accidents in order to delay his orgasm – this is using a chorus to delay a big event.

So, Choruses.  They’re always a form of Big Voice – not really describing the Little Voice reality of the physical scene – and you can use them to get attention, change the subject, recall a previous event, create intimacy, or create tension.

In conversation, you already do.  Every day.

Growing up, my sister, Heidi, used to read the newspaper obituary section in the middle of the living room floor, every couple seconds, saying, “Oh, my gosh…”  or “How awful!” until someone would finally ask, “What?  Who died?”

Then – after she’d “chorused” us into paying attention, Heidi would say, “Nobody.”  She did this every single day.

Call it steering the narrative call it a power struggle, but we all do this.


 

For homework, look around your world and find examples of:

Choruses you (or other people) use to get attention – by acknowledging a speaker, but changing the subject.

Choruses you use to recall a past event with friends or family – those special “insider” sayings or language no one else would “get.”

And choruses you use to stall conversation and create tension – they can be as simple as injecting “You Know?” between every sentence.

Then, create some new choruses, specific to a character.  For example, in Choke, I needed a simple relative clause that Victor and Denny would always use to get attention, so I created “For seriously, dude…”.  In Fight Club, the phrase is “Long story, short,…”  Now, you -- create phrases or sentence fragments that only your characters would use. 

Beyond that, practice using choruses in each of the three ways described in this essay.  Again:

As transitional devices.

To recall earlier plot points.

To delay the inevitable.


 

My thanks to everyone who made it to an event on the short, quick tour for Stranger Than Fiction.   This fall, starting in mid-September, I’ll be on the road for the paperback of Diary

Thank you for the great artwork, the pink pig cigarette lighter, the necklaces, the brownies and cookies and scones.

FYI:  The “Guts” total is up to 52 public fainters, after a whopping six in San Diego.  Look for Playboy to publish more short-story chapters from Haunted, soon.

Yes, it’s still summer.  The toughest time of the year to write.  But even research counts as writing, as does reading – if you’re dissecting and picking up some good tricks.  Me, right now I’m reading collections of “slam style” poetry, experimenting with some way to add sudden-fiction mini-chapters to next year’s novel.  The poetry is fast and easy to read for a few pages or moments at a sitting.  And when a poem works, I re-read it a million times to “reverse engineer it” and learn a new storytelling technique.

And don’t just look for “Head Authority” facts while researching, also look for different forms – non-fiction forms – for presenting a story.  That way, you can borrow some of the authority of nonfiction.  And it will vary the look of your story and make page-after-page of gray type look sexier to a reader.   Less threatening.

Again, no matter what you’re doing, keep a notebook nearby.  My friend – and fellow writer – Suzy V says that gardening counts as writing time.  I tell her that masonry work counts as writing time.  Still, when that great idea comes together, you’ll need some way to write down your notes, even with dirty hands.

Even one phrase, a good, odd phrase that helps define a character, even that much is a good day’s work.  So be ready when it happens.

In Fight Club, it drove the copyeditors crazy when the narrator always said “All the sudden…” instead of the normal “All of the sudden…”  but it’s those intentional phrase mistakes that become choruses – and we all make them, it’s what human beings do.  We get words wrong.  Speak badly.  For seriously, dude…

Again, after the Diary tour, 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 web site 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.

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