Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Utility Phrases: When All Words Fail

Growing up, whenever my family got together for a picnic or a birthday, if conversation lagged to silence, someone always said, “It must be seven minutes after the hour...”

According to superstition, Abraham Lincoln died at seven minutes past the hour, and since then (folklore says) people always fall silent at that moment, in subconscious grief or honor or whatever.  More important, the phrase gave my relatives something to say when no one had anything significant to say.  It was something to break the tension of silence.  It’s a way to acknowledge a lapse in communication, a disconnect, without being stopped by the problem.  A kind-of verbal silence or pause.

In a way it connects with a moment of such national grief and shock, a moment when language fails us.  At other times when someone shared enormous bad news:  they lost their job and developed cancer and their dog died and their kids were sentenced to prison...  A traditional way to acknowledge the helpless misery of that awkward moment is to say, “So, Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?”  A dark, gallows way to accept the horrors of the moment, and begin to move forward into the future.

Both phrases are something to say when you’re left speechless.

What do you say when you don’t know what to say?

More important, what does a character say when he/she doesn’t know what to say?  What’s the phrase they use to fill that silent moment, to bridge it, when language is inappropriate?  In Snuff, Mister 72 says, “I don’t know.”  That single beat, one sentence, it undermines everything that he’s said previously.  One stock phrase he says without thinking.

What are the phrases you say without thinking?

Again, in Snuff, Sheila says, “True Fact,” which does just the opposite.  Instead of undermining herself, her phrase bolsters her authority.  She always underlines what she’s said before.

Mister 72 automatically cuts himself down.  Sheila automatically builds herself up.

These phrases are just as important and constant as “hello” and “good-bye,” but they’re phrases you can tailor to a character.  I’m not talking about phrases that indicate state-of-mind – like “I am Jack’s raging bile duct”  -- here, I’m talking about the moments when you need a beat of time to pass.  Possibly to frame a gesture.  Or to allow for the reader to rest and recover after a big shock or laugh.  In the story Guts, it’s the line “what even the French won’t talk about.”  A kind-of throw-away reference to something that came earlier.  An echo – like the echoes referring to Lincoln’s death.  In time, we’ll no doubt have similar dark phrases that reference the events of 911.  Something like, “I’m still waiting for the second tower to fall...”  Someday grandparents will say that at picnics, and their kids will have no idea what it refers to. 

So, be aware:  What does your character say when he/she doesn’t know what to say?

For homework, you get to watch any of the cable television shopping clubs.  These are wonderful, creepy streams of storytelling – a tent revival crossed with a snake oil pitch.  The announcer never stops talking, approaching the item from every angle in an effort to engage the buyer.  On a recent program, selling $20 rings set with tiny emeralds, rubies or sapphires, the announcer told how these exact same gem stones were “among the crown jewels of many foreign lands… these same jewels were worn by kings and queens.”  Emeralds, rubies and sapphires were mentioned in the Bible.  The announcer asked:  Didn’t you have a friend, someone special, who was battling cancer?  Was your marriage falling apart?  Did you forget Mother’s Day?  Didn’t you, yourself, deserve to wear a lovely ruby ring?

This pitch just drones while the inventory counter ticks toward zero.  The clock runs out.  The price drops.  The entire television screen is filled with stressors, pushing you to buy, while the announcer ventures down one emotional avenue after another. 

What was the point of working so hard if you couldn’t treat yourself to a nice emerald ring?

Why not do your Christmas shopping early?

Wouldn’t a dazzling $20 sapphire ring made a good investment?

Any shopping channel would make a ready set-up for an absurd story.  Simply, begin with the conventional aspects – the sales spiel, the item, the clocks – then gradually have your narrator move from vague statements... to more-particular statements, until it’s clear the announcer is speaking about his/her own life.  That way, the shopping program segment becomes the frame for presenting a short story, and ends when the clock ends or the items are sold out.

For example, your narrator/announcer says:  “... maybe your lady is spitting nails because you slipped, again.  Just this once you maybe had a drink with Shelley from the Warranty department and one thing led to another, and nobody had to know except Shelley gave you crab lice you took home.  And really, it wasn’t anybody’s fault.  Wouldn’t a dazzling ruby ring go a long ways toward healing your marriage, and maybe you could not have to sleep on the rec room sofa another night....”  On and on, until the entire story is told.

If nothing else, listen to how the announcer fills all that empty time.  What do they say when they’re just filling the silence?

What else is I’m going to be on tour again this spring.  By the time you read this I’ll be half done.  Seven years ago, I was touring for Choke while the book was getting terrible reviews.  The Washington Post was especially cruel so that makes the movie feel especially sweet.  Please remember, the goal isn’t to be liked.  The goal is to be remembered, to create something that will last in the culture.  Taste changes, and if something lingers in people’s minds, it has a better chance of becoming popular into the future.  Initially, people may be challenged by a strong story, but eventually the culture will catch up.

That said, thank you for reading.

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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