Chuck Palahniuk on Thought Verbs
I stumbled across an essay by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, about using what he calls thought verbs: thinks, knows, understands, realizes, believes, wants, remembers, wonders, desires, loves, hates, and so on and so forth.
He asks writers to give up these words for six months in order to improve their writing. These verbs, the essay suggests, are crutch words that allow writers to avoid truly “unpacking” their characters and situations. They’re shortcuts and weak verbs.
Instead, Palahniuk advises going deeper and unpacking. Rather than the shorthand “he knew her,” Palahniuk invites us to give more concrete, sensory details, explaining how someone knows something or someone.
But how did you know?
Show, Don’t Tell
In short, Palahniuk’s thesis is that thought verbs are telling and not showing.
It’s a bit of a bullshit proposition, in all truthfulness.
Yes, there’s a point buried in there; yes, thought verbs and their ilk can drag writing down. But, much like advice that suggests we ought to excise adverbs (a whole category of word) or “said,” our writing ultimately looks stupid without these words.
Taking Away Crutches
Palahniuk wants writers to reduce their reliance on thought verbs and force your hand into unpacking things more. This ensures you’re showing the reader, rather than simply telling them. Perhaps, for some of us, going through the painful excision of these words for a period of six months is indeed the remedy the doctor ordered for over-reliance on them. They can be crutches, certainly; they can be shortcuts for lazy writing.
But the point of the matter is that you don’t need to excise them entirely, as Palahniuk’s essay might initially suggest. Note that the essay never suggests you can’t go back to using these words after your six-month prohibition. It does not suggest, actually, that we never need these words in our writing. We do, very much so.
A Pinch of Thought
It’s a matter of using thought verbs judiciously, much like using an adverb or the occasional said. Over-reliance on them looks sloppy and creates boring writing. But when used judiciously, they can add emphasis to the writing. If you never use the word “love,” then when your character realizes he or she is in love and says “He loved her,” the statement has more impact.
Palahniuk argues that thoughts verbs steal the thunder of the other details you present to the reader.
What Palahniuk fails to consider is the effect of psychologizing these words engage in. Saying that a character “knows” something can, in fact, emphasize how neurotic that character is being. It can function as a juxtaposition against the reality and as an entry point to that character’s psychology. How often do we suspect something, believe something, or think we know something when we really don’t? We can lay out all the facts, and it appears to us that we know what’s going on—but we don’t. You might argue deep perspective doesn’t need this, but here’s the example Palahniuk gives us:
“Adam knew Gwen liked him.”
Palahniuk assumes that yes, Gwen does indeed like Adam. So instead of telling the reader “Adam knew,” he suggests we explore how Adam knows, her actions: Gwen was always there, leaning on his locker after class, and so on and so forth.
But perhaps Adam’s “knowing” is mere arrogance. Maybe Adam’s a pompous ass who thinks he knows that Gwen likes him, but she really doesn’t. Using “know,” then, isn’t so much telling the reader but demonstrating Adam’s arrogance and self-confidence.
Read it again:
Adam knew Gwen liked him. After all, she hung around his locker every day, that same fawning look in her big, brown eyes, the slight smile lifted to her lips. She’d duck her head when she saw Adam and Mike coming down the hall, tuck a lock of her glossy hair behind her ear. Then she would glance up, so shyly, never looking him in the eye—poor shy thing, she couldn’t do it. So she’d look at Mike instead, then hastily drop her gaze back to her shoes and avoid eye contact for the rest of the time she was there.
Hmmm, does Gwen really like Adam or is this Adam projecting onto Gwen? Is this fact or is it what Adam wants to believe? We’ve prefaced the scene with a “telling” sentence, which colors Adam’s interpretation and potentially the reader’s—but some of the details here make it seem as though we may not be able to trust what Adam tells us. In that sense, we’re being told something, but we’re also being shown something else: a deep look into Adam’s psyche where he simply assumes that Gwen’s behavior means she likes him. That says a lot about Adam, without directly telling the reader “Adam’s a jackass who assumes every girl is into him.”
So is using “knew” a weakness here? Not really. It certainly could be, if we wrote:
“Adam knew Gwen liked him because she hung out as his locker every day. He liked Gwen too, because she was pretty.”
Bleh, boring! Yes, there’s no complexity there. It’s simple, yes, it’s clean writing. But it doesn’t offer us much beyond what’s being told. We’re told Gwen is pretty, we’re told Adam likes her, and we’re told that Adam knows she likes him. There’s no psychology behind either character here. So yes, thought verbs can be weak.
But they can also be used to great effect. The challenge is learning when and where they make your writing stronger. Perhaps your writing will be stronger without them. But you will need them sometimes. Just be sure you’re not using them as a crutch.