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36 Writing Essays by Chuck Palahniuk
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Author photo by John Gress, used with permission.
In 2005 Chuck Palahniuk began submitting original writing essays on craft to his official fan site ChuckPalahniuk.net. 36 essays later and Chuck had amassed a wealth of knowledge on his readers; tools and writing tenants that could fill a book! Only as of now, they don't. Instead, they reside here, on LitReactor and nowhere else. Prepare to be blown away.
1: Establishing Your Authority
2: developing a theme, 3: using “on-the-body” physical sensation, 4: submerging the “i”, 5: nuts and bolts: hiding a gun, 6: nuts and bolts: “thought” verbs, 7: nuts and bolts: “big voice” versus “little voice”, 8: nuts and bolts: using choruses, 9: nuts and bolts: saying it wrong, 10: beware the ‘thesis statement’, 11: reading out loud – part one, 12: reading out loud – part two, 13: nuts and bolts -- punctuating with gesture and attribution, 14: nuts and bolts -- the horizontal versus the vertical, 15: when you can’t find a writing workshop…, 16: learning from clichés… then leaving them behind, 17: talking shapes: the ‘quilt’ versus the big ‘o’, 18: textures of information, 19: effective similes, 20: talking shapes: the ‘thumbnail’, 21: talking shapes: the ‘cycle’, 22: talking shapes: the rebel, the follower, and the witness, 23: nuts and bolts: using your objects, 24: stocking stuffers: 13 writing tips from chuck palahniuk, 25: killing time: part one.
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- Abstracts (18)
- Character (102)
- Dialogue (22)
- Grammar (25)
- Literary Devices (28)
- Live Reading (7)
- Narrator (18)
- Objects (7)
- Phrases (9)
- Research (92)
- Rewriting (24)
- Setting (29)
- Similies (2)
- Structure (52)
- Vocabulary (8)
- Word Play (10)
- Workshop (9)
More essays by Chuck Palahniuk
- One Word Leads To The Next: Unconventional Conjunctive Devices
- The Haunting: How To Conquer The Shame Of Being A Writer
- Consider This: Undecidability
- Consider This: Coping
- Nuts and Bolts: Saying It Wrong
- Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs
- Stocking Stuffers: 13 Writing Tips From Chuck Palahniuk
- Establishing Your Authority
- Developing a Theme
- Using “On-The-Body” Physical Sensation
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Chuck Palahniuk’s 13 Writing Tips
Writers Write shares writing tips and resources. In this post, we share Chuck Palhniuk’s 13 writing tips .
Chuck Palahniuk is an American novelist. He was born 21 February 1962.
He is best known as the author of the award-winning novel Fight Club , which also was made into a feature film. His other novels include Diary , Lullaby , and Invisible Monsters . Choke , published in 2001, was his first New York Times bestseller.
His memoir, Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different , takes us behind the scenes of his writing life.
His non-fiction work has been published by Gear, Black Book, The Stranger, and the Los Angeles Times.
In his ‘About Chuck’ section on his website, titled A Short Biography of Chuck Plahniuk , we found out the following:
- He is known for writing every chapter in a book as a short story , and he believes that novels should be able to be condensed into a short story and still work.
- Research is his favourite part of the writing process. In fact, it is the driving force behind his novels. He can read an entire book and turn that information into a single line.
- He likes to people watch as he writes in public. In fact, he uses passing conversation on the street in his books.
We found this useful essay full of writing advice on the author’s website and we wanted to share some of it with you. We have taken snippets from the essay and included them in this post. [It has been moved and it can be found here .]
- Set a timer : “ When you don’t want to write, set an egg timer for one hour (or half hour) and sit down to write until the timer rings. If you still hate writing, you’re free in an hour. But usually, by the time that alarm rings, you’ll be so involved in your work, enjoying it so much, you’ll keep going.”
- Don’t be afraid to experiment : “Your audience is smarter than you imagine. Don’t be afraid to experiment with story forms and time shifts.”
- Mull it over : “Before you sit down to write a scene , mull it over in your mind and know the purpose of that scene. What earlier set-ups will this scene pay off? What will it set up for later scenes? How will this scene further your plot ?”
