Chuck Palahniuk

In my last post, I implied by pothole that Chuck Pahlaniuk is a poet. He is — at least more than he’s a novel-length plotmaster.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that Novel Dog focuses on macroscopic story elements: plot, reader connection to character, elements that make a story satisfying. You need to read most or all of a novel to assess this sort of thing, so it’s the hardest for a fiction writer to learn.

But not so much on language or description around here, or anything else that you can grasp in a paragraph. Those are the skills that are easiest to learn. As the mathematicians say, “that which is easy is not worth doing,” so I’ll let you learn those skills somewhere else.

(Meanwhile, Dan McMinn’s writing blog divides its posts into ideas on words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, short stories, chapters, novels, and series. Cool idea.

Also cool is his “sentence pyramid,” seen here.)

But today, I want to tell you what I learned from Chuck Pahlaniuk.

I found him like a lot of his fans. I think the “Gateway to Chuck” is the movie Fight Club, which knocked me out — so I read the book, then his other books.

His novels are a mix of beautiful poetic rhythm and over-the-top gonzo insanity. I can’t describe them very well, so I’ll just show you the opening of Fight Club:

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says, “We really won’t die.”

With my tongue I can feel the silencer holes we drilled into the barrel of the gun. Most of the noise a gunshot makes is expanding gases, and there’s the tiny sonic boom a bullet makes because it travels so fast. To make a silencer, you just drill holes in the barrel of the gun, a lot of holes. This lets the gas escape and slows the bullet to below the speed of sound.

You drill the holes wrong and the gun will blow off your hand.

“This isn’t really death,” Tyler says. “We’ll be legend. We won’t grow old.”

Chuck describes his style as “minimalist.” I could look it up… but he saved me the trouble. Chuck (I like his writing so much, and I’ve seen him read often enough here in Seattle, that I feel compelled to call him by his first name) described minimalism in Stranger Than Fiction. He begins like this:

When you study minimalism in Tom Spanbauer’s workshop, the first story you read is Amy Hempel‘s “The Harvest.” Next you read Mark Richard’s story “Strays.” After that, you’re ruined.

I love quoting Chuck Palahniuk! I could do it all day. It also tickles me to see a talented guy like him get so goofy over Spanbauer and Hempel. He goes on, getting to the good stuff:

To demonstrate minimalism, students sit around Spanbauer’s kitchen table for ten weeks taking apart “The Harvest.”

The first aspect you study is what Tom calls “horses.” The metaphor is — if you drive a wagon from Utah to California, you use the same horses the whole way. Substitute the word “themes” or “choruses” and you get the idea. In minimalism, the story is a symphony, building and building, but never losing the original melody line. All characters and scenes, they all illustrate some aspect of the story’s theme.

Reminds me of the gold in Goldfinger. In Fight Club, says I, it’s death and destruction.

The next aspect Tom calls “burnt tongue.” A way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down the reader. Force the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of images, short-cut adverbs, and cliches.

Ouch… did you notice “burnt tongue” in the first paragraph of Fight Club, up there? Chuck is always doing this. His phrasing is almost awkward — almost looks incorrect, though if you heard it spoken you might not think so. Try this sentence as an example:

What else you learn about minimalism includes “recording angel.” This means writing without passing judgement. Nothing is fed to the reader as “fat” or “happy.” You can only describe actions and appearances in a way that makes a judgement occur in the reader’s mind. Whatever it is, you unpack it into the details that will occur in the reader’s mind.

That’s running a little deeper than “show, don’t tell.” The reason is the same. If you tell the readers something, they’ve no reason to believe you. But if you “show,” if you describe the details of your story’s reality as a “recording angel” or a “transparent eyeball,” the readers will draw their own conclusions.

And you’ll have tremendous authority as an author. Because readers will always believe their own conclusions.

So, we’ve covered “horses” and “burnt tongue” and “recording angel.” Now, writing “on the body.”

Hempel shows how a story doesn’t have to be some constant stream of blah-blah-blah to bully the reader into paying attention. You don’t have to hold the reader by both ears and ram every moment down their throat. Instead, story can be a succession of smelly, tasty, touchable details. What Tom Spanbauer and Gordon Lish call “going on the body,” to give the reader a sympathetic physical reaction, to involve the reader on a gut level.

If you read on in Fight Club, you’ll find “With a gun stuck in your mouth and the barrel of the gun between your teeth, you can only talk in vowels.”

And again, with burnt tongue: “Tyler and me at the edge of the roof, the gun in my mouth, I’m wondering how clean this gun is.”

This is Chuck in a plug for Borders. He rattles off some of his favorites. (He confesses his love for Amy here, too.)

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