Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chuck Palahniuk - Using the "on-the-body" physical sensations




This third essay is to demonstrate physical sensation in a story.This physical sensation is what the Minimalist writer Tom Spanbauerwould call "going on-the-body."In fiction writing, there's an old saying: When you don't know what hap-pens next, describe the inside of the narrator's mouth.Or the soles of their feet, or the palms of their hands. Any physical sensa-tion that can evoke a sympathetic physical sensation from the reader.It's one thing to engage the reader mentally, to enroll his or her mind andmake them think, imagine, consider something.It's another thing to en-gage a reader's heart, to make him or her feel some emotion. But if youcan engage the reader on a physical level as well, then you've created areality that can eclipse their actual reality.The reader might be in anoisy airport, standing in a long line, on tired feet nbut if you can engagetheir mind, heart and body in your story, you can replace that airportreality with something more entertaining or profound or whatever.That's why each of my books involves some intense physical sensation.Whether it's violence in Fight Club. Or plastic surgery in InvisibleMonsters.Or sex in Choke. Or illness and self-mutilation in Diary.With each of my books, the goal is to make the story occur in the reader's mind, heartand gut.In the recent short story, "Guts," this effect goes almost too far.Almost.
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Note, this doesn't happen with abstract words that describe pain orpleasure. You can't just order a reader to feel a sensation. It happenswhen you create a tangible situation, detail by detail, and let the eventshappen in the reader's mind.Words like "searing pain" or "sharp, stabbing pain" or "throbbing head-ache" or "ecstatic orgasm" don't evoke anything except some lame-asspaperback thnller book. Those are the cliches of a cheating writer. Littleabstract short-cuts that don't make anything happen in the reader's gut.No, you want the pain nor whatever physical sensation nto occur in thereader, not on the page. So un-pack the event, moment by moment, smell by smell. Make it happen, and let the sensation of pain occur only in thereader.The same goes for sex. But with sex, it helps if you re-invent the lan-guage of sex. Most people have their own pet vocabulary for sex organsand sex acts. To make an orgasm fresh and unique neven if it' s justwords happening on a page ninvent a way that only your narratorwould talk about sex. That special nickname for their genitals. Their eu-phemism for intercourse.I like to say: "When a regular person gets sick, they take an aspirin.When a writer gets sick, they take notes… "The next time you get a headache or diarrhea or poison ivy, sit and in-ventory the physical details you experience. Put them down on paper forsome future use. Because the toughest job you'll have as a writer is togive your character a headache. Still, you should do it so well you giveyour reader a headache.Another method is to inject medical language nthe almost-poetry of sur-gical jargon or diagnostic terms. Anatomical vocabulary. Chemicalnames.All of those build their authority in a "head" sense, proving you're smart.Plus, they evoke a physical discomfort or pleasure in the reader.Plus, odd language can slow the reader and focus their attention on themoment.Plus, medical language gives people a way to discuss topics theycouldn't because they never had the language. So you're engaging thereader on a mental and physical level.So, when you don't know what happens next: Have sex. Get sick. Gethurt. Or hit somebody.*To date, we've discussed "establishing authority" and "horses orthemes"and "physical sensation."
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To review the previous topics, look at this essay and find how itestab-lishes authority and what the "horses" or themes are.Then, create a character' s headache nwithout using any words suchas"headache, pain, migraine… "This might force you to do some re-search intothe cause of headaches. Or into how other cultures explainedheadaches. Orhow a headache changes your total perception. Or head-ache cures ntruestory: my old doctor used to swear by masturbation, tolower your bloodpressure and cure headaches. The goal is to re-inventthe tired, cliched ideaof a "headache" so well that you can create one inyour reader.For another exercise, write out an event from your past that involved as-trong physical sensation. Un-pack it, detail by detail, and create thesen-sation in the reader's gut. Again, without using abstract short-cuts that-describe the sensation. Always, create the sensation.The story, Guts, is now out in the March issue of Playboy magazine. Itwillsoon be published in The Guardian newspaper in England.Nextmonth'stopic will be "Dissecting Guts." A break-down of all the littletricks I used toput that story across.

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