June 13, 2022

Consider This

I made 112 highlights while reading Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk. The book will give you insights into how to write fiction.
  • For something to last, it must be either granite or words.

  • A writer must be smart enough to hatch a brilliant idea and dull enough to research, edit, market and promote it.

  • Being an author is nothing if not a small business.

  • Don't use a lot of commas. People hate sentences with lots of commas. Keep your sentences short. Readers like short sentences.

  • Think of a story as a combination of characters, settings, and events that create a series of rhythms. Now think of yourself, the writer, as a DJ mixing tracks.

  • Fiction usually consists of description only, but good storytelling can mix description, instruction, and exclamation (onomatopoeia). Using all three forms of communication creates a natural, conversational style.

  • As you write, mix description and instruction. Also, be sure to use onomatopoeia in more ways than just the "pow" and "bam" we see in comic books.

  • Every writer should use three types of communication: three parts description, two parts instruction, and one part onomatopoeia.

  • Unless a story is short and fast-paced, the constant second person can annoy.

  • Shift between the three points of view (first, second, and third person) as needed to control authority, intimacy, and pace.

  • Little voice refers to the moment-by-moment action of a scene, while big voice muses on that action. Little voice remains objective and factual, describing a scene's smells, sounds, flavours, textures and actions. Big voice gives us the meaning, or at least a character's subjective interpretation of events. Not many stories exist without both voices.

  • In today's fiction, a story will likely begin with a physical scene - a person finding a dead body or being menaced by zombies. It mimics opening scenes in movies. As author Thom Jones told me, "Action carries its own authority". The audience will engage with the action.

  • Don't use the big voice too often. Each time you shift to that kind of narration, it bumps your reader out of the fictional dream, so too much commenting can slow the story's momentum. Also, it can annoy by being too clever or preachy.

  • You may want to switch to a big voice for short stretches in a dramatic scene to imply time passing. That also allows you to buffer between scenes where lots of physical action occurs. And it allows you to briefly summarise the preceding action and deliver a witty or wise meme about life.

  • Combine gesture, action, and expression with your dialogue.

  • To avoid confusing your reader, be sure to use attribution correctly. That will make the reader feel smarter than the main character. The reader will then want to root for this character.

  • To create a pause or break in the dialogue, use attribution. Otherwise, the reader may race through the line without realising how it should be weighted.

  • Use gestures to provide visual clues for what's being said. For example: "Coffee?" With her back to the room, she poured the cups full and dropped cyanide in Ellen's. "I think you'll like this new French roast."

  • Dialogue is a weak storytelling tool. As Tom Spanbauer always taught us, "Language is not our first language".

  • Cut fiction like film.

  • When depicting a city, meal, or boyfriend, keep it brief. Then, when you show the next thing, we will assume that time has passed.

  • Another way to imply time passing is to intercut scenes. You can jump between the past and present, alternating between them. Or you can cut between two characters or locations, jumping from one to the other without returning to where you left off.

  • If you were my student, I would tell you about using the space break technique to imply time passing. You just end a scene or passage and allow a wide margin of blank page before you begin a new scene.

  • The story could get monotonous if we use space breaks to cut between the events in Robert's day. But if we cut back and forth between Robert and Cynthia, and some ancestor of them both in Renaissance Venice, the reader gets time away from each element and can better appreciate it.

  • Never hesitate to insert a list to add a new texture to a story.

  • Tom Spanbauer once said, "Writers write because they weren't invited to the party." So remember that the reader is also alone.

  • One of the reasons some people enjoy reading is that it offers a way to be in the company of others. Readers who are alone will respond to scenes from The Great Gatsby that depict parties at Jay Gatsby's mansion.

  • The linguist Shirley Brice Heath says that a book will only become a classic if it binds together the community of its readers.

  • When writing, remember that reading is lonely. Include rituals or ceremonies in your stories, such as rules and prayers. Give people roles to play, lines to recite, and ways to confess their stories and find connections with others.

  • If a character's dialogue is put in quotation marks, it gives the character greater reality. If the dialogue is paraphrased, it distances and diminishes the character.

  • Tom Spanbauer told us, "Establish your authority, and you can do anything".

  • To create a character with authority, introduce the character as simple-minded, then let the character share some surprising information.

  • When you write characters that have survived your reader's worst fears, you will earn respect from your readers.

  • To create a story in which readers are never tempted to criticise the characters, kill the mother or father before the first page.

  • When I asked director David Fincher if the audience would accept the ultimate reveal that Brad Pitt's character was imaginary in Fight Club, Fincher's response was, "If they believe everything up to that point, they'll believe the plot twist".

  • The creative person's role is to recognise and express ideas for others.

  • The best writers can take our thoughts and clarify them by putting into words what we've never been able to articulate.

  • A wise and intuitive observation is more powerful than all the facts on Wikipedia.

  • Context and source are now more critical than they have ever been.

  • A nonfiction form can lend credibility to even the most fantastic, maudlin, or the silliest story, e.g. The Blair Witch Project.

  • In addition to enhancing the realism of a work of fiction, the nonfiction form determines the structure of a novel and establishes the means for transitions.

  • Study nonfiction forms to learn how they work. Consider their flaws and use them to make your fiction seem more real, less polished and writerly.

  • Do not write to be liked. Write to be remembered.

  • Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character's point of view. That means that every way the character describes the world must reflect their 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.

  • No more six-foot-tall men. Instead, you should describe a man's size based on how your character or narrator perceives a man of that height.

  • People are usually one of three types: the visual, the auditory, or the tactile. The visual will preface each statement with visual terms, e.g. look here. The auditory will use terms based on hearing, e.g. listen up. The tactile will use physical, active terms, e.g. I catch your drift.

  • Stories should be told with the same emotion and imperfect language people use when recounting their experiences.

  • A writer can convince a reader of something beyond his own experience by starting with what the reader already knows and moving into unfamiliar territory.

  • Readers value surprise above all else in a story.

  • Describe the setting and characters' actions without judgement or summary. Allow your reader to determine what is happening. Let your reader anticipate the outcome, then - boom - spring a surprise on them.

  • Direct and misdirect your reader, but don't tell her the meaning of anything. Not until she gets it wrong in her head.

  • Allow the epiphany to occur in the reader's mind before it's stated on the page.

  • As a writer, you should never dictate meaning or interpretation to your reader. Instead, allow them to come to their own conclusions. Trust that your readers have the intelligence and intuition to understand your work.

  • The first-person narration has the greatest authority because the storyteller is present, not some omniscient authorial voice. The trouble is that readers recoil from the pronoun "I" because it constantly reminds them that they are not experiencing the plot events firsthand.

  • When you write in the first person, weed out almost all of your pesky "I"s.

  • People measure stuff - money, strength, time, weight - in personal ways.

  • When we correct some errors in our thinking, it is a joy. However, when we negate a creative interpretation that has been held since childhood, it is tragic. My point is that our pasts can distort how we perceive the world.

  • Don't be afraid to have your character describe the world in a way that doesn't necessarily correspond to how it's actually seen. It can be more interesting if they misinterpret the world.

  • So many great books are about social climbers who trade beauty and youth for a good marriage and then leverage that union for education and wealth. Vanity Fair and Gone With The Wind are examples of this theme.

  • Watch what people do and listen to the stories they tell about their behaviour.

  • Spanbauer would tell his students to write about an experience they couldn't remember in detail. The writers began with a scent, taste, or physical sensation. Their memories triggered other memories as if their bodies were more effective recording devices than their minds.

  • The easiest way to gain a reader's trust is to get something wrong.

  • In fiction, a character's mistake or misdeed can make the reader feel smarter than the character and therefore invested in the character's survival.

  • We create the tension, then we manage it, and finally, we resolve it.

  • "Great problems, not clever solutions, make great fiction", said Ira Levin.

  • Regarding the unfinished draft, author Tom Spanbauer once said: "The longer you can be with the unresolved thing, the more beautifully it will resolve itself".

  • Writing fiction can help you deal with stress, tension and conflict.

  • The horizontal refers to the progression of events in a story or play (e.g., in the first act, a couple moves into a new apartment; in the second act, a neighbour meets the couple; in the third act, the neighbour jumps from a window). The vertical refers to increasing tension as more and more conflict arises between characters throughout a story.

  • In your story, choose a limited number of elements. Focus on how to say the same thing in a hundred different ways.

  • In fiction, the clock can be anything that forces a story to end at a designated time. In many books, pregnancy is the clock.

  • Unlike a clock, which draws attention to itself, a gun becomes more effective when introduced early in the story and then hidden. When it finally appears again, it should both surprise and seem inevitable.

  • Every story is an experiment.

  • Listen to someone who is terrified of being interrupted and has developed tricks for hogging a listener's attention nonstop. You can learn some natural storytelling techniques from this person.

  • I'd tell you to recycle objects in your story. By introducing and concealing the same object throughout, you build meaning, which evolves as the object reappears across the narrative. Each return adds depth to your characters.

  • To avoid tennis-match dialogue, 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.

  • Never resolve an issue until you introduce a bigger one.

  • Unpack the big stuff. Do not deliver important information via dialogue.

  • We want tension in a story. We want to be entertained by a gradual discovery process so that we can predict the outcome. The challenge is maintaining tension and sustaining our engagement with the characters and their situation.

  • Each sentence should raise a small question, leading to ever-larger questions. ("A dancer pulls off her white gloves. A man slips out of his formal necktie. She begins to unzip the back of her dress. He shucks his dinner jacket.")

  • When readers encounter an action verb, their brains activate the muscles associated with that movement.

  • You may not control the emotions of your readers. Your job is to create situations that elicit the desired emotion in them.

  • The more tension you can create and maintain in a story, the more satisfying the ending will seem to your reader.

  • Unresolved social issues create tension.

  • As a writer, you don't have to resolve the issues in your work. You can simply present the topic and allow it to develop naturally over time.

  • Find an issue that will guarantee tension and debate over your work.

  • As a writer, you can create tension throughout your narrative by introducing a threat early on and continually assuring the reader that it will never occur. The tension will build until it reaches a breaking point, and chaos ensues.

  • I work best in boring places with little stimulation but in the presence of others.

  • Build your novel with several scenes or chapters that can stand alone as short stories. These excerpts can be published in magazines and websites to generate interest in your book.

  • When I begin a book or story, I start by collecting the necessary parts. I do this by brain-mapping notes longhand in a notebook.

  • After writing several pages of notes, I type them into a file and cut and paste the material to see how it works juxtaposed in different ways.

  • I print the draft, bind the pages, and carry them with me. I read and edit the draft during idle time. When I return to my computer, I key the changes into the file and print a new draft to bind and carry.

  • I can test the pacing by shuffling the order of my sentences and paragraphs, looking for places where an aside or flashback will help sustain tension or distract the reader before the surprise of a resolution.

  • A good story might leave everyone in awed silence, but a great story creates community by reminding us that our lives are more similar than different.

  • The best stories evoke other stories, which I call "crowd seeding".

  • We often withhold ourselves out of fear of offending or being judged, but if we take the risk and make the first move, we permit others to be open.

  • Writing is about allowing people to share their stories and emotions.

  • For me, writing fiction is about identifying common patterns in many lives.

  • Feedback on your writing can be painful. Honest feedback - the laughter, groans, and silence - tells you where the story is captivating and not.

  • Move the reader, like a fragile egg, delicately from sentence to sentence.

  • Some form of visual art will complement your writing.

  • Imitation is a natural way to learn.

  • The makers of maps sometimes include fake towns on their maps. If another mapmaker features the same fake town on their map, this lets the original mapmaker know they are being copied. In the same way, you can plant a unique name or phrase that, when searched, will turn up on every site where your work is available. One-click, and you've found all the illegal copies.

  • People love to see others suffer and lose.

  • When creating a character, make them suffer, then make the suffering worse, and keep making it worse. The reader should never identify with the tormentor. When you're done, there should be no redemption. People love those books.

  • Ending your story with the main character's death is not advisable. It can leave your reader feeling disappointed and dissatisfied with the ending.

  • Life is nothing if not branding and marketing: packaging and repackaging.

  • All writing is a form of a diary. No matter how it appears to diverge from your life, you've still chosen the topic and characters for a reason. In some way, whatever you write is still an expression of yourself.

  • I suggest you not use fiction as a vehicle for social engineering. Instead, I would remind you of this directive by Tom Spanbauer: "Write about the moment after which everything was different".

  • I avoid reading reviews - good or bad - they mess with my head.

  • There's no reason to embarrass anyone.

  • As a writer, it is your job to challenge and frighten your readers when necessary, at least to surprise them. You must also charm them into experiencing something that they would not voluntarily submit to.

  • Writing is a process of problem-solving.