- Be surprised : “Surprise yourself. If you can bring the story – or let it bring you – to a place that amazes you, then you can surprise your reader.”
- Go back : “When you get stuck, go back and read your earlier scenes, looking for dropped characters or details that you can resurrect as ‘buried guns’.”
- Spend time with people : “Use writing as your excuse to throw a party each week – even if you call that party a “workshop.” Any time you can spend time among other people who value and support writing, that will balance those hours you spend alone, writing.”
- Not knowing is okay : “The longer you can allow a story to take shape, the better that final shape will be. Don’t rush or force the ending of a story or book.”
- You’re in charge : “If you need more freedom around the story, draft to draft, change the character names…Or worse, delete a character, if that’s what the story really needs.”
- Use different types of speech : “The three types are: Descriptive, Instructive, and Expressive. Descriptive: “The sun rose high…” Instructive: “Walk, don’t run…” Expressive: “Ouch!” Most fiction writers will only use one – at most, two – of these forms. So use all three. Mix them up. It’s how people talk.”
- Like what you write : “Write the book you want to read.”
- Get photographed when you’re young : “Get author book jacket photos taken now, while you’re young.”
- Write about upsetting things : “Write about the issues that really upset you. Those are the only things worth writing about.”
- Don’t give up .
Read the full essay here: 13 Writing Tips [It has been moved and can be read here .]
If you want to read more of his essays, click here: 36 Writing Essays by Chuck Palahniuk
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TIP: If you want help writing a book, buy The Novel Writing Exercises Workbook .
- Chuck Palahniuk , Writing Trivia
© Writers Write 2022
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A Chuck Palahniuk Writing Lesson: 'People, Places, Things'
Read an exclusive excerpt on capturing trauma from the iconic gay author of Fight Club and Choke .
When you're learning to write, never start with your most important story. My advice is: Point the camera at anything else. Don't panic. Anything you choose is still you.
This landscape will unfold more like collage than any highway printed on a map. My point is: It's not what's inside your clothes, it's how you take your clothes off.
Case in point, a student of mine tends bar in Tacoma, Washington. He says that when locals get together, they break the ice by always playing the same game. One will say, "I grew up down the street from Ted's first house." Another will say, "I used to walk to school past his second house." While others will say, "My sister went to school with Ted at Woodrow Wilson." Or "My mom helped his mom pick out a dress at Macy's one time." By "Ted" they mean Theodore Bundy. By his "first" house they mean the little blue Cape Cod he lived in when his family moved from Philadelphia. By "second" they mean the blue Craftsman-style house he moved to later, when he'd most likely killed an eight-year-old neighborhood girl. The first of his thirty-plus murders.
In short, people in Tacoma echolocate themselves by how Ted-adjacent they are.
Likewise, at a book signing in Seattle, a hale, smiling young man told me he was from Enumclaw, Washington. I'd never set foot there, but it rang a bell. His smile fell. "It's because," he said, "we're the animal sex capital of the world ..." As much as city fathers try to push Enumclaw as the "Gateway to Mount Rainier," its ambassador will always be Kenneth Pinyan, a.k.a. "Mr. Hands," best known for the viral video "2 Guys 1 Horse." The man who died with mare pheromone smeared all over his butt.
In Spokane, Washington, people play the Tacoma game, but using the serial killer Robert Lee Yates.
In Milwaukee, you can guess what game they play. A reader wrote to describe how he'd once worked in a rental store. He mostly rented chainsaws to people, string trimmers, big cases of champagne glasses, and the floral canopies for weddings. He'd been a teenager at the time, and his job was to log the tools in and out. To clean and lube them and provide a spare can of gas mixed with motor oil for their two-stroke engines. He'd wash the dirty stemware. A boring job until around 1991. In July a big story broke. Some guy living at the Oxford Apartments was accused of murdering and even eating people. The picture in the newspaper, he told me, filled him with dread. So he'd paged back through rental records, and you can guess who he found. Need a clue? The man in question had rented a power drill and, later, a reciprocating saw.
This reader, at the time a senior in high school, took the logbook to the owner of the store. The drill and saw in question were still for rent. They'd cycled through months of home improvement projects. At the moment, the drill that had done the dirty work was sitting on a shelf in the warehouse, next to a chocolate fountain and white satin tablecloths sealed in dry-cleaner plastic.
