Writing craft essays by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk provides us with some brief and super-effective writing advice. This is my take on the ones that work best & aren’t explained already in other blog posts – in order of my personal preference:

Establishing Authority

If you do this correctly in the beginning, you can take your readers anywhere – they will trust you. You can do this in 2 ways:

  • Heart: use honesty and frankness. The narrator risks being perceived as the fool rather than the hero – but you also risk to make the reader emotionally involved in your story. Exposing something embarrassing, you prove the readers the story won’t be about proving your glory or looking good, but about failures and weaknesses, and so they will be more inclined to admit and accept their own.
  • Head: demonstrating knowledge. You researched the subject topic, and the narrator is the best qualified person to talk about it

Nuts and bolts: using your objects

The ring in Breakfast at Tiffany’s gains more and more emotional value each time it appears. It holds the whole story’s message. A well-used object can function as:

  • Memory cue (blue necklace in Titanic): it echoes past plot points, including their emotional weight
  • Buried gun (sled in Citizen Kate)
  • Gesture prop (ring thrown away in Harold and Maude): characters physically express themselves instead of using (only) language
  • Through-line image (green ashtray in Creep Show): reoccurring, add another layer of continuity

The key is to re-use them to give them power, and to morph them.

Using on-the-body physical sensation

If you engage the reader on the mental, emotional and physical level, then you’ve created another reality, something that can replace their commute or doctor waiting room. This doesn’t happen with generic words that describe pain/pleasure, but only if the story occur in the reader’s mind, heart and gut. You must create a tangible situation, detail by detail – see for example Palahniuk’s short story Guts. “Sharp pain”, “ecstatic pleasure” are cliches that don’t evoke anything. Un-pack the event, moment by moment, and make it happen in the reader’s mind; make the pain occur in the reader’s mind. The next time you are sick, list the physical details: you want to give your readers a headache. Or you can use medical jargon, looking for medial causes to things like headaches, or for cures, as they list what they tackle.

Submerging the I

Stories written in first person create more distance with the reader (we see “I” and we recoil, another hero story, another person bragging), but they have more authority. They also allow you to play with the narrator’s honesty and use an unreliable narrator (see Great Gatsby – is Gatsby as cool as it sounds, or is Nick Caraway desperate?). Great Gatsby also works because we have an average person talking about his hero – actually, an apostle talking about his messiah, thus telling a hero story without being boring.

On the other hand, the third person sometimes sounds like a “hidden God” telling a story. So, to tell a first person story without the “I” problem, submerge the I and use it as late as possible, possibly after the authority is established and the reader is hooked. Use “mine”, “me”, “my” instead of “I” in the beginning if you must – keep the camera away as long as possible.

Nuts and bolts: hiding a gun

A gun is something you talk about (a detail, an error, a flaw) that comes back to destroy a character. It can even communicate something that will happen after the end of the book – see the quotes in Dune, that makes you realize Paul’s wife will focus on writing and he’ll spend his life with his loved one.

Tell a Lie, Bury a Gun

Consider the boiler in Shining: in the beginning they say it’ll need maintenance or it will explode, and when the plot needs a climax, the boiler explodes. This is the buried gun explained previously.
The gun can also be a lie (the relationship with Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate; Maude says in the beginning that she wants to die; absent fathers making impossible promises to their kids but then transformation happens and everyone is happy). Lies can be insincere promises, crimes, secrets and so on.

A buried lie gives the story the chance of a climax. The lie gives the narrator power over others, and in return the truth places the narrator at the mercy of others: the narrator is bought back to honesty.
Check lies that people work hard to conceal: people who act smart are usually trying to hide the fact that they feel stupid. Beautiful people hide how ugly they feel. Maintain their lies until it’s impossible – then the fun will really start.

Disconnected Dialogue

We like dialogues when one person demonstrates power, and the other outwits him/her. Good plots play with power – a character gains it, loses it, regains it. When power shifts the story gains power, tension and momentum. If the communication is complete, there is no frustration/unfulfilled expectation, so we want incomplete dialogue (and not the witty dialogue of sit-coms where the answer is perfect and complete).
For example, unanswered questions build tension – especially if these are the questions the audience is asking. Leaving the question hanging unanswered creates frustrated tension. If you complete the exchange question-answer you leave the energy flat:

  • Weak: Did you walk the dog? – Yeah, an hour ago
  • Respond the original question but adding tension: Did you walk the dog? – It’s your dog
  • Ignore the question and show the inner world of the character: Did you walk the dog? – Stop attacking me!

Nuts and bolts: “thought” verbs

Don’t use verbs of thought or intention: think, know, understand, realize, believe, want, remember, wonder, imagine, desire, love, hate. Don’t say “he wondered if she loved him”: show her preparing coffee for herself, and not for him. You can only use sensory details and physical actions that will lead the reader to know/think rather than you spoon-feeding them. Build the case like a lawyer.
And don’t leave characters alone to think – instead, make then wonder about what worries them. Be also careful about “be” and “have”.

