Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011


A friend of mine in Italy – Paolo, who’s translated for me during my past three visits – well, last summer he told me this story. 

Years back, when he was first working as a translator, Paolo had worked for Princess Grace of Monaco, Grace Kelly, and one evening she’d gone to bed in the palace, slid between the sheets, and found a surprise hidden there.

An Indian tomahawk.  Or, as Paolo pronounces it, “A Tommy-hawk.”

A small, crude hatchet with a blade of chipped flint, lashed to a wooden stick with thongs of dried leather.  Tucked deep in her bed for Princess Grace to find.  This wasn’t the first time – for most of her life, Grace Kelly had been slipping into beds in luxury hotels, in palaces, in remote spas, and finding that same crude, dirty little ax.

As she told it to Paolo, the tomahawk had been a movie prop, used in a western film she had shot with David Niven.  They’d made the movie during her engagement to the Prince, but Niven had romanced her, nonetheless, hoping to prevent the marriage.  Despite his best efforts, Kelly became a princess.  Their cowboy film was never released.  And on her wedding night, the new Princess Grace drew back her bed sheets to find that prop from her last film smuggled into her honeymoon bed.  Niven had bribed people, pulled strings, gotten the tomahawk hidden where she’d find it that evening.

In return, the Princess bribed people, pulled strings, and got the prop smuggled into Niven’s hotel bed a year later.

And for the rest of their lives, that tomahawk appeared each year.  In hotel suites.  In resort beds.  In castles and palaces around the world, surprising Kelly, then Niven, then Kelly.  A long-running practical joke:  first, a reminder of their affair.  Then, a gesture of friendship.  Then, a nostalgic souvenir of their lost youth and glamorous careers.  A symbol that never changed, in contrast to their own aging selves.  This weapon that came to represent love.  A contradiction – the savage hatchet that would trigger a sudden flood of memories and affection.

This is how a good object should do its job in fiction.  In Clown Girl it’s the rubber chicken that occurs as a joke, then occurs as lost love, then occurs as an aborted child.  In the film Cabaret, it’s the gold cigarette case that first represents a bribe for power and affection, then represents acquiescence, then becomes the symbol for betrayal.  Or, the fur coat that represents success – then complete failure.

In the film Session 9, it’s the bouquet of roses, the stash of coins, the asbestos.

For your homework, watch films, and look for the key props or objects that reoccur throughout the story, but change meaning.  After you’ve found such an object, consider its use or reason or meaning.

Is the object a “gun” that will evolve to end the story?  Forcing the plot to crisis.  Think of the furnace boiler in The Shining.

Is the object used to stand in for an absent character?  Think of the poetry volumes in Suddenly Last Summer.  Or, the green velvet curtains in Gone With the Wind.  Or, the filigree necklace worn by the suicide in Rosemary’s Baby, and later given to the protagonist.

Is the object something that represents the goals and dreams of a character?  Think of the sled, “Rosebud,” in Citizen Kane

Or, does the object represent power?  Like the gold ring in Lord of the Rings.  Or the Holy Grail.

As you learn to find the key objects in a story, please notice how the very, very best ones morph to serve several different plot points.  Like a limited number of characters, having limited key objects allows you to build tension, faster.  Once your objects are introduced, you won’t need to lose momentum in describing new objects.  Energy and focus dissipate as settings, characters and props multiply.  So, notice how the best stories – like stage plays – have limited props that serve several different key functions.

Now, a story about objects at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

At every stop in Park City, the parties and interviews and screenings, someone is always pressing paper bags into your arms.  Fancy shopping bags of swag buried in bright fluffy tissue paper.  Luxury sunglasses, silk scarves, eyeliner, lipstick, compact disks, shoes.  To run the media gauntlet, people start at one end of Main Street, stopping at one media outlet after another, going door-to-door, being photographed and interviewed for magazines, television, the web.  And accepting gift bags of swag.

No one could carry that crushing burden of expensive colognes and nail polish and wristwatches.  At their next media stop, everyone guts the bag from the previous stop, removing only the very best trinkets, consolidating them into a single bag, and abandoning the rest.

The scene is like some adult, movie star, luxury consumer goods Halloween.  All those glamorous trick-or-treaters walking door-to-door with their loaded handle bags.  At each new doorway, artists apply more make-up to each celebrity.  Stylists curl or straighten their hair.  Publicists pay tribute with a new bag of expensive baubles.

Everywhere, movie stars lean their heads together, giggling over the choice bits.  Asking, “Who’s giving THAT?”  Trading two cashmere T-shirts for a Fendi purse.  Trading three Gucci belts for a Coach pocketbook.

Then, in their celebrity trick-or-treater wake... leaving the remnants.  Left behind, the stacks of boxed designer chocolates, the organic body creams.  A fortune in expensive shoes that don’t fit.  Cast-off cigarette lighters.  Top shelf liquors.

Thrown away like the caramel apples or popcorn balls that children – the little pirates or angels or witches -- would jettison between houses on Halloween night.

Here’s the only time you’ll see a heap of brand-new hair products tossed in the snow.  You’ll feel a stab of pity for rejected drifts of costume jewelry.  Scented candles nobody wants. 

What starts out as a thrilling surprise – Free Stuff! – quickly becomes a dead weight you’re lugging.  Then, it’s culled.  Dropped.  Maybe a publicist or make up artist takes it home.  If snow falls, maybe those leather gloves or pore-reducing masks or lace camisoles won’t be seen until the spring thaw.  Just another winter casualty.

Even a world-famous celebrity can only hump so much booty back to the hotel.

Those are the key objects of Sundance.

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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