Essays > Published on September 17th, 2011

Reading Out Loud – Part One

In my dream world, you wouldn’t be reading this on the internet.  We would be sitting around a table, only seven or eight of us, and we’d each read our week’s work out loud.

Reading out loud, you hear every bad decision you’ve made in your work.  You hear where the story digresses and loses energy.  Where you’ve gotten too vague.  Or where you’ve hurried or used a trite, cliched phrase.  You hear the lack of laughter or loud inhales or moans from your fellow writers – all those, the truest form of workshop feedback.  Even the sighs or quick, loud sniffs of someone trying to not cry. 

Or, reading out loud, you do hear all that involuntary, honest feedback. 

While you’d read -- in my dream world -- you’d hold a pen in one hand and jot marks on the lines and words that felt wrong.  That didn’t “work” to get the effect you wanted.  By the end of your reading, you’d know almost exactly what the rest of the workshop would be ready to praise or question about the piece.

So much about writing is about timing, and the only way I know to get that right is to read your work out loud for people.

Just so you remember, here it is again – Timing.  Pace.  Delivering your information in a script that people can follow – linear or nonlinear.  Performing your work – or listening to good storytellers at parties or bars or dinners -- you learn how to build tension and break it with humor.  You learn how to engage people and relax them as you build your authority: head or heart authority, with facts or personal revelations.

This year, scientists published two studies that prove a reader’s brain reacts to verbs in stories – hitting or kissing or chewing -- that same way the brain would react if the reader’s body were actually hitting, kissing or chewing.   The motor cortex of the brain lights up with electrical activity just as if the reader were living the story, performing those actions.  That alone should be enough reason for you to use verbs, to create action and make something happen in every scene or story.

Reading your work out loud, you can experiment with the flow of verbs until you produce a seamless chain of actions that will light-up your listener’s motor cortex.  You can find the perfect balance of Big Voice observations to Little Voice physical business – the hitting and kissing and chewing stuff.

In college, I worked as an intern for the local National Public Radio affiliate (KLCC) in Eugene, Oregon, and that newsroom was never silent.  Each writer working on their news copy had to read the words out loud to make sure the newscaster could read them smoothly on air.  Each intern would be hunched over their sheets of paper, their lips moving, their voice almost a whisper as they read, “Today, the state Senate tabled the progress on a bill that would legalize marijuana in the treatment of cancer…”

And just like in a good workshop, each intern would mark the places where the copy read rough.  Where the sentences that were too long.  Or, the quotes that needed attribution.  All the parts that didn’t work.  And after that, it was re-write time.

Even now, I read every short story out loud.  Doing book tour has become a way to “beta test” stories, to experiment with getting a bigger, better effect each time I read a story.  By the end of a tour, after a couple dozen cities, I’ve marked up the original, printed copy of each story until it’s almost illegible.

But those are the changes I make on my next re-write.

I mark the places where people laugh.  I mark where the story needs to stop for a moment longer, a pause in the form of a bland chorus or a fragment of flashback reference (in “Guts” it’s moments like the line:  “What even the French won’t talk about…”), these moments where the listeners needed time to comprehend a plot point that isn’t stated by the narrator.  Always, always, always, the goal is to bring the listeners to any realization a paragraph before the narrator states it. 

And I mark the places where the audience needs the release of a laugh, to break the tension, before the story can build to an even more-terrible crisis.

In our time, stand-up comedians are the last oral storytellers.  They learn their craft by experimenting and practicing in front of people.  They learn when to pause and let a laugh build.  Or let dread build.  And they learn how to stoke a laugh and keep it going - and how to let that big moment exhaust itself before the story can begin, again.  In good oral storytelling, the listener’s participation – gasps or laughs or moans or bursts of applause  – those become the device that transitions to the next aspect of the story.

The only other form of storytelling that comes close is “slam poetry.”  This summer, I read a half dozen collections of “slam-winning” poems, and most of those work better than most of current prose fiction.  The brevity of each poem, plus the pacing and the controlled delivery – all those aspects, crafted to be told out loud – those make slam poems a fantastic form of storytelling.

All this fine-tuning, it’s tough unless you have a group of listeners.  A test audience.  So in my dream world, you wouldn’t be reading this on the internet.  We would be sitting around a table, only seven or eight of us, and we’d each read our weeks work out loud.

