WHEN LEARNING THE CRAFT OF WRITING — which, as far as I am concerned, is a never-ending state of being — we often hear the refrain that we should “show, not tell.” “Showing” means writing in scene, using physical actions, sense-based details, and dialogue to create the story, rather than explaining the actions, thoughts, and feelings of our characters. To be successful, both fiction and creative nonfiction, such as memoir, must draw readers into the story through their imaginations. This only occurs through the use of concrete details, not abstract words.
Along these lines, I recently ran across a 2013 article written by Chuck Palahniuk, in which he challenges us to transform the way we approach writing scene.
Palahniuk suggests that we discipline ourselves to avoid the use of “thought” verbs — for six months. The verbs to avoid include the following: thinks, knows, understands, realizes, believes, wants, remembers, imagines, desires, loves, and hates.
For example, instead of writing, “I thought James was conceited,” describe James acting in a conceited manner. Something like: “Whenever James came to my house, he had a habit of standing in front of my hall mirror, preening and puffing out his chest like a rooster.”
Instead of “I knew my father liked apple pie . . . ,” show your father’s reaction to the pie: “My father’s face always lit up at the sight of apple pie.”
When I performed a search for the word “thought” in the memoir I’m writing, I found a couple of instances in which all I have to do is remove the words “I thought,” because they are unnecessary: “It was, I thought, eerily like the kiss of Judas . . .” can be written simply as, “It was eerily like the kiss of Judas,” and “But hell, I thought, I wasn’t about to give up now . . .” can be “But hell, I wasn’t about to give up now.” Because I am writing in the first person point of view, readers already understand these are my thoughts. I don’t need to tell them so.
In another instance, I found the phrase, “I thought this hilarious, as Eric did not know the first thing about wine.” I could rewrite this as, “When I heard Eric had gotten the job of sommelier at a ritzy resort restaurant on the coast, I burst into laughter. He didn’t know the first thing about wine.”
“Thinking” and “knowing” are abstract. They do not exist in the real world. In the real world, there is only acting and reacting; there is only feeling and experiencing. Everything we experience in real life is in the body. So, when writing scene, you want only specific and concrete detail in the form of action, dialogue, and sensory details: smell, taste, sight, sound, and feeling. And yes, we have inner dialogue (thoughts), but write that inner dialogue directly. If you’re writing in a character’s point of view, you won’t need to tell your readers these are thoughts. They can figure it out by themselves.
Right now, take out a piece of writing you’re working on and perform a search for each of the words listed above. In every instance, can you eliminate the word or find a better way to describe what is happening?
That’s the challenge. And boy, oh boy, is it ever a challenge! For six months from today — no more abstract shortcuts using thought verbs.
Are you willing to take this challenge with me? (You’ll want to read all of Palahniuk’s article, as I’ve just brushed the surface of it.)
Just for fun, share how you transformed one of your thought-verb sentences in the comments below.