Of course, the accused cannibal murderer had signed the logbook. And written there was his address: unit 213 of the Oxford Apartments. My reader said how his boss took one look, turned the page and read the signature again, and promised to take action. The day after, those pages in the logbook were torn out. The drill and saw went missing. The business owner deadpanned that Jeffrey Dahmer had never, ever set foot in his store. End of story.
This reader was writing to me because he couldn't just tear the pages out of his head.
Here, let me reel myself in. We're already in Milwaukee. Like a rookie, I've come too far too fast. Let's backtrack to where we started.
For a beginning writer, the danger comes when you combine limited writing skills with a story you've stoked with emotion. Too much emotion. Too often I've seen beginning writers break down in sobs while reading their work aloud while the audience squirms in embarrassment. My point is: The emotion is supposed to land out there .
Another stumbling block: Newbie writers need to constantly prove that they're beyond the trauma--are recording it from some enlightened new self. This impulse cuts the drama. Case in point, a good friend of mine worked for years to write out her childhood abuse. She unpacked and unpacked, and still found herself blithely tossing off phrases such as "Around the summer of my seventeenth rape ..."
Badly told tragedy comes off as comedy. Pure truth doesn't carry enough authority. It's how you deliver the truth that matters.
Excerpted from Palahniuk's Scribd Originals essay , "People, Places, Things: My Human Landmarks."
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Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different
256 pages, Hardcover
First published January 7, 2020
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A complete guide from creative writing to earning money with self-publishing, writing craft essays by chuck palahniuk.
Chuck Palahniuk provides us with some brief and super-effective writing advice. This is my take on the ones that work best & aren’t explained already in other blog posts – in order of my personal preference:
If you do this correctly in the beginning, you can take your readers anywhere – they will trust you. You can do this in 2 ways:
- Heart : use honesty and frankness. The narrator risks being perceived as the fool rather than the hero – but you also risk to make the reader emotionally involved in your story. Exposing something embarrassing, you prove the readers the story won’t be about proving your glory or looking good, but about failures and weaknesses, and so they will be more inclined to admit and accept their own.
- Head : demonstrating knowledge. You researched the subject topic, and the narrator is the best qualified person to talk about it
Nuts and bolts: using your objects
The ring in Breakfast at Tiffany’s gains more and more emotional value each time it appears. It holds the whole story’s message. A well-used object can function as:
- Memory cue (blue necklace in Titanic ): it echoes past plot points, including their emotional weight
- Buried gun (sled in Citizen Kate )
- Gesture prop (ring thrown away in Harold and Maude ): characters physically express themselves instead of using (only) language
- Through-line image (green ashtray in Creep Show ): reoccurring, add another layer of continuity
The key is to re-use them to give them power, and to morph them.
Using on-the-body physical sensation
If you engage the reader on the mental, emotional and physical level, then you’ve created another reality, something that can replace their commute or doctor waiting room. This doesn’t happen with generic words that describe pain/pleasure, but only if the story occur in the reader’s mind, heart and gut. You must create a tangible situation, detail by detail – see for example Palahniuk’s short story Guts . “Sharp pain”, “ecstatic pleasure” are cliches that don’t evoke anything. Un-pack the event, moment by moment, and make it happen in the reader’s mind; make the pain occur in the reader’s mind. The next time you are sick, list the physical details: you want to give your readers a headache. Or you can use medical jargon, looking for medial causes to things like headaches, or for cures, as they list what they tackle.
Submerging the I
Stories written in first person create more distance with the reader (we see “I” and we recoil, another hero story, another person bragging), but they have more authority. They also allow you to play with the narrator’s honesty and use an unreliable narrator (see Great Gatsby – is Gatsby as cool as it sounds, or is Nick Caraway desperate?). Great Gatsby also works because we have an average person talking about his hero – actually, an apostle talking about his messiah, thus telling a hero story without being boring.
On the other hand, the third person sometimes sounds like a “hidden God” telling a story. So, to tell a first person story without the “I” problem, submerge the I and use it as late as possible, possibly after the authority is established and the reader is hooked. Use “mine”, “me”, “my” instead of “I” in the beginning if you must – keep the camera away as long as possible.
