Chuck's 'How To' Writing Essays
In 2004, Chuck Palahniuk began submitting essays to our site on writing. These were 'How To' pieces.... craft essays, straight out of Chuck's own personal toolbox. Every month, a 'Homework Assignment' would accompany the lesson, urging our Workshop members to submit their own original piece, displaying an example of Chuck's lesson. We called this arm of our Workshop the 'Chuckshop,' and since 2004, it has remained one of the most exciting and unique sections on our website.
In 2009, Chuck is turning it up a notch. Starting in February, he will be reading and reviewing five selected stories from our Workshop each month. Chuck will provide critical feedback on the weaknesses he sees in your work, while providing praise for the elements that succeed. Then, at the end of the year, we will select the best stories and Chuck will work to have them published in an anthology... on his dime. He has even committed to writing the Introduction!
So if you're new to our site and perhaps, slightly overwhelmed by the prospect of a best-selling author potentially reading your writing... start with some research and read through all 36 of Chuck's writing essays. They are archived below, for your convenience.
- Establishing your Authority
Chuck teaches two principal methods for building a narrative voice your readers will believe in. Discover the Heart Method and the Head Method and how to employ each to greatest effect.
- Developing a Theme
At the core of Minimalism is focusing any piece of writing to support one or two major themes. Learn harvesting, listing, and other methods, after a fun excursion into the spooky side of Chuck's childhood.
- Using "On-the-Body" Physical Sensation
Great writing must reach both the mind and the heart of your reader, but to effectively suspend reality in favor of the fictional world, you must communicate on a physical level, as well. Learn to unpack the details of physical sensation.
- Submerging the "I"
First-person narration, for all its immediacy and power, becomes a liability if your reader can't identify with your narrator. Discover Chuck's secret method for making a first-person narrator less obtrusive.
- Hiding a Gun
Sometimes called "plants and payoffs" in the language of screenwriters, Hiding a Gun is an essential skill to the writer's arsenal that university writing courses almost never touch upon. Learn to identify and use multiple forms, including the Big Question, the Physical Process, and the Clock.
- "Thought" Verbs
You've always heard the maxim, "Show, don't tell..." but almost no writing teacher ever explains... How. Discover how to strengthen your prose by unpacking abstract and static verbs into descriptive action.
- "Big Voice" Versus "Little Voice"
An interesting character has strong opinions, and voicing them can lend mood and texture to the work, but you can't allow these "Big Voice" rants to eclipse the "Little Voice" needs for descriptive physical action. In this essay, you'll learn to strike that balance.
- Using Choruses
This verbal repetition can create a beat of bland time that lets your story breathe, or it can refresh previous plot points and trigger strong emotions. Steal this natural aspect of spoken rhetoric to enliven your prose.
- Saying It Wrong
Great writers like Mark Richard and Amy Hempel re-invent the world, partly by re-inventing the language. In this essay, Chuck introduces you to the mysteries of "Burnt Tongue," and its three principal uses.
- Beware the "Thesis Statement"
Abstract and summarizing lead statements feel natural to journalism and academic writing, but will suck the life from your fiction. Learn to unpack and rearrange these abstractions for greater effect.
- Reading Out Loud - Part One
Lots of things that look smart on the page fall apart in the auditorium. Discover the numerous reasons Chuck writes for the ear as well as the eye, along with how to make the most of live reading opportunities.
- Reading Out Loud - Part Two
All humans are storytellers and every fiction is veiled autobiography. Learn to explore and exhaust your personal issues by creating something bigger than yourself, and don't miss Chuck's ingenious assignment for personalizing your character's perception of time.
- Punctuating with Gesture and Attribution
Smart actors use the stage business of peeling an apple or lighting a cigarette to create a layer of interest that dialogue alone can never convey. Learn to punctuate your dialogue with gesture and attribution to propel interest and achieve better pacing.
- The Horizontal Versus the Vertical
Every story possesses the "horizontal" movement from plot point to plot point and finally to resolution, as well as the "vertical" development of character, theme, and emotional resonance. Discover Chuck's approach to building a story in layers.
- When You Can't Find a Writing Workshop...
When you can't find a writing workshop, you can still find a setting where you're almost forced to daydream. Chuck paints some funny options for this while recommending that you daydream with a pen in your hand.
