Kill Your Thought Verbs, With Chuck Palahnuik

I’ve just discovered this “how to be a better writer” essay from Chuck Palahnuik: Nuts and Bolts, “Thought” Verbs. It’s a good essay: go read it.

He says, as a writing exercise, that you ought to go out and immediately throttle all our “thought” verbs: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires…etc etc.

He says you should replace these “telling” verbs with “showing” explanations.

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

That is definitely a way to add some detail to your book, right?

Further, he says to not let your character be alone.

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.  Writing, you may be alone.  Reading, your audience may be alone.  But your character should spend very, very little time alone.  Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

Wilson, the ball from True enough. There’s not always much action that comes directly from “aloneness.” We don’t have many stories of just one person in the wilderness, and if they are, you’ve gotta get them a “Wilson” to talk to.

That’s mostly for the author’s benefit: we need someone to bounce all our character’s thoughts off of.

I recently edited a really fun YA witch novel-in-progress, and that was one of the things I told the author: “OMG, your character is always sleeping! Get her out of the house and doing something! Sitting in her room pouting, while very “teenagery,” is not action!”

So while I think there’s a lot to like in this essay, and it’s certainly a useful tool and good advice, I also want to point out that it’s not the end-all-be-all. If all authors everywhere followed this advice completely, a) books would get a lot wordier, b) we’d have a lot more authors who sound like Chuck Palahnuik, with his trademark rambling craziness, and c) we’d miss out on those stories where someone is alone: like the original “Castaway,” “Robinson Crusoe” –one of my favorites. Or when someone just feels really alone, like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Catcher in the Rye.”

So don’t go around striking out all your “thought” verbs: they are useful, too. In moderation. A skillful author will be able to use them well, even if it is more than Mr. Palahnuik would like.

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