The Old Chuck Palahniuk’s Rules For Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...

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I was discussing with some friends last week whether Chuck Palahniuk was the new Kurt Vonnegut.  Statements like that always strike me as a bit of a cop-out, but I lack a better way to describe Mr. Palahniuk’s writing to people.

The discussion did remind me of Vonnegut’s rules for short stories, which I quite like.  I think they apply to much more than just short stories, and here are my favorites (at the moment):

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

At the least! I’ve seen many screenplays now where every character is hard-boiled, mean, crazy, evil, or just generally unlikable.   Even anti-heroes need something you can like about them, some way to identify with their plight.   Even if your characters are an army of ninja serial killing robots, you have to find a way to make one of them somehow sympathetic.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Conflict. Every scene, every act, every chapter, everything needs to have some element of conflict in it. It’s the drama that drives interest in the tale. As Mr. Vonnegut says, it doesn’t have to be a cosmic battle, but if there isn’t some goal that a person is trying to reach, lose the scene.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

Here’s another one that carries well into screenwriting, but it is expanded to “Start late and finish early.”  One of my most common edits when I rewrite is to trim the start and end of a scene.  Don’t put every moment on screen (or in print).  It leaves something to the reader’s imagination, and is rarely needed at all.  If we don’t need to see the postman pull over, get out of his truck, and walk all the way up to the front door, start with them ringing the doorbell.  Or start with the character opening the package.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on the list, and any items you like or hate!

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The “Oral History” format

I am currently in the midst of reading Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, by Chuck Palahniuk. This is the second book that I have read in the last year that utilizes the oral history format. The first one was World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (which advocates the “classic” slow zombie, by the way). In fiction, the format is presented as the recollections of the story’s characters as told to one focal person, who may or may not also be a “true” character in the book.

At first, I thought this would be a boon for the writer. When you get stuck, just switch to a different character! However, upon further reflection, I think to pull it off well actually requires much more calculation than my first flippant view implies. Each character’s viewpoint and especially their knowledge of the described events have to be kept discrete, allowing the story to unfold as the reader pieces the scraps together to form a complete picture.

As far as adaptation to a screenplay, I see some particular obstacles. Since the format relates events that have already happened, a straight adaptation would likely turn into the to-be-avoided “talking heads on screen”. I have read that the screenplay for World War Z is currently being written. My guess is that the filmed version will not follow the multiple interviewee format of the book and will likely be a straight-up action flick, weaving elements of the book into a linear storyline, perhaps with a single survivor reminiscing the entirety.

I will be on the lookout for films adapted from the oral history format to see how the writers maneuvered to bring the story to the screen.