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Palahniuk Essays

Palahniuk was born on February 21, 1962 in Pasco, Washington, and spent much of his childhood in nearby Burbank, Washington living with his family in a mobile home. His parents would later divorce, leaving he and his three siblings to live with their grandparents on a cattle ranch in Eastern Washington state.

Palahniuk attended the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism. While a college student he spent time working as an intern for National Public Radio member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. Palahniuk graduated in 1986 and moved to Portland, Oregon where he began working for local newspapers. He eventually left these positions to work as a diesel mechanic for truck manufacturer Freightliner, and stayed with this job until his writing career began to blossom. Palahniuk did not return to journalism until after becoming established as a novelist. He also spent time doing volunteer work at a homeless shelter as well as at a hospice for the terminally ill, where he escorted patients to support meetings. Palahniuk stopped volunteering after a patient he grew close to passed away.

In his thirties Palahniuk took to writing fiction. His initial attempts at publication proved difficult as his material was rejected on the grounds that it was too disturbing. He did manage, however, to have a short story published in a compilation in 1995. This short story was the basis of what would become his most famous novel, Fight Club. To Palahniuk’s surprise, after expanding the short story into a novel it was accepted and published in 1996. It garnered the 1997 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the 1997 Oregon Book Award for Best Novel.

Following the publication of Fight Club, Palahniuk began receiving attention from Twentieth Century Fox for a potential film adaptation of his book. This attention allowed Palahniuk to secure a literary agent, Edward Hibbert. Hibbert would negotiate a deal with Twentieth Century Fox to bring the book to the cinema screen. In 1999, the film was released to disappointing box office receipts but has since gained a cult following.

That year also saw the publication of two Palahniuk novels: Survivor and Invisible Monsters. Since then, Palahniuk has also had the following novels published: Choke (which would also be adapted into a film), Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff, Pygmy, Tell-All, and Damned. 1999 also brought tragedy to Palahniuk’s life. His father, while on a date with a woman he’d met through a personal ad, was murdered by the woman’s ex-boyfriend. The woman, Donna Fontaine, was also killed. Palahniuk has said that he began working on the novel Lullaby following this event, to help him cope with the trauma of his loss and of the perpetrator receiving the death penalty.

Palahniuk’s writing style has been greatly influenced by Tom Spanbauer, who taught writing classes attended by Palahniuk in Portland. Frequently, the main character tells the story while speaking in the past tense, as if they were telling the story in real time. Themes in his stories tend to be dark and misanthropic while maintaining a developed sense of black humor. This has resulted in a reputation as a nihilist in some critic’s eyes, a charge Palahniuk dismisses. Palahniuk also writes non-fiction and interviews celebrities for various magazines. He confirmed that he is gay following an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2003 in which he feared he was going to outed by the interviewer. Choke was released as a film in 2008 and the film rights to both Invisible Monsters and Diary have also been bought. Both are currently in development.

This series of essays is not the perfect way to write Fiction. This is only what works for me. So, please, take or leave anything you read here. If it helps, use it. If not, thank you for considering my view.

Chuck Palahniuk

In the course of his writing essays that are meant as a series of workshops, the author of the cult classic “Fight Club” offers his advice and tips on writing good stories.

What follows are notes and ideas from those essays.


1. Elements of story arc

1.1. Establishing authority: Head vs Heart

  • Head: show knowledge, prove to the reader that the character or narrator is entitled to present the story.
  • Heart: present flaws or embarrassing info about the character.

1.2. Themes

  • Background element of the story: a spooky house, a tournament, an alien invasion.
  • Unrelated tip: If you need more freedom, change the character names.

1.3. Speeches come in 3 forms:

  • Descriptive: “The sun rose high”;
  • Instructive: “Walk, don’t run”;
  • Expressive: “Ouch!”.

1.4. Write the book you want to read

  • Write about the issues that upset you.

1.5. Write from within some complicated system, job, bureaucracy:

  • Write about something very mundane until it breaks down to absurdity.
  • Use illness, drugs or sleep deprivation as devices.

1.6. Build to the absurd quick, get out fast.

1.7. If you can let the story/scene surprise you, you can surprise your reader.

1.8. Writing traps for the writer

  • Find controller places to write which confine you to a single space and restrict distractions.

2. Character design

2.1. Build a list of interesting facts about your character that you could later evoke.

2.2. Present a character’s flaws.

2.3. Money alone is boring, abstract shit

  • Make money equivalent to a character’s dreams and priorities.

2.4. A character with nothing left to lose can reveal his deepest desire.

2.5. Fast way to create tension? Hold a character underwater.

2.6. Look for everyday lies which people try double-hard to conceal.


3. Scene setup

3.1. Hiding or burying a gun

  • Use objects, motifs, memories, topics, anything which can later be evoked and used to move the story further.
  • Like holding your breath in “Guts” or waking up as another person in “Fight Club”.
  • An insincere promise is a lie is a gun (it’s artificial and manipulative, but it might save you when stuck in a corner).

If you put an object on a page, use it!

3.2. Bring the listener to any realization a paragraph before the narrator states the fact.

3.3. A limited number of physical details make up my reality:

  • a smell, a texture, a sound, a nervous tick.

3.4. What earlier setups will this scene pay off ? Know the purpose of each scene or chapter before writing it:

  • Ask yourself clearly what earlier questions will this scene answer, and what larger questions will this scene raise.
  • You don’t have to know every plot point before you begin writing.

3.5. If stuck, read an earlier scene, looking for “buried guns”.


4. Language

4.1. Somatic responses from reader

  • Unpack the event, moment by moment, smell by smell keep the narrator aware of the cumulative sensations of his or her body, repeat the sensations and add on top of these.
  • There’s an old method for creating a sympathetic, physical response in the reader: describe either the inside of a character’s mouth or the soles of his feet.
  • Inject medical language, surgical jargon, anatomy vocabulary, chemical names.
  • With sex, reinvent the language of sex with different wording.

4.2. Submerging the “I”. Instead of it, use “me”, “mine”, “my”

4.3. Unpacking tools

  • Creating a long description which transmits to the reader the gravity of the information.

4.4. Verbs!

  • Gesture > Dialogue
  • Begin with action, avoid dialogue if you can use gesture instead.

4.5. Tell time indirectly

  • Use hints to illustrate the passing of time, like the passing of seasons, or the sun’s position in the sky, or people going or returning home from work.

4.6. Establish setting through action

  • Describe the environment as something or someone moves through it, or an action happens in that environment.

4.7. Prefer metaphors for comparisons, over similes:

  • “Being married to Jim left you as shaky as a twelve-year drive down a dirt road”.
  • Or, if you do have a comparison, linger on it, overdo it.

4.8. Erase thought verbs: knew, realized, believed, worried, understood

  • Illustrate direct thoughts on a subject through a character’s behavior related to that subject, like the way the character talks to a person or avoids a certain place.
  • Erase “like” for comparison.

4.9. Characters can ask question that don’t have to be answered by another character. Your reader knows the answer.