At the beginning of 2020 (which must be about 40 or 50 months ago, right?), I stumbled onto a book that literally changed how I think about writing. During an email exchange with my dear friend and fellow writer Jocosa Wade, she recommended an early novel by Chuck Palahniuk, whom I only knew as the guy who had written Fight Club.
I loved the movie by the same name, but had never read any of his novels. To be honest, I’d always been a little afraid to read him, figuring he would be way too hip, dark and cynical for me. But Jocosa convinced me it was time to take the Palahniuk plunge.
Being a perennially cheap bastard, I hit the public library. Yes, this was back in that gilded age when I would still do things like a) leave the house, b) go to a public library – or any other public place, and c) actually touch books – or anything else that other people had likely touched. Ah, such sweet pre-Covid memories!
In searching the library’s catalog, I noticed Palahniuk had just released a new nonfiction book: a writing how-to called Consider This. The book had just come out that month, but to my amazement my local library system already had a few copies, so I nabbed one. My three-word review is below:
DAMN, it’s good.
Seriously, after just the first two chapters, I put the book down and got on the computer to order my own copy for my Kindle, so I could begin taking notes in it. Yeah, it’s that good. The thoughts and ideas Palahniuk shares are clearly stated and directly actionable, not pie-in-the-sky theoretical stuff. And he has such a unique way of looking at some of the most basic components and mechanics of storytelling, which he explains in ways that immediately make sense.
I’ve read a TON of writing how-to’s (it literally is my idea of a good time on a wild Friday night), and it’s been impossible not to notice that many of them are expressing VERY similar ideas. Not Chuck. He looks at writing in some ways that are completely new to me. And he’s a marvelous teacher.
For example, Chuck suggests that we incorporate these three elements in our storytelling: description, instruction, and either exclamation or onomatopoeia.
Instruction? Onomatopoeia? Wait, what? Here’s how Palahniuk clarifies this directive:
Most fiction consists of only description, but good storytelling can mix all three forms. For instance, “A man walks into a bar and orders a margarita. Simple enough. Mix three parts tequila and two parts triple sec with one part lime juice, pour it over ice, and—voilà—that’s a margarita.”
Using all three forms of communication creates a natural, conversational style. Description combined with occasional instruction and punctuated with sound effects or exclamations: It’s how people talk.
Throughout the book, Palahniuk repeatedly touches on tangible, nuts-and-bolts aspects of writing in ways I have never before seen discussed.
Attribution and adoption
For example, Palahniuk has a number of insights regarding dialogue attribution (also known as dialogue tags – basically, the “she said” and “he said” that identifies the speaker in a passage of dialogue). I’ve seen a lot of guidance about attribution in my study of fiction writing, and most of it is very consistent, and VERY similar, and can usually be boiled down to this: You really can’t go wrong with only using “said” (as opposed to gasped, blurted, groaned, etc.).
Palahniuk doesn’t even touch on that aspect of attribution. Instead, his first concern is that we make sure to include enough of it:
Too often we see page-long cascades of unattributed speech… Soon enough we’re confused and counting backward to establish who said what.
Chuck hates this. But more importantly, he tells us why:
Avoid making your reader feel foolish at all costs! You want to make your reader feel smart, smarter than the main character. That way the reader will sympathize and want to root for the main character. Scarlett O’Hara is charming and smart and can convince men she’s beautiful. We have every reason to hate and resent her, but she’s too dumb to recognize that Rhett Butler is her soul mate. So we’re hooked. We feel superior and in our patronizing, condescending, voyeuristic way, we want her to smarten up. In a way, we “adopt” her.
This notion of adopting a character was new to me, and I love how it provides us more creative room than we’d have at our disposal if we were focused too exclusively on trying to make our character “likable” (a popular writing maxim that Palahniuk does NOT believe in, and he explains why later in the book).
Continuing his exploration of attribution, Palahniuk identifies another important function it can serve: controlling the delivery of dialogue. You can do this by being very specific about where in the dialogue the attribution is inserted. As an example:
“Nurse,” he said, “hurry and get me a fresh pancreas.”
Palahniuk maintains that this construct can create the kind of dramatic pause an actor would insert, and points out how without it, “a reader will race through a line without realizing how it should be weighted.” This is a technique I’ve used instinctively for many years, but in all my studies I’ve never seen it pointed out and explained. While Chuck talks about “weight,” I’ve always thought of it in terms of rhythm, but we’re both working towards the same goal. He just actually knows what the hell he’s doing.
Another attribution option he suggests is using physical action to both identify the speaker and emphasize (or contradict) what is being said:
“Vampires?” Declan smirked, but his hand flew to his chest, to where he’d worn a crucifix as a child. “You’re talking nonsense.”
Continuing his exploration of the mechanics of dialogue, Palahniuk points out how you can highlight or diminish a character based on whether you put their dialogue in quotes or simply paraphrase them. For example:
- “You never call me anymore,” Jane said.
- Jane complained about me never calling her.
Palahniuk sums it up better than I can: “If you want to negate or lessen a character, paraphrase what they say. When you want to showcase a character, put their dialogue in quotation marks. Include attribution. Underscore the speech with a gesture. It’s a subtle effect, but if you were my student, I’d tell you it works.”
