Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Talking Shapes: The ‘Thumbnail’

A paradox of storytelling is:  How does a character tell a story, with full knowledge of how it will end, but with the immediacy that keeps the reader in the present moment of the action?  Stories are told after the fact.  The teller has already made the journey, and been changed by the process, but the reader has not.  So, again, how does the storyteller acknowledge the fact she has survived?  She is wise and enlightened.  And how does she revert and tell the story from the perspective of the innocent, unenlightened person who has to go back and make the journey with the reader?

Consider what I’ll call the ‘thumbnail’ form of structuring a story.  You’ve seen this a few times.  The best example is the newsreel shown in the beginning of the film Citizen Kane.  But it’s also demonstrated with the nifty computer graphics model used at the beginning of the film Titanic.  In “Kane,” we see the entire plot, summarized and condensed into a quick ‘thumbnail’ view.  In Titanic, we see the ship hit the iceberg, flounder, split in half and sink.  All the mechanics of the plot climax are shown.  There will be no big surprises.  Charles Foster Kane will die.  The Titanic will sink.

In all of Tom Spanbauer’s novels, the first chapter is a form of ‘thumbnail.’  In The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, we see the narrator, “Shed,” on a normal morning, doing chores, but salted into this action is a constant stream of references to future events.  In this way, Tom demonstrates full knowledge of what is to come.  And he baits the reader with the promise of interesting, exciting events. 

You could also call this an ‘overture’ form of storytelling.  In the same way an overture presents small samples of the entire score, the ‘thumbnail’ opening chapter offers teasing glimpses of the entire plot.  It’s a pleasant introduction to the material, but it also manages some difficult storytelling tasks. 

First, it creates tension.  Consider the opening of the film American Beauty, the long establishing shot with voiceover that announces the main character will die on this day.  In a way, this lessens tension by telling us the resolution, but it creates even more tension by assuring us that our time will not be wasted.  Big stuff is going to happen here.  This will be a wild ride.

Second, it uses expository storytelling in a contained way that allows for more subtle storytelling after that point.  The ship WILL break in half.  Kevin Spacey WILL die.  Beyond that initial expository section, the characters get to unpack the story and demonstrate the events in a more relaxed, natural way.  In a way, their job is to make us forget the ending we know will happen.

Third, it creates a greater sense of authority and realism by acknowledging the nature of stories.  The actual events are not happening as you read.  A story is always a residue, a leftover of reality.  Most stories begin at the first event, never admitting they’re told in retrospect, maybe because the author fears losing tension and immediacy.  But imagine the Titanic story if you didn’t know the ending up front.  It might seem terrible and contrived.  All these melodramatic events, love and power struggles, leading to a disaster that trumps everything.  Consider that this is also why the film Magnolia had to start with a “thumbnail” that discussed coincidence and synchronicity – so when the frogs rained down, the audience wouldn’t cry “foul.”

The stories that can admit their ‘leftover’ nature, they introduce us to the storyteller, and they make the unreal seem real.  The unbelievable become believable.

Before you launch into telling a story in the ‘thumbnail’ form, consider the following:  you’ll be writing the first chapter, last.  You’ll need to see where everything will go before you can hint at it with full knowledge.  And, you do NOT want to overdo that hinting.  Too often, students in Tom’s workshop try to mimic his opening chapters, including too many references to coming events.  The effect is confusing and annoying and makes no sense until the reader’s finished the book and gone back to reread that opening chapter. 

What seems to work best for an opening ‘thumbnail’ is to present it inside a limited physical scene.  Put your narrator in a setting, doing a simple task, and allow the references to occur within the structure of these simple landmarks.  You reader will more likely tolerate teasing, confusing glimpses of the future if he can understand the physical setting of the storyteller.   So, you can tease, but give your reader enough landmarks to hold onto.  Balance the unreal moments of the up-coming future with the real details of the tangible present.


For homework, notice the stories told with an opening ‘thumbnail’ scene that summarizes the plot.  Note, these are different than the “O” stories which begin near the climax and drop into flashback, then progress back to the climax.  The ‘thumbnail’ will give away most – if not all – of the coming plot in a contained, expository way.

Take something long-ish you’ve finished and write a ‘thumbnail’ first scene or chapter for it.  Or, take an existing book and write a ‘thumbnail’ new first chapter for it. 

Remember, ground your telling in a tangible scene so you can tease without annoying your reader.

Again, summer can be the worst time to write, but you can still get some work done.  Every time you walk through the garden, pull a few weeds.  Keep a hard copy of your work at hand, and line edit.  Even a few words every day will accumulate.  What’s most important is you’ll maintain the practice of storytelling.  As the weather turns bad, and your fellow writers come back to workshop, you’ll be ready to present your work. 

Again, 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, I’ll be online everyday, participating in the Barnes & Noble Book Club.  If you’d like to say hello, or ask a question, check it out. 

This month, the director Ulf Johanson is buying the rights to Lullaby.

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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