One Word Leads To The Next: Unconventional Conjunctive Devices

Chuck Palahniuk. Photograph by Allan Amato

The other day a friend was doing a crossword puzzle and asked me, “What song begins ‘It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday…’.”  Without missing a beat I added, “…the regular crowd shuffles in.  There’s an old man sitting next to me, making love to his tonic and gin.”

Beyond demonstrating that I knew the song – Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” – I spoke the lyrics to their end, compulsively, because they were so linked together in my mind.  Each word evoked another, and it was impossible for me to stop until I’d recited every verse.  Be warned, never ask me to recite Don McLean’s “American Pie” or Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” because I will.  Word for word.     

Obsessive-compulsive behavior or not, that’s how I think a well-written story should work:  Each word should trigger the next, there should be a rhythm that supports memory retrieval, and regular repeating phrases to act as the linking devices.  In other words:  Hooks.  Even rhymes, the very things copyeditors labor to eradicate, they can give a story a memorable song-like quality.  For example, in writing the story “Cannibal,” I loved the lines “…tastes like tears.  Because it’s gallons, like Tammy Faye Bakker’s cried a hundred years inside his mouth…”  Editors loathe rhymes.  Using them seems to violate some firewall dividing prose and poetry.  However, my goal is to use more of them.

...fiction writers should abandon technically correct writing and experiment in the same way painters were forced to experiment in order to keep their medium relevant.

What I’m getting at, here… my point is… fiction is facing the same crisis that figurative painting faced when photography arrived.   So many people know the skills for telling a clear, technically perfect story, essentially taking a photo.  Our writing software corrects our grammar and spelling.  By now we might even have programs that can construct bestselling books.  My point is that fiction writers should abandon technically correct writing and experiment in the same way painters were forced to experiment in order to keep their medium relevant.

For me, every story is an experiment in how to combine bits of information.  I might use choruses, like the rules in “Fight Club” or the Sorry mom.  Sorry God.  from “Invisible Monsters.”  But when writing a short story, more and more, I look for unlikely phrases I can use in place of the standard conjunctions:  and, but, or. 

Most recently in the story “Fact of Life” I used the three two-word devices:  even if, even then, even when.  Almost the entire story is held together by these words, and it gives the main flashback scene – the fire in the car -- a run-on, panicky, frenetic energy.  Likewise, in “Cannibal” I used the word “because” relentlessly, the way a child might repeat the question “Why?” to give the story a breathless forward momentum.  This allows me to keep piling gruesome detail atop detail, forcing the reader or listener to pay full attention.

By inventing a conjunctive device to replace “and, but, or” you create something like a heartbeat, or the rhythm of a drum in a song.  The frequency with which you use the device will speed up or slow down the reader’s experience.  The most-basic example is the word Dad in my story “Dad All Over,” now published in Playboy.  My goal was to use that one word – Dad – like the drum machine from a 1980’s song.  The drum beat is so repetitive that it disappears, it even begins to act as a pause or void in the narrative.  But as soon as you need to create energy and reach a crescendo, you only have to increase the repetition of the drumbeats.

In the story “Romance” the word And ties everything together in the simplest possible way, mimicking the way someone in denial will rush to fill any silence, always in fear of realizing the truth.

In the story “Loser” the conjunctive words are “except, but, only” because they allow me to state something and immediately undermine it.  For example, “It’s like this little paper stamp printed with Hello Kitty you suck on and swallow, except it’s really blotter acid.”  That allows each sentence to zigzag.  It’s this, except it’s that.  It’s this, only it’s that.  It’s this, but it’s that.”  Doing this allows every sentence to contradict itself, suggesting the constantly shifting, unresolved nature of reality under the influence of LSD.         

When a writer identifies a unique device to use as a conjunctive phrase or a transition, she’s able to tailor the entire story to the plot and narrator.  The words support the reality, instead of being a standardized language dictated by some word processing software.  That said, bear in mind that the story itself must be strong and dynamic.  A fancy-pants transitional device won’t hide the fact that nothing is happening plot-wise.  Furthermore, a good, repetitive transition works best when it’s linking a dense flow of plot points.  Like the rules in Fight Club, the device becomes invisible as it becomes familiar, eventually becoming only a pause or respite that heralds the next detail.

Keep in mind, these unlikely conjunctive devices are very conversational.  Listen to people speaking, especially boorish, bullying loudmouths who are terrified that anyone might interrupt them.  Such people have an arsenal of devices which allow them to filibuster.  In conversation, yes, that kind of talk is infuriating.  But in a short story, those place-holding tricks can keep the plot hurtling forward at break-neck speed. 

That said, consider keeping such stories – those using such stylized language – short.  Too much, presented too long will exhaust your reader. 

I’ll shut up, now. 

*Header photo by Alan Amato


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azizbageg May 20, 2017 - 1:06am
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html color May 17, 2017 - 8:58pm

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Linden's picture
Linden from Military Brat/Expat is reading Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years January 12, 2017 - 12:49pm

Delighted to find you, Chuck Palahniuk. Will be recommending you and your articles to writing friends.Thank you for your generosity.

TheUnforgiven's picture
TheUnforgiven from Australia is reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo December 13, 2016 - 6:59am

Chuck are you a musician at heart!? I am. I write music and lyrics. Songs. Pieces. I convey emotion and feelings to the listener, and have put in more than 20 000 hours (lean educated estimate) into my art, and that's just the piano portion of it. However I'm reading an essay or two of yours and am at the point where a change is in order.

What strikes me is the undeniable similarities between the two artforms, of writing and writing (or writing and composing for the pretentious musicians out there!). This current essay is one of many of yours, where these similarities burn my retinas, in the best of ways, with how easily they translate. In other words, I'm looking at the same picture in either medium.

