5 things I learnt about Writing from Chuck Palahniuk

Angst and Desire
4 min readJul 30, 2023
Chuck and his new book, Consider This

“The job of the creative person is to recognize and express things for others…Whatever the case, we recognize the truth when we read it. The best writers seem to read our minds, and they nail exactly what we’ve never been able to put into words.”

Palahniuk’s new(ish) non-fiction book on writing and the writing life is short, readable, and jam-packed with practical advice. The tone of the book is humble and conversational, so it’s fitting that it’s called Consider This, rather than something more grandiose. He doesn’t resort to commands or promises. Instead, he makes suggestions, and very good ones.

For fans curious about the author behind the scenes, the book provides episodes from his writing life. He gives context to how he learnt his craft, and the book is interspersed with beautiful tattoo designs which illustrate pertinent pieces of advice from his friends and teachers.

Some writing advice from author Ursula K. Le Guin

There was plenty of good advice to make it a worthwhile read for anyone that’s interested in writing, the writing-life, or just Palahniuk himself. But here’s a few bits that I made a note of, ranging from the thematic to the nitty-gritty.

When to Paraphrase and When to Quote Dialogue

Consider that when you put a character’s dialogue in quotes you give the character greater reality. Conversely when you paraphrase someone you distance and diminish them.

For example, paraphrased dialogue: I told them to put the box in the corner.

Versus: I told them, “Put the box in the corner.”

In Fight Club I chose to put everyone’s dialogue in quotes — except for the narrator’s. Even Tyler occurs as more real because his words are quoted. So whenever you want to undermine what’s being said, paraphrase it. 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.

No more abstract descriptions, make it characterful

Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character.

This means that every way the character describes the world must describe the character’s experience. 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 or narrator 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.” You may not describe the temperature as being one hundred degrees. Or trips as being fifty miles long. All standardized measurements preclude you describing how your character sees the world.

So no more five-year-old girls. No more seven o’clock. No two-ton trucks.

Yes, it’s a pain, having to break down the details and translate them through a character’s point of view. But only at first. With a little practice you’ll begin to see the world via the character’s experience and the descriptions will come naturally.

Avoid Tennis-match Dialogue

That’s where one character says something, and another responds with the perfect quip. Think of situation comedy dialogue. Snappy comebacks. Perfect rejoinders. Setup and spike. Instant gratification.

Tension is created and instantly resolved. So it never accumulates. The energy remains flat. For example: Wendy snuck a glance at him. “Do you have herpes?”

Brandon looked away. Gradually, his gaze came back to hers. “Yes. I do.”

Question answered. Conflict settled. Energy returns to a big, boring zero.

“Avoid volleys of dialogue that resolve tension too quickly.” And instead, “use evasive dialogue or miscommunications to…increase the tension”.

Weed out those Pesky ‘I’s

Don’t screen the world through your narrator’s senses. Instead of writing, “I heard the bells ring,” write just, “The bells rang,” or, “The bells began to ring.” Avoid, “I saw Ellen,” in favor of, “Ellen stepped from the crowd. She squared her shoulders and began to walk, each step bringing her closer.”

Write fiction for lonely readers

Tom Spanbauer always said, “Writers write because they weren’t invited to a party.” So bear in mind that the reader is also alone. A reader is more likely to feel socially awkward and crave a story that offers a way to be in the company of others. The reader, alone in bed or alone in an airport crowded with strangers, will respond to the party scenes at Jay Gatsby’s mansion. […]

The linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath has said that a book will only become a classic if it binds together a community of readers. So recognize that reading is a lonely pastime. […]



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