Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Talking Shapes: The ‘Quilt’ Versus the Big ‘O’

“The straight line is God-less.”

I wish I’d said that, but Tom Spanbauer said it first, almost every week in his workshop.  In response, I’d always say, “The linear story is dead.”

Starting with this month’s topic, I’ll be discussing the different “shapes” you can use to present a story.  As a kid, you told linear stories, where the plot started at A and moved: “and then the dog bit me, and then the sun came up, and then and then and then” until you arrived at Z.  That’s the straight line Tom can’t stand.   The linear story I love to kill.

Over the next few months, we’ll look at ways to monkey with that line.  My first story-telling experiment was the “circle.”   The big O shape of Fight Club -- versus the “quilt” form I’ve used in Haunted.

Between the two, I’ve tried other forms, but we’ll get to those in upcoming essays.

To start with the O, it’s the form that Fitzgerald used to tell The Great Gatsby.  Capote used it for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  It’s a classic shape for plots, and I used it for Fight Club because it’s easy to set up and follow.

You start at the end or the crisis of the story.  Gatsby begins with the narrator, bitter and old, talking about how he used to be a good guy.  In school, his peers used to confess to him because he was such a good listener.  He dreamed of moving to the East Coast and making his fortune.  Instead, he’s back in the boring Midwest he wanted to escape.  Now, Nick Carraway just wants folks to shut up and leave him alone.   Nick demonstrates how he’s an asshole.  That’s how the book opens.  Nick’s heart has been broken beyond repair, and then he tells you how that happened…

At that point, we drop into flashback, and we spend the rest of the book trying to return to the bitter present, ending when Nick turns thirty and leaves his dreams and youth behind.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s begins with the narrator hearing a rumor that his long-lost friend, Holiday Golightly, has been seen in an isolated African safari camp.  The proof is a photograph of a sculpture of a woman who stopped at a village in the middle of nowhere, in the company of two sick English men on safari.  It’s the thinnest possible proof she’s alive, but the photograph excites the narrator.  Just the possibility that the exciting, daring, dazzling Holly Golightly is alive – it’s too incredible.  But it’s enough to bait the reader into a long flashback that will depict this strange, wonderful woman – long gone, most likely dead or insane – but still so compelling that her old friends talk about her, keeping her alive with their stories.  At that point, again, we drop into a long flashback to explain how we arrived at this sad, broken moment.

In Fight Club, it’s the same shape.  You start in the crisis, then drop into flashback.  The advantage to a “circle” shape includes a gripping, compelling opening scene.  This scene is an assurance of where the plot must go – for beginning writers, that’s a huge comfort, to know where this mess must somehow end.

Beyond just a strong opening and a comfort to the author, the O shape admits right up front that what’s happening on the page is a story.  The narrator is established, and the storytelling context is set.  The paradox of any story is the fact it’s being told in the past-tense.  The real events have already happened.  Someone survived to tell the story.  In the face of that, it would seem impossible to create dramatic tension.  Still, that’s the goal.

Some authors will ignore that given fact  – the story is a dead thing being repeated -- and just plunge into the plot.  That’s most standard, linear fiction.  Instead of denying the “dead” past-tense nature of a story, consider that it’s more effective to admit that fault up front.  That’s the most-powerful thing the O allows the writer to do.  You create a fake person to tell a fake story, but by doing so you give that story a greater sense of reality.

Readers know the teller shapes the tale.  By providing at least a glimpse of the teller, your story gains credibility.

All of that is built into the O shape of a story:  A gripping first scene.  Assurance of where the plot must go.  And a context and teller for the story.

With Haunted, I’ve taken my first shot at a story shape I’ll call the Quilt shape.

A friend of mine, Whitney Otto, wrote a book called How to Make an American Quilt, and since then she complains about how readers want to discuss quilt making with her.   Whitney doesn’t seem to give a shit about quilts.  She just needed a good device for uniting a series of different stories.  She found a book about quilting, and the metaphor was born.  Her stories became the “squares” she could sew together, to make a larger quilt.  That’s what I call a “Quilt” shape:  A novel that provides a context for telling many short stories.

