Chuck Palahniuk on What It Means to Raise the Stakes with Readers
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
This week on First Draft, Chuck Palahniuk joins Mitzi to discuss his latest book, Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, out now from Grand Central.
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: You talk about this idea that seems very… it makes so much sense and yet it seems so hard to actually execute, which is to allow the epiphany to occur in the readers’ mind before it’s stated on the page. So how do you share with your students how to start approximating that?
Chuck Palahniuk: Wow, you really want to create the circumstances, the physical circumstances, so that the reader has the epiphany or at least has an inkling of the epiphany. Because then the reader will, number one have an enormous emotional stake in seeing whether or not he or she is right or wrong. Kind of like on a game show when you’re watching a game show and you’re shouting the answer that you’re sure is the answer, so you have a stake there and you’re going to keep watching until you find out whether you’re right or wrong. But something that’s maybe even sweeter is that, what is the first thing that Scarlett O’Hara says in Gone with the Wind?
Mitzi Rapkin: I do not remember, but you wrote it in your book, maybe? And I don’t remember either.
Chuck Palahniuk: No, I wrote the first line, which is “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realize that.” But the first thing she says is, “War, war war, there is not going to be any war.” So instantly, we as the reader, we’re smarter than Scarlet. And the great thing that happens is that despite Scarlett’s wealth, and her charm, and her attractiveness, we are smarter than her and so we care about her. We instantly feel superior to her. So we feel this kind of condescending, nurturing need to see things work out for her. We want to see her come to enlightenment because we know that there’s going to be a war. And we know how things are going to turn out. So, in a way Scarlett O’Hara becomes our child, and we adopt her as a character. So, when you can allow the reader to have the epiphany, you make the reader smarter than the main character. So suddenly, it’s not just the reader being invested in the story, but the reader is super emotionally invested in the outcome for the main character.
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Chuck Palahnuik is an American novelist and freelance journalist, who describes his work as transgressional fiction. He is the author of the award-winning novel Fight Club, which also was made into a popular film of the same name. Some of his other works include Choke, Lullaby, “Guts”, and Adjustment Day. His new book about writing is called Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different.