Nuts and bolts: hiding a gun
A gun is something you talk about (a detail, an error, a flaw) that comes back to destroy a character. It can even communicate something that will happen after the end of the book – see the quotes in Dune, that makes you realize Paul’s wife will focus on writing and he’ll spend his life with his loved one.
Tell a Lie, Bury a Gun
Consider the boiler in Shining : in the beginning they say it’ll need maintenance or it will explode, and when the plot needs a climax, the boiler explodes. This is the buried gun explained previously. The gun can also be a lie (the relationship with Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate ; Maude says in the beginning that she wants to die; absent fathers making impossible promises to their kids but then transformation happens and everyone is happy). Lies can be insincere promises, crimes, secrets and so on.
A buried lie gives the story the chance of a climax. The lie gives the narrator power over others, and in return the truth places the narrator at the mercy of others: the narrator is bought back to honesty. Check lies that people work hard to conceal: people who act smart are usually trying to hide the fact that they feel stupid. Beautiful people hide how ugly they feel. Maintain their lies until it’s impossible – then the fun will really start.
We like dialogues when one person demonstrates power, and the other outwits him/her. Good plots play with power – a character gains it, loses it, regains it. When power shifts the story gains power, tension and momentum. If the communication is complete, there is no frustration/unfulfilled expectation, so we want incomplete dialogue (and not the witty dialogue of sit-coms where the answer is perfect and complete). For example, unanswered questions build tension – especially if these are the questions the audience is asking. Leaving the question hanging unanswered creates frustrated tension. If you complete the exchange question-answer you leave the energy flat:
- Weak: Did you walk the dog? – Yeah, an hour ago
- Respond the original question but adding tension: Did you walk the dog? – It’s your dog
- Ignore the question and show the inner world of the character: Did you walk the dog? – Stop attacking me!
Nuts and bolts: “thought” verbs
Don’t use verbs of thought or intention: think, know, understand, realize, believe, want, remember, wonder, imagine, desire, love, hate. Don’t say “he wondered if she loved him”: show her preparing coffee for herself, and not for him. You can only use sensory details and physical actions that will lead the reader to know/think rather than you spoon-feeding them. Build the case like a lawyer. And don’t leave characters alone to think – instead, make then wonder about what worries them. Be also careful about “be” and “have”.
Beware the “thesis statement”
Don’t declare at the beginning of the paragraph what the paragraph will be about. “It was a difficult place to find work”, “He woke up hating his life” – these statements will take away the intrigue of your work; you are a stripper, you don’t push your ordinary genitals in the audience’s face. You want readers to make their own mind about what you are going to say. Don’t say someone feels sick – show every detail of his last meal so the audience feels sick.
Reading out loud and share with others
If you read your work to 6-8 people, you’ll immediately understand which bits work and which don’t – where the story loses energy, the lack of laughter or moans; where you need to break the tension with a good laugh just before creating an even worse crisis. A reader’s brain reacts to verbs in stories the same way it would react if the reader’s body were actually involved in the action. Make something happen in each scene. Understand where you should give a bit extra time to the readers to come up with a conclusion – the goal is always to make your readers understand something the paragraph before the narrator says it.
The monkey mind is that part of our brain which tries to make sense of everything that happens. By using this tool you will become a better storyteller. Write stories to make sense of what happens around us. This way you can use what happens to you rather than being used. The stories we cannot tell are the secrets that kill us. Maybe the only way to escape the monkey mind is to accept it: you are doomed to storytelling. Particularly on emotions around problems we cannot solve/tolerate. You can force that voice to do something productive. Reading out loud helps to turn the personal issue into a product made for an audience. Embrace your need to tell stories; speaking will remove the story from you and set you free, it will allow you to dig up your personal shit and make into art. You will turn your personal issue into a story that doesn’t exclude others, a story that lets other people explore and exhaust their own issues. What trigger your emotions? Why the trigger is so important?
Nuts and bolts: punctuation with gesture and attribution
Study what people do when they talk: no one stays still. Use gestures and interruptions to add tension to a dialogue.