The first novel that I recognized as quilted short stories was Generation X.   In chapter after chapter, the characters sit around telling each other stories.  Beside swimming pools.  At desert picnics.  In this same way, every musical play provides the matrix for song-and-dance numbers to occur.   It’s a kind-of variety show or vaudeville that consists of different types of acts, all combined to serve a larger narrative line.

In simplest terms, Haunted is a rip-off of the Broadway musical A Chorus Line.  The context is a group of folks trapped in a theater, on stage, and performing different types of stories that they hope will save them.   Some stories occur as moments of stand-up monologue.  Some as songs.  Some as dance.  And some narratives stretch across the entire length of the narrative, revealed bit-by-bit, between the shorter, self-contained stories.  This mimics the different textures of acts that made up a vaudeville show, varying from low comedy to high drama, tragedy to comedy.

A talent show is the same thing: an “envelope” drama that holds together several short performances.  The central question is:  Who will win?  In A Chorus Line, who will get the jobs?   This central question lets you collage together a collection of very different acts.  The different plot points of your envelope allow you to transition between the shorter stories.  To cull characters.  Tell medium-length stories.

The short “acts” allow you to leave the immediate setting and moment of the envelope story.  These tangents give you regular, frequent dramatic climaxes.  And these story “asides” create a sense of time passing in the reality of the “envelope” story.

Of course, both the O-shaped story and the Quilt-shaped story have their drawbacks.  The O shape is pretty common.  It’s become a little clichéd to open with the “gripper” scene as a “hook.”  And the Quilt shape can be clumsy and labored.  Just watch older musicals like Forty-Second Street, where totally dissimilar musical numbers are lumped together in a mythical show that the players are rehearsing.  Any leftover songs, they get tacked onto the finale, as the “real” show is presented on opening night.  Even in the Chorus Line movie, the “sex” song that was added to lengthen the show, it has nothing to do with dancing or dancers. 

Writing Haunted, I wanted each story to include a death – so the teller would have to live with the “ghost” of an unresolved relationship.  And each short story would have to include some form of food.  And each would take a new look at the way shame drives people into isolation.  Even with these common goals in mind, some stories might seem to be pulled out of a hat.  Too wildly different.  But with a Quilt-shaped story, it’s always a balance between the envelope serving the stories – or the stories serving the envelope.  Ultimately, you decide which is the stronger: the stories or the envelope, and you let the winner win.

For homework, look around and find stories told in the O shape or the Quilt shape.  Tales of the Crypt is a classic quilt.   In a way, so is The Joy Luck Club, where women play mah jong while they tell each other tales.  Almost any film that opens with a gripper scene, then flashes back to a long “discovery” process is a big O.

Beyond that, look at your own work, and restructure it to follow an O or Quilt form.

No storytelling form is perfect.  We’ll discuss a half dozen more shapes.  But almost any shape beats the straight line of:  and then, and then, and then…

This month, tour starts for Haunted.   This isn’t my favorite part of the job, but I’ll do my best to make it fun.  In Miami last summer, a young woman came up to me during the book signing – the most-exhausting part of tour – and she said, “You’re pretty nice.  Everybody on-line says that you’re really mean, in person…” 

That was a shock.  This spring, I’ll try to not be mean, but no promises.

In April, I stopped to say hello at an “intensive” weekend writing course taught by Tom Spanbauer.  The writers there, from as far away as New York and Puerto Rico, seemed high on what they’d learned in only two days, putting to use “horses” and “burnt tongue” and every other distinction of what Tom calls Dangerous Writing.  If you’re interested in learning from the master, himself, Tom’s teaching a five-day course in Cannon Beach, Oregon this July 25-29.  It’s part of the Haystack Summer Program in the Arts.  For more information, check out:

The finished screenplay for Choke made me laugh out loud, but the producers have asked me to not reveal their movie development progress.  And dinner with Douglas Coupland lasted for nine hours.  More on that in the future.

In closing, I hope to see you in person, soon.  And 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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