How Not to Use Thought Verbs by Chuck Palahniuk

So this post was making the rounds on my writing list and I must say, it was pretty awesome.

It’s an oldie, but a goodie. I mean, Chuck Palahniuk is someone I’ve heard of, naturally, but I haven’t read his work yet. Based on this advice though, it must be pretty good. He basically verbalised something I’ve been trying to do on my own since I started copying better writers than me, like Stephen King and Elizabeth Bear.

I firmly believe that the reader should be able to get the emotion of the scene based on what I’ve shown them as much as possible. I just can’t imagine telling emotions very well. I’d much rather infer it. Of course, this means you really have to choose your words and the situation well enough to get that across. The technique doesn’t work if you have to add words on to say what you should have shown.

When I was working on Lex Talionis, thanks to my editor, I realised that sometimes the emotion hadn’t made it to the reader. Ack! That was hard, trying to find a way to say things without just blurting it out. Not sure I didn’t still end up doing that in some places.

But there are times when you do actually just have to come out and be direct, strange as it seems. Not all scenes and emotions are worth unpacking all the time. Some can be just a footnote because you don’t want it to be the focus of the scene. In other cases, the characters may not be important enough to do all that unpacking for in the first place. Sometimes a scene needs to be brief and cut to the point, and/or you’ve already established emotion or setting in a previous scene so you just go. And there’s a certain direct style that enjoys starting off by telling you a frame of mind or a piece of information and building from there–see the beginnings of the chapters in any book written by Raymond E. Fiest. There are times, I think, when all these methods are good to use. It just depends on the story you’re trying to tell.

Sometimes, just allowing yourself to think about how to unpack what you’re trying to say leads to a beautiful scene that not only does that, it moves the story forward on all levels. And really, that’s what you’re always trying to do. Move the story forward.

Mostly though, taking Chuck’s advice can’t lead you wrong. And asking you to try it for a period of time, and then just write, is a clever way to guard against over-using good advice to death. I’ve seen a lot of that. Just ask a new writer about adverbs and they’ll probably get apoplexy, but the truth is, adverbs have their place. You just have to know what you’re doing.

So yeah, practice leaving the thought verbs behind. That will force you to think about what you’re doing when you do it, and also keep you from thoughtlessly using weak verbs instead of strong showing techniques. And that is a priceless lesson that will make your writing much stronger.

I mean, you still won’t be Chuck, but hey, you can’t have everything, right?

One thought on “How Not to Use Thought Verbs by Chuck Palahniuk

  1. Yeah, I keep encountering this bit of “advice”.

    Sorry, but there is no good reason to summarily banish “thought” verbs from a literary work. A class of “filter” verbs, these supposedly distance the reader from a character’s POV, a faddish literary notion that has gained many adherents among agents and editors. However…

    From lexical analysis described in a paper by researchers at Stony Brook University (“Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels”), verbs that describe thought-processing–recognize, remember, consider, ponder, perceive, believe, wonder, recall, etc.–are in fact generally found in more-successful novels.

    Incidentally, they also confirmed that adverbs in any form, whether general or as adverbial phrases, are indeed frequent (i.e. overused) in less-successful novels.

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