Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Head for Trivia

I’ve spent some time studying Chuck Palahniuk’s essays on writing craft. Palahniuk not only has an ear for trivia, he’s taught me in his writing how to put it to its best use. Trivia has a very specific value, believe it.

Palahniuk says that when a story opens, the narrator, and he writes exclusively in first person present, rarely any other way, needs to establish credibility with the reader. There are two ways to go about this, the heart way and the head way. I’ve written about this here before, so I’ll just go on about explaining the “head” way, because that is where trivia finds its rightful place in your tool box.

When your narrator is not a very nice person, and none of Palahniuk’s narrators are very nice people, you can establish authority with the reader by trivia. By the narrator showing the reader, that even if you don’t like him or her, your character knows what’s he/she's talking about. You can believe what they’re trying to tell you. You do this by having the character knock off details about a subject on which the narrator is the expert. For example, here is Palahniuk’s opening paragraph for “Guts”, one of the most notorious short stories ever written – and you can look that up, honey. Here:


Take in as much air as you can.

This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.”

Just those three sentences, and the narrator is giving you some information that sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, as well as what is about to happen to you, as he begins to narrate a story that makes audience members faint away in their seats. If you want to see for yourself how he exploits the head method, as well as his consummate skill in making you feel physically what the narrator feels you can read the whole story here in about ten minutes, if you can make it all the way through to the end that is:

Meanwhile, I have used trivia to build up the “head” method several times in my own stuff. For instance, in the opening paragraph of my Nixie story “The Lady and the Unicorn”, which I’m informed will appear in this months “The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica VOL 10”. Like Palahniuk, I have a narrator who is not very nice, a German born vampire girl named Nixie. I want the reader to feel the authority of her experience, and for that I use a unique pile of pure trivia to give the sound of a girl who speaks english as a second language introducing herself to the reader:

Blood has a range of taste, as scent has a range of aromas. Blood has a high level taste and an under taste. It is a blending of elements like music. This is also the way of scent. The under aroma tells you there is a trail and betrays to you the direction. If the scent becomes fresher you are following the creature that produced it, so you must use the under scent to know which direction is older and which is newer. It is as though the air were filled with singing voices and you are picking out from the choir the sound of a single voice. The high scent will tell you the individual, the condition of the individual, if he is injured or sick, horny or filled with fear. It will tell you how to catch him, where he is likely to run to. To acquire the high scent the animal, or myself, must pause to commune with the air and pay attention. Close the eyes. Hold the nose still and just so. Let the night air speak. It is the same with the deep taste of blood, except that scent is on the move, and if you are tasting the blood – well. It is no longer on the move.

So here, you have several things going on, all trivia based. I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to have a natural predator’s extraordinary sense of smell, and how a predator uses that for hunting. You can do a little guerilla research on the web, and then the rest is what you can envision. I’ve built up a little grocery list of elements and Nixie spells them out to the reader. She sounds like she has experience. She sounds like she knows what she’s talking about. She is not hostile, aggressive or boastful. Her calm voice talking to you like an old friend never puts on airs, other than a childlike sense of wonder. She never tries to tell you or convince you of how dangerous, or even out of the ordinary she is. But by the end of the paragraph, she doesn’t have to.

Just for fun, let me throw in one more from the first messy draft of a story I’ve just started working on. The story is a “speculative fiction” erotica in the future called “The Peanut Butter Shot”. Here’s how that starts – this time around anyway –

The Peanut Butter Shot

They used to wrap tape around your hands to keep you from busting your knuckles up against the bones of somebody's face. Me, it’s the opposite. I have to wear special gloves when I'm not in the ring. These gloves, see, they go for about $12,300, something like that, dermatologically custom made. The insurance pays for them, so like I give a shit, but that’s what they go for. I've got real warm soft hands. Women tell me they're softer than a baby's hands. My champion hands are insured by management for about $567,000. My tongue’s insured too, definitely, so I can't drink anything hot or cold or eat spicy, which sucks but it’s the job. It’s the price of artistic talent. My tongue and hands are my weapons. My instruments. My money makers.

