7 Simple Storytelling Hacks From Fight Club Writer — Chuck Palahniuk

1. Recycle Your Objects

This means introducing and concealing the same object throughout the story. Each time it reappears. The object carries a new stronger meaning. Each reappearance marks an evolution in the characters.

Example:

  • Diamond ring in Nora Ephron’s — Heartburn

The diamond ring gets mugged from the narrator, then police found it and returns to her. She then pawns the ring for money. Again the ring, appears, disappears (the ring is a symbol of her marriage, from which she’s now divorced.)

Lesson to recycle your object is, introduce them then hides them, then rediscover them, then hide them again. Each time you bring them back, make them carry greater importance and emotion. Recycle them. In the end, resolve them beautifully.

2. How you convince a reader of something beyond his own experience?

You start with what he does know, and move in baby steps towards what he doesn’t

Example:

The Contortionist Handbook — Craig Clevenger

Imagine waking up on the Monday morning filled with dread. Another satisfying week looms. Another soul crushing day at work doing something you’d never planned to do for the rest of your life. You’re growing older, your life wasted, your dreams lost. And then you realize it’s actually Sunday morning, that rush of relief… that flood of joy and bliss that fills you and buoys your whole body with euphoria, multiply that feeling with ten, and that’s how Vicodin feels.

Use what the reader already knows to gradually move to the fantastic, the tragic, the profound.

3. Subvert Readers Expectations

Linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice heath has said that readers value surprise above all else in a story.

Create a clear scene. Render the setting and physical actions without judgment and summery. Use simple angle as if you were a camera. Allow your reader to determine the meaning of the events. Let your reader anticipate the outcome, then — boom — spring the actual intention, the surprise. (Like Raymond K Hessel scene in fight club.)

So direct and misdirect your reader, but don’t tell her the meaning of anything. Not until she gets it wrong in her head.

Always allow epiphany to occur in the reader’s mind before it’s stated on the page.

Never dictate meaning to your reader. If need be, misdirect them. But always allow them to realize the truth before you state it outright. Trust your reader’s intelligence and intuition, and they will return the favor.

4. Do Not Use Dialogue to Further the Plot

If a plot point is worth including, it’s worth depicting in a scene. Don’t deliver it on a dialogue.

In movie Chinatown, where the discovery process is patiently and meticulously allowed to demonstrate how water is being stolen from Los Angeles, the biggest plot reveal is done through dialogue. Evelyn Mulwray‘s daughter is a child of incest. Yes, it would be tons creepier if we used a discovery process to unpack that reveal. First speculating about child’s father, then tracking down a birth certificate, hearing rumors from former servants, exploring why Evelyn has no mother.

5. Setup

We want tension. We want gradual discover process. The outcome is more or less predictable. So we want sustained arousal and engagement

Story:

  • A businessman arrives at his hotel and checks into his room. He opens the minibar and pour himself a scotch, then dials the number of an escort service. When a voice says, “hellow,” he interrupts fast, before he could lose his nerve, he demands, “listen. I need you to send over the biggest black stud you have and the skinniest, whitest nerd you have. I want to watch black guy fuck the white guy, and then watch the white guy fuck the black guy. And then I want to fuck them both. You got that? Can you make this happen?” at a pause, a polite voice says “sir, you’ve reached reception. You’ll need to dial nine for an outside line….”

Along setup, the plot broken down into simple actions. The man in power asks for a display of power. Then he asks for reversal of that power. Then he plans to overpower everyone. Finally he’s humiliated and left without power.

Consider that each sentence should raise small question. As the smaller questions are resolve they should raise ever-larger questions.

An opening crates a question and promise it will be answered, but not too quickly.

The first line in Gone With The Wind: “Scarlet O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized that when caught in her charm…”

It instantly makes you wonder, why? You’re hooked.

6. Avoiding Forms of “is” and “have” and “thought verbs”

When people read an active physical verb like “step” or “kick” or “grabbed,” the verb activates the part of their brain responsible for the movement. You’re brain responds as if you’re actually swimming a stroke or sneering.

But when you read any form of the verb “is” or “has,” no corresponding brain activity occurs. Likewise with abstract verbs such as “believe” or “love” or “remember”. No sympathetic cognitive mirroring, or whatever, takes place.

Make it series of actions rather than series of description (mostly when you are talking about other people.)

Thus a passage like:

“Arlene was at the door. She had long brown hair, her face had look of shocking surprise. She was taller than he remembered…”

Is less engaging than:

“Arlene stepped into view, framed by the open doorway. With one gloved hand she brushed her long, brown hair away from her face, her pencil eyebrows arched in surprise…”

You may not dictate emotion. Your job is to create the situation that generates the desired emotion in your reader’s

7. The Second Act Hack — Road Trip

Once you’ve exhausted your standard setting, consider gathering your characters and sending them into a great outside world for some fresh perspective.

The road trip at the end of the second act works. Look at The Great Gatsby; the return of the trip crates chaos in third act.

In Fight Club also the narrator goes into the world to hunt for Tyler Durden, only to discover he himself is Tyler Durden.

Perhaps this is why people dream of travelling a lot after retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die.

Play to the Strength of Your Medium

Write the most outlandish, challenging, provocative stories. Take full advantage of the complete freedom a book provides. To not take advantage of that freedom is to waste one chief strength of the medium.

--

--

Writer and aspiring film-maker. Here to write about the art of storytelling, movies, books, practical psychology and new things that I'm learning.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Rahul Patil

Rahul Patil

Writer and aspiring film-maker. Here to write about the art of storytelling, movies, books, practical psychology and new things that I'm learning.