On a therapeutic level, reading even a story-fied version of your current unresolved personal crisis, it helps you exhaust the related emotions that keep you frozen – stuck -- too frightened to take action and find resolution.   More on this aspect, in the December essay – Part Two, of this one.

On a clarity level, you find out quickly how important attribution is in dialogue.  Oh yeah, all those unattributed quotes cascading down a page of text, they look smart and tight, but out-loud they’ll confuse and piss off your listeners.  This is why attribution is one of my personal Have-To’s.  You have to use attribution, for every line of dialogue.  And I’ll build my case for that in an upcoming essay.

On a poetic level, reading out loud, you get to hear the joy of hard “dentil” sounds – those popping sounds you make with your tongue against your teeth, those popping P’s and K’s and D’s and T’s.  And you learn to avoid using too many soft S’s or F or V sounds in your work.  Reading out loud, it’s the parts of a story where you notice your spit spraying out past the microphone, it’s those parts that keep the listener really hooked.

This last aspect – the popping, cracking, exploding sound of letters and words – takes us into the homework assignment.

As homework, find a copy of The Ice At the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard.  This is a collection of the most poetic but dynamic, action-filled short stories I’ve ever read.

In stories like “Strays” and “Her Favorite Story,” Richard plays with sounds the way a musician plays a melody on a piano, repeating the same vowels and consonants to create a music of words – that also tell a compelling story.

His work is less stories you’d tell, but more… ballads you’d sing.

In front of me, this copy of his book is probably the thirtieth one I’ve owned.  The earlier ones, I’ve given away.  For most of a year – when I’d first started writing – I carried a paperback copy with me, every time I left the house.  That way, every place I might get stuck: on the bus, at work, at the laundry, in line at the grocery – I’d always have this thin book of incredible language to study.

Beyond just the music of his hard consonants and repeating vowels, Richard invents a “burnt tongue” language that only his characters speak.  Each person talks a personal slang all their own.  Just like most of us talk – okay, all of us.  Every story in the book is a lesson in how to write things “wrong.”  Richard breaks every rule of grammar, but these “errors” make his characters more real than any amount of passive, physical description or tedious “told” backstory ever could.

So for homework, read the book.  Read at least “Strays” out loud.  And begin reading your own work out loud.  AND do everything possible to join other people, around a table, and practice your work in front of listeners.

Book tour is done for 2004.  More than 2000 signed and inscribed copies of Fight Club are in Iraq – being distributed by Second Lieutenant Joshua Samuels.  Thank YOU, Josh.  And I’m spending the month of November haunting the book club set up on the Barnes and Noble website for my novel, Diary.  If you have any really urgent question, you can always look for me there, and my goal is to respond to as many people as possible, every day.

November is also the “mailing window.”  Again, I’ll spend this winter answering all letters with a November postmark.  All of them – except the downright creepy ones. 

If you want to write me, please use the same standards as last year:

Please, type or print your letters by computer.   This makes your words more readable for me – and include your address on the letter, in case your envelope gets lost. 

And, please, no packages.  The agency that forwards the letters to me will not forward packages.  Anything larger than a letter…  and you’ll get it back.

Please mail letters to me through the literary agency of Donadio and Olson, Inc.

Because writing a stranger can be awkward, I encourage you to use this letter as a chance to state your goals for 2005.  Get them clear in your mind, write them down, and begin sharing them with people.  Share your goals with me in your letter.

For example, in 2005, my goal is to research a new novel – based on American car culture. 

Also, the vast, rambling Columbia Memorial Mausoleum has agreed to let me write and stage a play in their confusing maze of crypts and chapels.  I’m already working with actors and staging people to make this happen:  A late-night play that moves a small audience through a concrete and stone labyrinth of 18,000 crypts, the largest indoor mausoleum on the West Coast, with chapels large enough to provide eight different settings.  I can’t wait. 

In 2005, I’ll also be producing an “art” book with the Life magazine photographer Steve Shapiro, writing a story that will unite a sweet, sexy series of Steve’s best pictures. 

Next year, I’ll also continue to write these essays.  These are my goals.  And in my experience, this is how to make them happen.  Share them with people, and allow people to support you and help make your goals into reality.

So, when you write, let me know what your goals are for 2005.  What actual shit will you accomplish?  The bigger, the better. 

Let’s hear what you’re up to.

And again, thank you for reading my work.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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