Learning from cliches… then leaving them behind
If you heard something said in a certain way (“wringing my heads”), your job is to describe it in another way based on the history/family/education of your character. We are seeing the world from his/her unique point of view. This being said, it’s ok to copy other storytellers. One of the best self-teaching methods is to mimic the style of writers you enjoy. Then, create variations, combine them with other techniques you’ve learned by copying other writers.
The linear story is dead. Here are some alternatives:
- The Big O: start at the end of the crisis ( Great Gatsby , Nick is old). Advantages: you start with a compelling scene and you know who the narrator is. The narrator shapes the story, so they’ll know what to expect
- The Quilt: unite different stories with the same context
- The Thumbnail: the narrator already knows how the story will end – how can he/she tell the story from the original innocent, unenlightened perspective? With the thumbnail you can give a preview of what will happen, and the promise of exciting events ( American Beauty : the protagonist is going to die, big stuff is going to happen, our time won’t be wasted). This shape also creates tension, and you’ll be using subtle storytelling to make the readers forget the thumbnail: you will demonstrate the initial statement. It gives authority and credibility: it acknowledges it’s a story. If we didn’t know how Titanic ended, the story might feel terrible. Write the first chapter last, but don’t provide too many details the reader cannot understand or it will be confusing. Present it inside a limited physical scene instead. Tease, but give your readers enough landmarks to hold onto, balance the unreal details of an the future with real details of the tangible present.
- The Cycle: an innocent person seems to have found a way to escape misery, but it turns out it’s a trap to destroy victims and self sustain. The beginning seduces the protagonist – and the reader. This structure works well because it validates a fear we all have: the world is conspiring to kill us, everyone is pretending to love us to use us. It demonstrates that life is unfair.
- The Rebel, the Follower and the Witness: well-known shapes like this help us accepting the weird. The writer might find helpful to identify the myth he/she is talking about and study the original to find the missing elements (e.g. Star Wars is a quest story: the hero is called, saves the princess and kills the dragon). In this shape you have 3 main characters, and only one survives ( One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Great Gatsby, Fight Club ). A rebel doesn’t fit into the world and shocks people with his behaviour. The follower tries to please the system the rebel is fighting, and destroys himself. The rebel is destroyed – the crisis that destroys the follower gives the social order a chance to destroy the rebel. The witness lives on a compromise, leaving the old system, enlightened.
Textures of information
What we remember about characters (much more than their names) are their actions, their language and their appearance. Textures are tools borrowed from real life to make a story more powerful, and can be rules (see Fight Club ), definitions, ceremonies, T-shirt quotes, contracts… You can even use them to undermine the credibility of the real object (e.g. airport public announcements are actually coded messages).
Only a limited number of physical details create the reality we are aware of. If you pick the right detail, you can define the whole scene. Metaphors are usually more powerful than similes, but if you decide to use similes: don’t use the verb “is” but use a verb more specific to the quality (it is green > it looks green); limit them; describe the subject before using the simile; don’t use “like” (“X could have been Y” is better).
Thirteen writing tips
- When you don’t want to write, use a timer to write at least for 30 mins / 1 hour
- Your audience is smarter than you think. Don’t be afraid to surprise them. They’ve already read many stories more clever than yours.
- Before writing a scene, analyze why you are writing it. Is it useful for something in the future, or does it explain something in the past?
- Surprise yourself. Allow the story to go to places that amaze you, and you will surprise the reader. If you can see well-planned surprises, chances are, so will your reader
- If you are stuck, re-read what you wrote, and you are likely to find a buried gun you can use
- Use your writing as an excuse to throw writing parties – so you won’t regret your passion
- Let yourself be with not knowing. The longer you can allow the story to take shape, the better. You only need to know about the next scene / few scenes – it will be boring if you know the end already.
- If you feel in need of more freedom, change the characters’ names. They are not real, they are in your power, and this will confirm it to you and you’ll be able to torture them
- Use all three types of speech: descriptive (the sun rose high), instructive (walk, don’t run), expressive (ouch!)
- Write the book you want to read
- Take the picture for the back cover now that you are young, and ask for copyrights
- Write about the issues that really upset you – they are the only ones worth talking about
- Everything the world will see about you will be your work
The secret of the story must be revealed gradually, similar to how we learn things in real life. A play between denial and gratification. The two biggest problems of writers are generally plot and pace – often because pace is too slow.