The old fighters, they’d wrap that heavy double sided tape around and around, and you had to flex your knuckles to make sure when you made a fist, the bones of your joints would press nice and tight against the wrap, so that when you connected with somebody's head or maybe his ribs, the finger bones, especially around your pinky finger, wouldn't move around and bend and break and then you end up out there fighting with a beat to shit busted hand that hurts like hell . Then they'd stick your hands into these padded mitts so you wouldn’t haul off and just kill the other guy if you hit him hard enough and long enough. But even then they had these other illegal fights, pit fights where two guys'd just go bare knuckles at it until one was down. It was simple justice.

And it was the magic too. The magic of being lethal and working beautiful at the same time, the sweet science they called it. Fuck; what I’m going to do lethal doesn’t cover, lethal isn’t the word for what me and that lady are going to do to each other out there under the lights. They don’t have a word for it, when you play for stakes like that. Damnation maybe. I’ll bet fuck all that devils in Hell, shit, they don’t even have a word for what we do. But they sure wish they did.

You the reader don’t have to like him, but you have to be able to wonder what will happen next. What is this guy telling me? What is he doing for a living that’s so bad it scares the shit out of him?

Trivia has another place in writing narrative, and that’s in the technique of description. And there you have to pick your trivia sparingly, a stilletto not an axe. When your'e describing a scene and you want to put an element of emotional power in the scene, what you want is a simple and very specific trivial detail that captures the soul of what is happening with the simplicity of a zen brush painting. I don’t claim to be good at this, I wouldn’t do that, but I do claim to understand the theory. For instance, in another story “Singing in the Dark” I have a character who for various reasons is crossing a railroad yard in the dead of night. This rail yard has no lights, it’s an industrial wasteland of tracks and cars in the moonlight and this guy is very desperate to get across it. His problem is that he is pathologically terrified of the dark. But he has to get across and after a short way he collapses in a panic attack.

Now this rail yard is dark, very dark. But you don’t just say “It was dark.” We know that, buddy. That’s cheating, that’s just being lazy. Make us FEEL that darkness with a carefully placed scrap of trivia:

. . . . His body became heavier and heavier until even drawing a breath felt as though he were pushing a great rock up a hill. Reeling, he half kneeled, half fell to his knees and folded his hands. “San Toribio,” he whispered. “Santo Patron del Jalisco. Protector de los emigrantes y aquellos quienes tienen que hacer ese cruce peligroso. Aie Jesu. Aie Jesu!”

He sank until his face banged against his knees and he toppled sideways; his chest heaving in half breaths and his senses filled with the rank odor of old engine oil as he dropped face down, breathing grimed mouthfuls of oiled dirt. Inches just in front of his eyes, the moonlight glinted like a Christmas star off the edge of a shard of broken bottle glass. . . . .

The moon on the bottle glass, that’s trivia. But its useful, purposeful trivia. Its something the narrator would know, but you wouldn’t know without having it shown to you. The detail, if the magic is working, can make the dark seem real enough to feel what this poor guy is going through.

Trivia ges a bad rap, like a lot of good things. But in its place it’ll be one of your best tools. Trivia is your friend.

C. Sanchez-Garcia


  1. HI Garce,

    thank you for this. I love Nixie's voice.

    I'll tuck this away for futre notice

  2. Hi,
    I´m a huge trivia freak. Specially in history and movies.
    I never thought to include it in my writing though. An eye-opener.
    Thank you for sharing.


  3. Hi Mike

    Sounds good. Thanks for reading my stuff!


  4. Hi Bogran!

    I was surprised when I came across this idea too, but I think its very effective. Thanks for coming by!


  5. Hi, Garce,

    Leave it to you to turn trivia into a writing lesson.

    You're right, the exact right detail, at the right time, is critical for snagging the reader and making him/her believe the character is real. Your sci fi stuff does this really well. I recall the post you made (I don't remember the topic) which was a series of letters between a sex robot afficionado and a magazine. The details there - the trivia - were perfect. Even though you made them up.


    P.S. Congratulations on Lady and the Unicorn!!

  6. Hi Lisabet!

    I'd forgotten that about the sexbot till you mentioned it. That was fun. Playing with language is always fun. Thanks!


  7. The devil is always in the detail, isn't it. It's the small details - often sounds, scents, memories, associations, feelings - that draw the reader into the world you're creating.

  8. Hi Fulani! True.

    Hey _ followed your link once and it seems you have an interest in the subject of sexbots. Is that right?



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