Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Tell a Lie, Bury a Gun

Let’s revisit the idea of a “buried gun” in plotting.  According to Chekhov, if you put a gun in a drawer in Act One, then you must take it out and shoot someone in Act Three.  For example, think of the furnace boiler in “The Shining,” we’re told in the first few pages of the book that the boiler will explode if you don’t watch it.  We revisit the furnace several times over the subsequent chapters.  And when the plot needs to climax – guess what – the boiler explodes.

More recently, in the film “30 Days of Night” we’re told early-on that a character has cancer so she’s growing dope to help her deal with the nausea of chemotherapy.  Soon enough, the cancer character gets shredded by vampires, but all that cancer fuss was just a way to provide ultraviolet “grow” lights which the hero can use to battle those vampires.  In “Citizen Kane” the gun is a sled.  In “It’s a Wonderful Life” the gun is the rose petals that Jimmy Stewart tucks in his pocket.

In every story about the “Titanic” the gun is the iceberg.

In the film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” the gun is... well, a gun.  Again and again, we see Gig Young’s character fire a pistol to start various competitions.  It seems so natural that the audience never gives it a thought.  A starter’s pistol.  Even when Jane Fonda takes that pistol out of her purse and puts the barrel to her head it seems perfectly “organic.”  We know that gun.  We’ve seen it so many times that we can’t help but recognize it, and this go-round its job is to end something instead of begin something.

With all of that said, let’s talk about another type of gun:  The Lie.

In “The Talented Mr. Ripley” Tom Ripley masquerades as a Princeton graduate, taking greater and greater measures to protect his secret.  Each time he’s confronted with his lie, he kills the person who’s about to unmask him.  In “Stir of Echoes” and “The Changeling” the lie is a crime that’s been committed long before the story starts, but that corrodes the guilty killers until they’re revealed and brought to justice.

In “The Graduate” it’s the affair with Mrs. Robinson.  In “Breakfast at Tiffanys” it’s Holly Golightly’s weekly visit to prison where she relays coded messages to a mafia kingpin.

If you tell a lie early, you can bury it.  Remember Ruth Gordon in “Harold and Maude,” saying very, very early that she plans to die on her up-coming birthday?  Okay, it’s not quite a lie, but it’s a very-dark promise.  Maude says this, and the statement is instantly buried in dialogue and music.  No characters respond to the line, so the statement makes very little impact -- until we need to force the plot to crisis.  At the most-sweet moment, when Harold has arranged a surprise birthday party, Maude announces she’s already taken an overdose of drugs.

On that same note, consider the promises in stories that first occur as lies.  Usually movies about dead-beat dads where absent fathers make impossible promises to their estranged kids.  By Act Three, surprise, the dad has somehow fulfilled that promise that he had no real intention of completing.  Transformation happens, and everyone’s happy. 

Again, an insincere promise is a lie is a gun.  A crime or secret is a lie is a gun.

Yes, okay.  It’s artificial and manipulative, but a buried lie will save you from writing 800 pages and never finding your plot climax.  Life might seem to drag on and on, but fiction shouldn’t. 

In “Fight Club” the lie is the narrator allowing dying people to think he’s also dying.  In “Choke” the lie is the narrator allowing strangers to think they’ve saved his life.  In both books, a kind-of social contract requires that their deception be revealed, and that the liars be subjected to the reaction of their victims.  The lie gives the narrator power over others.  The truth places the narrator at the mercy of others.  What’s important is how the narrator is brought back to an honest relationship with his community. 

That, and you have other story ideas you want to be writing.  A well-buried lie respects your reader’s time, also.

So, tell a lie.  Tell it early.  Bury it, and unmask the teller before you get bored.

Whether it’s the police arresting Holly Golightly... or Romy and Michelle inventing Post-Its... or the black girl Sarah Jane passing as white in “Imitation of Life”... or Marla Singer announcing, “You’re not sick, either!” --  you know this trick.  We all use a form of it in our everyday lives.

Now, use it in your fiction.

For homework, find the lies that function as guns in your favorite films.  In “Alien” where is the big lie revealed?  In “The Fog”?  Notice how so many stories place the lie or crime before the narrative begins.  That way, the characters arrive innocent and unknowing, in the same way the reader is naive, and everyone enjoys the discovery process together.

How about “My Fair Lady,” where the lie convinces everyone, but begins to degrade the liars as they continue to deceive.  How would the story go if Eliza Doolittle were discovered and humiliated at the embassy ball?

How about “American Psycho,” where it doesn’t matter once the protagonist confesses to his crimes?  No one cares.  Satisfaction and honesty are impossible to attain.

Beyond that, look for the lies that actual people work double-hard to conceal.  People who seem smart are usually trying to hide the fact they feel stupid.  Beautiful people are hiding how ugly they feel.  Hard-working folks are hiding their inner sense of laziness.  All of them will maintain their lie until that’s impossible.

That’s when the fun really starts.

My permanent, forever thanks to Amy Hempel for appearing with me at The Strand in New York.  Clark Gregg joined us, and even Sam Rockwell showed up to toss inflatable dolls and autograph hounds.  What a dream event.  Yeah, giving everyone lasers at the Apple store, that was a disaster.  Sorry, Clark, I hope your eyes and crotch have recovered from the radiation.  And I said “C-nt” on Cinemax.  Thank God for editing.

Shout out to my students from the Clarion West writing program in Seattle.  That was a pleasure.  I’m wearing the T-shirt right now.  Thank you.

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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