Beware the “thesis statement”

Don’t declare at the beginning of the paragraph what the paragraph will be about. “It was a difficult place to find work”, “He woke up hating his life” – these statements will take away the intrigue of your work; you are a stripper, you don’t push your ordinary genitals in the audience’s face. You want readers to make their own mind about what you are going to say. Don’t say someone feels sick – show every detail of his last meal so the audience feels sick.

Reading out loud and share with others

If you read your work to 6-8 people, you’ll immediately understand which bits work and which don’t – where the story loses energy, the lack of laughter or moans; where you need to break the tension with a good laugh just before creating an even worse crisis. A  reader’s brain reacts to verbs in stories the same way it would react if the reader’s body were actually involved in the action. Make something happen in each scene. Understand where you should give a bit extra time to the readers to come up with a conclusion – the goal is always to make your readers understand something the paragraph before the narrator says it.

The monkey mind is that part of our brain which tries to make sense of everything that happens. By using this tool you will become a better storyteller. Write stories to make sense of what happens around us. This way you can use what happens to you rather than being used. The stories we cannot tell are the secrets that kill us. Maybe the only way to escape the monkey mind is to accept it: you are doomed to storytelling. Particularly on emotions around problems we cannot solve/tolerate. You can force that voice to do something productive. Reading out loud helps to turn the personal issue into a product made for an audience. Embrace your need to tell stories; speaking will remove the story from you and set you free, it will allow you to dig up your personal shit and make into art. You will turn your personal issue into a story that doesn’t exclude others, a story that lets other people explore and exhaust their own issues. What trigger your emotions? Why the trigger is so important?

Nuts and bolts: punctuation with gesture and attribution

Study what people do when they talk: no one stays still. Use gestures and interruptions to add tension to a dialogue.

Learning from cliches… then leaving them behind

If you heard something said in a certain way (“wringing my heads”), your job is to describe it in another way based on the history/family/education of your character. We are seeing the world from his/her unique point of view.
This being said, it’s ok to copy other storytellers. One of the best self-teaching methods is to mimic the style of writers you enjoy. Then, create variations, combine them with other techniques you’ve learned by copying other writers.

Talking shapes

The linear story is dead. Here are some alternatives:

  • The Big O: start at the end of the crisis (Great Gatsby, Nick is old). Advantages: you start with a compelling scene and you know who the narrator is. The narrator shapes the story, so they’ll know what to expect
  • The Quilt: unite different stories with the same context
  • The Thumbnail: the narrator already knows how the story will end – how can he/she tell the story from the original innocent, unenlightened perspective?  With the thumbnail you can give a preview of what will happen, and the promise of exciting events (American Beauty: the protagonist is going to die, big stuff is going to happen, our time won’t be wasted). This shape also creates tension, and you’ll be using subtle storytelling to make the readers forget the thumbnail: you will demonstrate the initial statement. It gives authority and credibility: it acknowledges it’s a story. If we didn’t know how Titanic ended, the story might feel terrible. Write the first chapter last, but don’t provide too many details the reader cannot understand or it will be confusing. Present it inside a limited physical scene instead. Tease, but give your readers enough landmarks to hold onto, balance the unreal details of an the future with real details of the tangible present.
  • The Cycle: an innocent person seems to have found a way to escape misery, but it turns out it’s a trap to destroy victims and self sustain. The beginning seduces the protagonist – and the reader. This structure works well because it validates a fear we all have: the world is conspiring to kill us, everyone is pretending to love us to use us. It demonstrates that life is unfair.
  • The Rebel, the Follower and the Witness: well-known shapes like this help us accepting the weird. The writer might find helpful to identify the myth he/she is talking about and study the original to find the missing elements (e.g. Star Wars is a quest story: the hero is called, saves the princess and kills the dragon). In this shape you have 3 main characters, and only one survives (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Great Gatsby, Fight Club). A rebel doesn’t fit into the world and shocks people with his behaviour. The follower tries to please the system the rebel is fighting, and destroys himself. The rebel is destroyed – the crisis that destroys the follower gives the social order a chance to destroy the rebel. The witness lives on a compromise, leaving the old system, enlightened.

Textures of information

What we remember about characters (much more than their names) are their actions, their language and their appearance. Textures are tools borrowed from real life to make a story more powerful, and can be rules (see Fight Club), definitions, ceremonies, T-shirt quotes, contracts… You can even use them to undermine the credibility of the real object (e.g. airport public announcements are actually coded messages).

Effective similes

Only a limited number of physical details create the reality we are aware of. If you pick the right detail, you can define the whole scene.
Metaphors are usually more powerful than similes, but if you decide to use similes: don’t use the verb “is” but use a verb more specific to the quality (it is green > it looks green); limit them; describe the subject before using the simile; don’t use “like” (“X could have been Y” is better).