Put the television on mute and list all gestures actors do. 75% of the information comes from posture and gestures, 18% tone of voice, 7% words. Verbs activate our brain, and visual gestures rich the audience better than words. We are captivated by movements (dance, fire, washer machine). Gestures, and reasons behind those gestures, can tell a lot about people (e.g. former anorexic journalist who still checks her arm to measure body fat). How do gestures help to tell the story? How do they help pace the dialogue and build up tension?
Grace Kelly and an actor who romanced her before her wedding have bribed people to hide a prop from a movie they shot together – a small hatchet – in each other’s bed in hotels, resorts, palaces. The object has been a reminder of their affair, then a gesture of friendship, then a nostalgic souvenir of their youth and careers. Objects should have this power in stories. Reoccur and change meaning. Stand for goals and dreams, or absent characters, or a “gun” that will force the plot crisis (the boiler in Shining ) or represent power (the ring in Lord of the Rings ). The best ones morph to serve different plot points.
Utility phrases: when all words fail
There are sentences e say when we don’t know what to say: they should tell something about the character. If they say “I don’t know”, they weaken what they just said; “true fact” bolsters their authority.
Names versus pronouns
Don’t use third-person pronouns. Use more specific ways to refer to characters – Palahniuk always gives characters at least 3 names. Not only proper names, but also stronger labels: usually based on actions (first impression), appearance and then relationship to us (the blonde man who died in that movie, the dog that licked my hand). The proper name is the last detail we remember.
PS: Palahniuk aims to create a maximum amount of tension using a minimum of elements: limited settings, characters, time – to focus on physical actions and avoid wasting time on new characters and descriptions. PPS: in reality television/your story you can recognize the ancient myth the story reinvents, and the archetypal characters.
Nuts and bolts: plot points
You need to know the purpose of a scene before writing it. Does it prepare something, gives a clue, solve something, slow down the pace to give more power to the following scene? Answer questions or ask new ones? This is a plot point, and if a scene is weak, the writer probably hoped the plot point would reveal itself. Is it a ‘gripper’ scene to seize the reader’s attention, or a ‘reversal’ of power? Note that often the best stories rather than stun the readers, excite them creating a storm of personal anecdotes, discovering new connections between themselves and the larger world, they recognize something in the world and give people permission to explore it, with a shared language and supporting metaphors (we cannot acknowledge things we have no words for). A writer’s job is to express unresolved themes that other people can’t (shared hate for vegans for some reason?). A story that evokes other stories is a good story.
A story from scratch
A few editing suggestions:
- Palahniuk prefers to start a story with a physical action. Avoid dialogue if you can use gestures
- Describe a character by how he/she describes the world. Not “like the roof of a house” but “like the roof of Mr Lloyd’s house”. For example, if you talk about money – that’s an abstract concept. The character will instead think in terms of things he/she can buy
- Usually the first draft focuses on plotting, scene, characters: the string of plot events from beginning to end. Subsequent drafts focus on the accumulation of emotion that leads to a character’s transformation (see the Transformational Arc)
- Describe actions (he hid the gold) not the motivations (to come back later and pick it up)
- Remember the on-the-body physical sensations – these will be a reminder of the reasons why the characters is feeling those things, a summary of what happened and of the time passing
- Decide what words the narrator doesn’t know, and don’t use them
- If a character is experiencing something (e.g. physical), describe the effect of it, and using comparable things which will describe the narrator’s personal history: baseball, television etc. (e.g. hit on the head by a ball, don’t say it’s a ball, describe it’s like a bunt in softball)
- You can recycle previous gestures – once we know what a gesture means, we no longer need to define it: the character will perform the gesture, and the audience will remember its previous meaning. And even previous descriptions, to echo previous situations
- To create tension, during conflicts you can suggest that the antagonist will win: this will generate sympathy in the reader
- To describe a long journey you can do a list of streets
- At the end the social contract is fulfilled, the old values (fatal flaw) are left behind, salvation arrived when the protagonist evolves – e.g. trusted something he couldn’t explain (Luke Skywalker). The characters can ask questions in the end that no one needs to answer – the readers know the answers.