Playing with guns


I’m not going to bore you with paragraphs of pointless exposition, this is me, this is who I am, bore you out of your fuckin’ skull. No. This time around I’m not going to get suckered into the same old introductory crap that I always seem to do with everything. No. I’ll do up a bio soon and sort out some links on the side here, and this main blog post section is all about you. Maybe a little about me. And sometimes other people. Just you me and other people as it suits us best.


Those who know me will know I enjoy the work of Chuck Palahniuk. Those who don’t will see him on a list of authors to your right. And that’s where we start, playing with guns. Now, I know, when you get involved in a story, and when you become a fan of an author, it’s easy to lose sight of things. It’s easy to become so caught up with everything they do such that you’ll find your own writing shaping up to be a poor imitation of their writing style. I’ll admit, I’ve done this. A lot.


H.P. Lovecraft, I started reading him in high school. I didn’t read a huge amount of his work, mostly just a few of his shorter works, and one or two of his really famous ones. I’ve got the Necronomicon on my bookshelf and yet, like so many other books, I haven’t read much of it. But when I started writing, it was more or less an imitation of his gothic horror style. Chuck Palahniuk was the second guy I really took after. Short, punchy, dark, chaotic. I wasn’t overtly going out trying to imitate Chuck, and I’d hardly call it a straightforward imitation anyway, but what I think formed that connection was that I related to the themes he was writing about. And I loved the style.


The point I’m slowly getting around to making is that you don’t have to agree with everything your hero says or does. It’s probably better if you don’t. And I guess this works whether you consider the term hero as a real life person you idolise, or your pure fictional character, your protagonist, but it’s the former I’m focusing on now. Chuck Palahniuk is a great writer, I’ve read… 4 of his books now, and I’ve loved reading them. He’s a fantastic story-teller, and I get the impression that this guy really knows what he’s doing. I’ve read a few writing essays of his, just things he’s had up on his website, and it assures me that, yes, he is every bit as aware of the writing process that I think he is.


There were a couple of instances where I thought of things differently, and while there was nothing wrong with the writing techniques Chuck uses and what he calls them, I’d gathered a different set of techniques, or called the same techniques different things, and established a key difference between myself and Chuck. One thing I distinctly recall reading is how he inserts “choruses” into his stories. Lines that come back throughout the story to reiterate themes or come back with slightly different contexts. It’s something I do too, and I’m sure it’s not just us two. I think Bret Easton Ellis sometimes does it too. But anyway, before I read that, I had been using the term “motif”. It’s a short passage that is reiterated numerous times. I still think of those repetitions as motifs, as I’m sure Chuck thinks of them as choruses. Why?


To me, it came down to my understanding of what a chorus is. It is the main feature of a song. It comes back at regular intervals. You could argue that it’s the most important part of a song. It’s the catchy part that sticks in people’s minds. While I think certainly these repeated phrases work best when they stick in people’s minds, they’re by no means regular and by no means the main feature of a book. I am Jack’s repeated phrase. Motif just sits better with me with the musical sense of the terms. It’s an interesting and notable feature, but it doesn’t dominate. It breaks up the text and adds some extra meaning to it.


Essentially, the two concepts are the same, just with different names. He’s just built up his own repertoire, quite different to mine, and he writes according to what works for him. For the month of April, his essay, Nuts and Bolts: Hiding a Gun is available to read on his website. This is sort of like the chorus/motif difference, but I actually got a little more out of his perspective difference. When I read the essay, I thought his term “hiding a gun” was much the same as a technique I had picked up called “signposting”. It’s a method of overcoming deus ex machina, or the overly convenient, yet inexplicable resolution. But where a chorus and a motif are kind of similar, a gun is nothing like a signpost. A signpost would be the title “playing with guns”, then taking however many paragraphs to actually get to the guns. Now, if we consider hiding a gun in a literal sense, a story might play out like this:


  • Character gets gun
  • Other character tells them not to leave it lying around
  • Character hides gun
  • Insert long-winded scenes of character without gun, perhaps getting a cup of coffee, perhaps going to the store for some grocery shopping
  • Character walks near where gun was hidden, notices it’s missing
  • Gun fires, child shoots self in foot


Now, if we look at that in a metaphorical sense, take the physical gun out of the situation, you basically need to set the hazard up early, let people forget it, and then you have the bang. You probably don’t even need the second-last point, it’s the bang that packs the punch. The narrative arc I outlined above is a pretty poor example of “hiding a gun” because the gun was so easily found. If you put guns in the hands of authors who don’t know how to use them, the number of injuries involving children shooting themselves in the foot would go through the roof. I would probably say that hiding a gun is a kind of signposting. I think it’s one of the better kinds of signposting. You don’t want a stop sign or a give way sign, or anything that will explicitly say where you’re hiding the gun. Just think of all those predictable horror movies. Sure, the gun still goes off, you still get a bang, but it’ll shock you even more if you’re not anticipating the bang. It’s all in how well you hide the gun.


Think of those road signs on long road trips that are x hundred kilometres/miles to whatever town or city you’re headed to. And get rid of all the sign posts between there and your destination. Get rid of all clocks or watches in the car. For the sake of making this metaphor work, we’ll get rid of your speedometer too. It may be an hour in, two, three or five, but eventually you’ll forget how fast you’re driving, how long you’re driving for. You try to gauge the position of the sun in the sky, as you’ll probably gauge the amount of pages left in your book. Of course you know it’s coming, but you’re only guessing. You’re second guessing yourself. You’re not exactly sure what the sign said. Was it six hundred and fifty or eight hundred and twenty. You’re too busy trying to trace things back in your mind, you don’t realise you’ve reached your destination until you’re there.


Hiding a gun is like putting a signpost at the very start of your story and then hiding all the other signposts along the way, and perhaps putting in a few red herrings. The better you hide the gun, the bigger the bang, so long as you’re not hiding guns all over the place for the sake of confusion or you find the gun at the end is slightly different to the one you started with. With a hidden gun, it should feel natural, totally intentional, because really, you planted the gun there right at the start. The least you could do for your reader is go out with a bang.


But really, the gun isn’t in your hand. It’s in my hand… And I guess guns are in the hands of everyone who calls themselves a writer? I think the general public should be afraid.

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