The writer as authority figure
Palahniuk is also big on what he calls “establishing authority” – essentially getting the reader to believe your story, no matter how outlandish – and stay engaged. He offers a variety of ways to do this, one of which comes down to the kind of verbs you use:
Action carries its own authority. If you move through each scene with clear, physical verbs—taking steps, touching objects—your reader’s mind will follow as closely as a dog’s eyes track a squirrel.
Another approach Palahniuk offers for establishing authority is to deeply immerse yourself in the character’s point of view, using language and concepts your character would use. As he elaborates:
You and I never walk into the same room as each other. We each see the room through the lens of our own life. A plumber enters a very different room than a painter enters.
This means you can’t use abstract measurements. No more six-foot-tall men. Instead you must describe a man’s size based on how your character perceives a man whose height is seventy-two inches. A character might say “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church.”
Chuck admits this can be a lot of work, but maintains that it eventually gets easier – and can be a lot of fun. But for those who might think this is essentially a form of escapism, he counters with this:
Getting inside a character might seem like a vacation from being you. But face it, you’re never not you. No matter what world you create you’re always dealing with your own shit. Same shit, different mask. You’ve chosen to explore a certain character because something about it resonates with you. Don’t pretend for a moment that writing as a different person is evading reality. If anything it allows you a greater freedom to explore parts of yourself you wouldn’t dare consciously examine.
Common sense that kicks ass
I’ll be the first to admit: Some of the insights in this book aren’t earth-shaking. Reading them, it’s easy to say, “Hey, that’s just common sense.”
But here’s the thing. I think about writing a lot. Like, a LOT a lot. (That’s a helluva lot, if you haven’t figured that out.) And some – hell, most – of these “common sense” ideas Chuck is sharing are ones I never thought about before. What I’m saying is: If my common sense had an ass (sorry for the visual), or perhaps if my common sense actually were an ass (even sorrier for where that might have taken your imagination), Chuck just kicked it. Hard.
But that’s okay. When it comes to learning something new about something I care about, I genuinely LIKE getting my ass kicked.
And with that, I will retire my quest to use the word “ass” more times than it has ever appeared in a single WU post. Aim high, I always say. Particularly in public urinals.
Postcards and personal glimpses
Interspersed with all this writing advice, Palahniuk shares a series of personal anecdotes he calls “postcards from the tour.” These are probably my least favorite parts of the book, each one a mini-essay about his experiences during his many major book tours. These focus not so much on writing, but on a rarified “rock star” world that is VERY far removed from most writers’ experiences. Frankly I had no idea just how famous Palahniuk has become, but the guy has some pretty wild tales from his book tours and celebrity encounters, which would likely be of interest mostly to his more rabid fans. That said, each of these essays does contain some kind of life lesson, so they are not mere vanity. And they sure don’t make for dull reading!
When you assume, you make an… no, I won’t say that word again.
I started reading Consider This knowing next to nothing about Palahniuk. But as I read it, I realized I had made some assumptions about him, which this book completely destroyed. For one, because of the strong anarchy theme in Fight Club, I assumed he was not a person who’d put much formal thought into the act of writing. I figured he had kind of a loose “punk rock” approach, and that his voice – and his story ideas – had just come naturally to him.
It never occurred to me that he had actually studied extensively with other writers and workshops, and had a deep understanding and appreciation for craft. Nor had I assumed that he was particularly well read. He absolutely is, and he offers some excellent lists of recommended books, stories and authors, and he goes so far as to identify the specific things we should look for and learn from them. My TBR list got significantly longer after reading this book!
Bottom line, this guy has totally paid his dues as a writer, and his seemingly effortless conversational and informal tone is the result of a LOT of thinking, analysis, and hard work on building his craft. With Consider This, Palahniuk is being extremely generous in sharing what he knows, and I for one am grateful.
A new classic from a surprising source
As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of writing how-to’s – hell, I eat them for breakfast (which could explain why I have such a hard time losing weight). While I enjoy most of them, there have only been a few that really earned the distinction of becoming a “classic” in my eyes.
Stephen King’s On Writing is one – the highest praise I give it is that even if you’re not a fan of King’s novels, there is still a lot every writer can learn from this how-to. My favorite is the audio version, which King narrates himself. Even after churning out a gazillion books over the decades, the guy’s enthusiasm for writing is utterly contagious.
Donald Maass’s books are also in this hallowed category, with Writing the Breakout Novel being my personal favorite. Donald has such a gift for pushing us to elevate our game as writers. My experience with literary agents is that a good one can usually spot when something isn’t working in your manuscript, but very few can tell you accurately what to DO about it. Donald can, and his books capture his thought processes – and his actionable solutions – beautifully.
I’m now adding Palahniuk’s book Consider This to this lofty pantheon. He is a fascinating, intelligent and philosophical guy, who is deeply steeped in the craft of writing. Most importantly, he is an extremely effective and generous teacher who offers tons of clear, actionable advice for writers. Whether you connect with Palahniuk’s fiction or not, I submit you will learn much from his how-to, in ways that you can directly apply to YOUR style of writing.
But beware – he just might kick your ass, too.
How about you?
What’s the last time a how-to book or other writing resource kicked your ass? Tell us all about it, and – more importantly – let us know where can we go to get OUR asses kicked, too! Please chime in, and above all, stay safe and healthy.