- Learning from Clichés
To achieve excellence, a writer must learn to identify and eliminate clichés. Chuck demonstrates the use of placeholders where more inventive language is needed, while counter-intuitively recommending style mimicry as a positive stage of learning.
- The "Quilt" Versus the Big "O"
What does Fight Club have in common with The Great Gatsby? In this first "talking shapes" essay, Chuck reveals two of the more encompassing plot shapes that you can begin to recognize as you create from the same basic patterns.
- Textures of Information
Lists, recipes, documentaries--almost everything verbal or textual is storytelling in some form. Chuck makes the case for lifting from various non-fiction forms and quick-cutting between them to enrich the textures of your fiction.
- Effective Similes
Every time you compare something inside of a scene to something that's not present, you distract your reader. Learn to limit the use of "like" or "as" and to unpack static verbs, along with other methods for forging stronger comparisons.
- The Thumbnail
In this second "talking shapes" essay, Chuck explores a basic paradox of storytelling, while revealing what you can do about it. The Thumbnail opening foreshadows major plot points in advance and creates authority, without giving too much away.
- The Cycle
An excellent plot for horror and dark fantasy, the Cycle enlists and seduces the reader even as it enlists and seduces the protagonist. Learn what to look for from a few of Chuck's favorites, while putting this plot shape to work for yourself.
- The Rebel, the Follower, and the Witness
Take a look at your work. Are you writing a classic rebel-follower-witness story? If not, what kind of myth are you creating? This essay takes up the mythic patterns prominent in our culture and provides great examples.
- Using Your Objects
An object, in fiction, can serve multiple purposes--from Memory Cue, to Gesture Prop, to Buried Gun, to simple Through-Line Image. Learn to make the most of physical objects.
- Stocking Stuffers
Dating from Christmas 2005, Chuck uses this essay to provide a grab-bag of incredibly useful ideas that don't require too much individual elaboration. From delineating the three types of speech, to simple maxims for the writing life.
- Killing Time
Several methods exist in fiction for showing the passage of time--from subtle to not-so-subtle. Here, Chuck glosses various approaches while highlighting his preferred method.
- Disconnected Dialogue
The temptation for new writers to answer every question raised in a fictional dialogue with a perfect, clever, instant response is very strong. Chuck demonstrates how this flattens the energy of a scene and what to do instead.
- Body Language: Part One
Leave it to Chuck to make an assignment of watching movies with the sound turned off... and have this make perfect sense. This essay explores gesture and movement as an important counterbalance to your dialogue.
In the best stories, key objects morph to serve several different functions, reappearing throughout while picking up additional resonance. Learn to use a limited number of objects to maximum effect.
- Required Reading -- Absurdity
In this essay, Chuck explores authority, specificity, pacing, and brevity as points of power in two classic shorts--one from E.B. White and one from Shirley Jackson. You'll be challenged to carry these principles into your own experiments.
- Utility Phrases: When All Words Fail
What does your character say when he doesn't know what to say? Utility phrases fill a beat of bland time, possibly framing a gesture, possibly allowing the reader to recover from a shock, all the while developing characterization.
- Names Versus Pronouns
How can you replace tired third-person pronouns with proper names without monotonous repetition? In this essay, Chuck challenges you to develop a whole range of names for each character and object in your fiction.
- Plot Points
In this return to "nuts & bolts" basics, Chuck emphasizes the importance of determining your plot points in advance. The homework portion entails listening for themes and issues that go perpetually unresolved.
- Tell a Lie, Bury a Gun
Chuck exposes one of the more subtle and influential forms of the Buried Gun... the Lie. Have your character lie or make a false promise early, then the backfire can propel a climactic resolution.
- A Story from Scratch, Act One
Here, Chuck presents the rough draft of Act One in his short story "Fetch," complete with notes and commentary. See his process in action as he begins to apply all the techniques and strategies of previous essays.
- A Story from Scratch, Act Two
In the rough draft of Act Two, Chuck demonstrates how to reinforce physical details, along with "on-the-body" sensation, "Burnt Tongue," and other critical distinctions from previous lessons.
- A Story from Scratch, Act Three
In Act Three, Chuck demonstrates the importance of keeping established elements present to the story as it moves forward. He also brings in the "Buried Gun" and reveals strategies for building tension and maintaining character arc.