So when I got RSI (repetitive strain injury),from piano (not from wacking off, although that didn't help), it meant my art had to be put on the back burner for a while. This was 15 years ago, and I was in the middle of a classical piano degree. The severity of the condition (I couldn't hold an empty glass in my left hand for about a year, torture for a muso who loves to play!) meant physio, and it meant that I had to eventually quite the degree, but it forced a bit of a "lemonade then bitch!" mentality on me. You see I had just met some, completely, untrained by my standards, but highly talented musicians, who were writing their own music together. They couldn't, and to this day can't, read music! Something happened inside, when this injury occurred.

Something permanent. It was the fact that I had never written a single note myslelf. Ever! Actually it was the injury that gave me the time to realise that fact. I used to do 3-6 hours practice per day, getting out all my emotional bullshit on those keys, down to nothing. Not even one minute! However these guys met me after that realisation when I'd just quite the degree.

I had lost everything I had worked for, for so long, but gained a perspective that I'd never had. I became a writer of music with these guys that couldn't read it. But they were writing it. Rock music. Good music by anyone's estimation, mine included. I had dropped ego and subsequently believed that Ego is the Deadend on the Line to Progression. I had lost everything and was free to do anything. Free to think for the first time and it was really something. So I realised about the rules! The rules and doctrines that help us then hurt us. The rules of writing music. You see I had studied classical music, and the thoery behind it, and had thought that I understood music with this priceless information handed down by the greats, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin. But I didn't understand it. Not really. Not until I started what I came to call the unlearning. Because these guys. These non-music readers, who didn't know what I knew, knew so much more about music and it's structure than me. So I started to forget!! Forget the rules. Forget the doctrines. Forget what is "supposed" to happen next and write what "should" happen next. To serve the song and not let the song serve you. I was experiencing the unlearning. I had to Back My Way Forwards.

Since meeting these guys, I have put in over 10 000 hours into writing songs, both with and without lyrics, classical piano pieces and much more. I'm in a constant changing state of being filled and emptied, by writing music. It feels great. Chuck I've read a few of your essays and the similarities to writing any form of music just keep stacking up! In fact they're now too many to ignore. Chuck, are you a musician as well as a writer? Perhaps in spirit? Am I a writer as well as a musician. Either way, rules are great as long as you know when to bail on them!

materials's picture
materials October 17, 2016 - 3:45am

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andriverifi's picture
andriverifi September 6, 2016 - 8:58pm

As always we are given the tools not just to do OK as writers,but to thrive. Tysm Mr. Palahnuik for your generosity toward all of us! Yes, yes, yes! I totally agree. I love lyricism; it's what separates novel from 'a book,' and I wish there was more stress paid attention to building a unique author voice, not just a technically correct story. Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy was a great example of modern convention with purposeful prose

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Iqlimakantor's picture
Iqlimakantor July 16, 2016 - 1:49am
Rob Mousavi's picture
Rob Mousavi from Texas is reading The Raven King February 22, 2016 - 9:56pm

The Sorry mom. Sorry God  in "Invisible Monsters" was deadass so enticing to look at as a reader. I think these odd conjunctives also have the result of adding extra bread to a sandwich, if you catch my drift. Reading "Invisible Monsters" my eyes would sweep hurriedly down the pages that were stapled with Sorry mom. Sorry Gods and it almost felt as if I was hungrily over-devouring bread to get to the meat. Each conjunctive added up a bit of suspense, for lack of a better word, of what was to come next. Sort of like when television shows add in commercials between grand reveals or after cliff hangers and you just sit there, stunned, mouth agape, somehow listening to everything and nothing that is pooling inside the TV screen. Great advice!

Krista Cote's picture
Krista Cote from Canada is reading The Best American Noir of the Century February 10, 2016 - 2:44pm

What great advice, it's the sort of thing that I normally wouldn't pick up on as a writer, but an excellent for of rhetoric. Thanks for the reminder and the examples.

Howard Yu's picture
Howard Yu November 23, 2015 - 3:31pm

I love your advices! It helps me a lot to understand the warp and woof of narrative. I'm writin' my first novel and if its published i'll thank you for all the taught and shared :)

From Colombia, Andrés

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal September 4, 2015 - 12:44pm

From the guy who does some of the best 1st person narratives out there and whose characters can be so just 0damn memorable...

Good stuff! Thanks for sharing, Chuck.

Also, if anyone isn't familiar with these stories, several Chuck events in which he reads them are on youtube. Worth a listen.

dollface993's picture
dollface993 from Detroit is reading As many craft essays as I can find September 1, 2015 - 11:37am

As always we are given the tools not just to do OK as writers,but to thrive. Tysm Mr. Palahnuik for your generosity toward all of us!

litgurl2015's picture
litgurl2015 from Seattle is reading All the light we cannot see August 26, 2015 - 9:02am

Brilliant Essay! I’ll be re-reading it a few times over. I used a few of these techniques in a short story contest on Writer's Digest last month. I WON, and I think it's because of the rhythmic repetition in a tight 750 words. If you want to see what I did you can read it on their site, story title, A MOTHER’S CONFESSION  http://www.writersdigest.com/your-story-competition/your-story-66
Now I must re-read this essay and get back to writing. Thanks for sharing your craft. Brilliant!

Mindy Halleck www.MindyHalleck.com

Hans Cravens's picture
Hans Cravens from Rhode Island is reading The stories of Heinrich von Kleist August 24, 2015 - 1:42pm

Thank you for this good advice.

Alex Hurst's picture
Alex Hurst August 18, 2015 - 6:26am

Yes, yes, yes! I totally agree. I love lyricism; it's what separates novel from 'a book,' and I wish there was more stress paid attention to building a unique author voice, not just a technically correct story. Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy was a great example of modern convention with purposeful prose.

Great article!