Thirteen writing tips

  1. When you don’t want to write, use a timer to write at least for 30 mins / 1 hour
  2. Your audience is smarter than you think. Don’t be afraid to surprise them. They’ve already read many stories more clever than yours.
  3. Before writing a scene, analyze why you are writing it. Is it useful for something in the future, or does it explain something in the past?
  4. Surprise yourself. Allow the story to go to places that amaze you, and you will surprise the reader. If you can see well-planned surprises, chances are, so will your reader
  5. If you are stuck, re-read what you wrote, and you are likely to find a buried gun you can use
  6. Use your writing as an excuse to throw writing parties – so you won’t regret your passion
  7. Let yourself be with not knowing. The longer you can allow the story to take shape, the better. You only need to know about the next scene / few scenes – it will be boring if you know the end already.
  8. If you feel in need of more freedom, change the characters’ names. They are not real, they are in your power, and this will confirm it to you and you’ll be able to torture them
  9. Use all three types of speech: descriptive (the sun rose high), instructive (walk, don’t run), expressive (ouch!)
  10. Write the book you want to read
  11. Take the picture for the back cover now that you are young, and ask for copyrights
  12. Write about the issues that really upset you – they are the only ones worth talking about
  13. Everything the world will see about you will be your work

Killing Time

The secret of the story must be revealed gradually, similar to how we learn things in real life. A play between denial and gratification. The two biggest problems of writers are generally plot and pace – often because pace is too slow.

Body Language

Put the television on mute and list all gestures actors do. 75% of the information comes from posture and gestures, 18% tone of voice, 7% words. Verbs activate our brain, and visual gestures rich the audience better than words. We are captivated by movements (dance, fire, washer machine). Gestures, and reasons behind those gestures, can tell a lot about people (e.g. former anorexic journalist who still checks her arm to measure body fat). How do gestures help to tell the story? How do they help pace the dialogue and build up tension?

Objects

Grace Kelly and an actor who romanced her before her wedding have bribed people to hide a prop from a movie they shot together – a small hatchet – in each other’s bed in hotels, resorts, palaces. The object has been a reminder of their affair, then a gesture of friendship, then a nostalgic souvenir of their youth and careers. Objects should have this power in stories. Reoccur and change meaning. Stand for goals and dreams, or absent characters, or a “gun” that will force the plot crisis (the boiler in Shining) or represent power (the ring in Lord of the Rings). The best ones morph to serve different plot points.

Utility phrases: when all words fail

There are sentences e say when we don’t know what to say: they should tell something about the character. If they say “I don’t know”, they weaken what they just said; “true fact” bolsters their authority.

Names versus pronouns

Don’t use third-person pronouns. Use more specific ways to refer to characters – Palahniuk always gives characters at least 3 names. Not only proper names, but also stronger labels: usually based on actions (first impression), appearance and then relationship to us (the blonde man who died in that movie, the dog that licked my hand). The proper name is the last detail we remember.

PS: Palahniuk aims to create a maximum amount of tension using a minimum of elements: limited settings, characters, time – to focus on physical actions and avoid wasting time on new characters and descriptions.
PPS: in reality television/your story you can recognize the ancient myth the story reinvents, and the archetypal characters.

Nuts and bolts: plot points

You need to know the purpose of a scene before writing it. Does it prepare something, gives a clue, solve something, slow down the pace to give more power to the following scene? Answer questions or ask new ones? This is a plot point, and if a scene is weak, the writer probably hoped the plot point would reveal itself. Is it a ‘gripper’ scene to seize the reader’s attention, or a ‘reversal’ of power?
Note that often the best stories rather than stun the readers, excite them creating a storm of personal anecdotes, discovering new connections between themselves and the larger world, they recognize something in the world and give people permission to explore it, with a shared language and supporting metaphors (we cannot acknowledge things we have no words for). A writer’s job is to express unresolved themes that other people can’t (shared hate for vegans for some reason?). A story that evokes other stories is a good story.

A story from scratch

A few editing suggestions:

  • Palahniuk prefers to start a story with a physical action. Avoid dialogue if you can use gestures
  • Describe a character by how he/she describes the world. Not “like the roof of a house” but “like the roof of Mr Lloyd’s house”. For example, if you talk about money – that’s an abstract concept. The character will instead think in terms of things he/she can buy
  • Usually the first draft focuses on plotting, scene, characters: the string of plot events from beginning to end. Subsequent drafts focus on the accumulation of emotion that leads to a character’s transformation (see the Transformational Arc)
  • Describe actions (he hid the gold) not the motivations (to come back later and pick it up)
  • Remember the on-the-body physical sensations – these will be a reminder of the reasons why the characters is feeling those things, a summary of what happened and of the time passing
  • Decide what words the narrator doesn’t know, and don’t use them
  • If a character is experiencing something (e.g. physical), describe the effect of it, and using comparable things which will describe the narrator’s personal history: baseball, television etc. (e.g. hit on the head by a ball, don’t say it’s a ball, describe it’s like a bunt in softball)
  • You can recycle previous gestures – once we know what a gesture means, we no longer need to define it: the character will perform the gesture, and the audience will remember its previous meaning. And even previous descriptions, to echo previous situations
  • To create tension, during conflicts you can suggest that the antagonist will win: this will generate sympathy in the reader
  • To describe a long journey you can do a list of streets
  • At the end the social contract is fulfilled, the old values (fatal flaw) are left behind, salvation arrived when the protagonist evolves – e.g. trusted something he couldn’t explain (Luke Skywalker). The characters can ask questions in the end that no one needs to answer – the readers know the answers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *