Chuck Palahniuk’s Recipe For Better Storytelling
How do you write an engaging story?
One that sounds smooth and relatable — the type told around pubs and campfires- rather than the stiff, cold ones that can find their way on the page?
In his latest book, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk gives writers a recipe to create more natural, engaging stories. He distills this recipe into three forms of communication:
Description — Man walks into a bar
Instruction — Walk into a bar
Exclamation (onomatopoeia) — Viola!
See the three forms come together in the paragraph below:
A man walks into a bar and orders a margarita. Easy enough. Mix three parts tequila and two parts triple sec with one part lime juice, and — voila — that’s a margarita.
To get an idea of how this works, let’s break down each of the three types of communication separately.
Description is a written account of a person, place, or object (ie the man walked into the bar and ordered a margarita )
Books and blogs are written accounts of particular people, subjects, and events. This means almost everything you read is a description.
So practice composing them. Copy your favorite passages. Look for ways to use more expressive language.
But know description is only one ingredient. Combining strong descriptions with the next two items has the potential to bring more depth to your work.
An instruction is a command to your audience. It allows you to give them useful, factual information directly.
For maximum effect, Palahniuk suggests you use short, punchy, active language for your descriptions:
I.e “Pick up the phone”. “Walk towards the red car.” “Shoot the sheriff in the back.”
On its own, too much instruction turns into something more like a recipe than a story, but when combined with clear descriptions it adds a layer of information that engages the reader and builds your authority as an author.
If you’ve ever eavesdropped on someone telling a story at a bar, you’ve likely heard noises like:
Vhrrooom! Bang! Pow!
Exclamations (also called onomatopoeia) are an essential element of oral storytelling, yet they’re often ignored by writers. If you wish to be a more dynamic writer follow the bar-room raconteur’s lead and add some sound effects.
These devices punch up your story. They act as a chime that pulls in your reader, and signals the next thing is about to be important — so pay attention.
Palahniuk recommends stuffing exclamations in the middle of your sentences. In this position, they break up the two clauses and stress the last part of the passage.
“Trapped all day, then could be next walk to toilet, pow-pow, clot knock out brain.”
Let’s Put It All Together
There you have it! A three ingredient recipe for natural storytelling. If you’re looking for an optimal ratio Palahniuk says to aim for:
“Three parts description, two parts instruction, one part exclamation.”
Because information on its own doesn’t make us better writers, let’s put the recipe to use.
Open up a fresh word document or pull out a pen and paper and test it out. I used the ideas to create the work below:
“The man picked his nose. As one does. Dig with the pointer finger. Search for treasure. Until — boom — he’s struck gold! He then flicks away his precious possession and starts over again.”
Let’s see what you can come up with.