Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Using Your Objects

Let’s start with a true story about Truman Capote.  As a young man, after he’d gone to live in New York and started to write, his long-absent father, Archie Persons, contacted him.  Persons promised to send his son a ring, a family heirloom that was supposed to be some form of legacy.  Capote was thrilled, after all these years, to have this very personal tribute from his father, a man that he’d never known very well.

According to Capote’s friends, the ring arrived and it was junk.  Trash.  It was, to quote one witness: “like something out of a box of Cracker Jack.”  Capote was crestfallen, but he rallied.  He took the ring – his “legacy” – and immediately pawned it and spent the money on martinis and a turkey sandwich.

The ring, itself, is lost to us, but it’s funny how often it keeps turning up…

In Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the older, long-abandoned husband of the heroine finds the ring in a box of Cracker Jack candy.  As he’s about to be rejected and abandoned, yet again, the sad, older man – he gives the ring to a young writer who’s currently involved with the heroine.  The young hero pockets the ring, and it’s forgotten.

As they become closer friends – in the movie, lovers – the young hero and heroine find themselves in Tiffany’s jewelry store.  There, in a gesture, the hero remembers the junk ring and asks to have it engraved as a gift for her.  He surrenders the ring to the store, and it’s forgotten again.

At the crisis of the novel, as the heroine is fleeing yet another failed relationship, the hero produces the engraved ring – now, the symbol of their friendship.  In the movie, the ring unites them.  In the book, it’s the symbol of her ultimate betrayal and doom.

Like a snowball, each time the ring appears, it carries more emotional weight.  It becomes layered with more associations, prompting more memories and making the entire backstory of the novel present in one symbol.  That’s using an object effectively.  Pass it from character to character, allowing it to accrue meaning, and allowing the characters this “prop” with which to perform gestures.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the ways objects function in stories:

Memory Cue:  like choruses, an object can echo a past plot point and recreate all the emotion/wisdom of the past.

Buried Gun:  kept hidden until it’s needed to force a point home.  

Gesture Prop:  allows characters to physically express themselves instead of using only language.

Through-line Image:  reoccurring just to add another element of continuity to a story.

And now some examples:

As a memory cue, think of the big blue necklace that gets the old lady yakking in the movie “Titanic.”  Think of the crucifix that spurs the flashback suicide scene in “The Sentinel.”  This is very standard stuff.  The monkey music box in “Phantom of the Opera.”  You’ve seen objects serve this purpose a zillion times.

As a buried gun, think of the sled in “Citizen Kane.”  Enough said.

As a gesture prop, think of the scene in “Harold and Maude” when Bud Cort gives Ruth Gordon a ring (his gesture of union) and she flings the ring into the ocean (her gesture of un-attachment).  In those moments, the two gestures occur with much more power than any lines of dialogue could convey.  And notice how the stories you remember best occur as a good mix of gesture and dialogue.

As a through-line image: think of that green marble ashtray that appears in each segment of the Stephen King movie “Creep Show.”  Sometimes, the ashtray just sits there as set dressing.  Sometimes it’s prop.  But its appearance adds an odd, hidden continuity to the disparate stories. 

The point of this essay is to make you aware of the important objects in your work.  If you identify the purpose of each object, you can use it to better effect.  Instead of introducing a constant stream of new objects, you’ll recycle the same ones, passing them between characters as gestures, adding meaning to them, and increasing their power.

Your objects can be drugs (Invisible Monsters) or jewelry (Diary) or a plastic ID bracelet (Choke), but make each object do as much work as possible.

For homework, first look at the important objects in your life.  What are they, and why are they important?  Are they tools?  (your computer or bong)  Memory cues?  (family photos)  Do they symbolize bonds or contracts?  (wedding rings or degree certificates)  If your home were on fire, what objects would you rescue?  Why those?

What are you (or your characters) never without?

Second, look at your favorite stories and films and identify the important objects.  Most main characters will have one important object that represents their eventual salvation or downfall.  Because actors can’t state the character’s thoughts (… boy, do I need a drink of scotch…) they’ll always need a prop, like that bottle of scotch they keep looking at.

Third, look at your own work, and identify the important objects you’ve used. 

Myself, I tend to morph my objects through a story.  In “Fight Club,” the fat of a bored society becomes soap which is sold for money, then becomes nitroglycerin for power and excitement.  In “Invisible Monsters,” the drugs they steal are for money, but also gender reassignment and self-destructive addiction.  Each time an object occurs, it can morph into a slightly different symbol.  Capote’s junk ring starts as a discarded Cracker Jack prize, becomes a courtship gift, then becomes an engraved bond.  A contract of sorts.

This month, look at limiting your objects and recycling them throughout a story so they gain as much power as possible each time they occur.  Find ways to morph them from appearance to appearance.  And create gestures with which your characters can use the object to express themselves.

If you put an object on the page – use it.

If you’re not going to use the object – don’t clutter the page with it.

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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