Unpack Thought Verbs: How to Show and Not Tell

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Unpack luggage

I’m so glad I found this article on thought verbs by Chuck Palahniuk. I can’t wait to go through my own work with a red pen. #masochist. I’ve covered adverbs and how they make you lazy; how they lend themselves to telling. Thought verbs are another “telling” culprit. Since I like to procrastinate on chart making, today we are going to go over how to unpack thought verbs in order to show and not tell.

Thought verbs are think, know, desire, remember, believe, want, imagine, etc. They also include love and hate, is and has.

Thought verbs are troublesome because they act as a thesis statement. You don’t want thesis statements in creative writing. You need to give your reader action and detail.

Also, thought verbs short circuit the story. You don’t want to just tell the reader what the character thinks/feels, you want to show them through smells, sounds, tastes, actions, feelings.  I will give examples of thought verbs and show you how to unpack them.

Hackneyed examples:

Lucille knew she would never finish that verb tenses chart. There were stories to edit, ghostwriting to follow, material to study, a series to finish, and all while enduring constant interruptions. 

Here, we have the thought verb knew, which is acting as a thesis statement. Do you see how it weakens the details that follow it?

Unpacked:

Lucille needed to edit, ghostwrite, study, and finish her series while enduring a slew of interruptions; she would never finish the verb tenses chart. 

What I’ve done here is put the thesis statement behind the details. I’ve also completely omitted the thought verb and stated it boldly that I’ll never finish the chart.

Another example:

Farmer Beaumont hates his alarm clock. 

Unpacked:

At dawns first light and with the call of proud chanticleer, Farmer Beaumont cursed the sunrise. He slammed opened the shutter and doused the noisy beast below with the contents of his chamber pot. 

Anyone who throws piss on their alarm clock hates it. Show the hate. Or feel the love.

Elyse thought Samuel loved her.

Unpacked:

When she was hip-deep in diapers, pregnant out to here, hair unwashed for days, and circles so dark they looked like black eyes, he still kissed her, and kissed her deeply–blind to the chaos and the noise and the filth that covered their slice of heaven, their domesticity. 

Again:

On dreary winter nights, Crispin imagined warm sandy beaches and wanted to go on vacation.

Unpacked:

As the wind and snow pelted the house, Crispin stirred the stew in the uneven aluminum pot. He looked out the kitchen window at the snow drifts forming against the woodshed and sighed, his shoulders stooped. The heat from the stove warmed the floorboards where he stood like the sand on the beach where his family used to winter during the boom years; the boom years, would they ever return?

Example:

I forgot where I put our plane tickets; Crispin hated me for always losing things. 

Unpacked:

Crispin waited in the doorway, chewing the inside of his lip and huffing through flared nostrils.

“You lost them?” He glared through smudged lenses. I opened the desk drawer and riffled inside through pieces of bric-a-brac and sales flyers to stores we never visited. My throat constricted when I didn’t see them there, either. Crispin dropped the bags on the floor.

“You are always losing things,” he huffed, “I knew I should have held onto them.” His voice increased in pitch and volume. “Why are you so irresponsible? You had one thing to do, one thing.” His cheeks flushed and spittle flew from his lips. 

I mentioned how is and has are also problematic. When used as statements in place of detail and action, which you want in your writing, they fall into the same troublesome area as thought verbs. Be careful when you use them.

Example:

Crispin is ugly.

Unpacked:

The hollows of his cheeks, cratered from childhood chicken pox, were sallow from the harsh winter air. His hair was thinning and a dull shade of dishwater–teeth crooked, back humped, and his middle had taken on the paunchy look of infirmity.

Example:

She had no sympathy for her plight

Unpacked:

She watched her, curled in the fetal position and wracked by sobs. Her nose crinkled in disdain at such a pathetic sight. 

Go through your work and look for these thought verbs. Eliminate them as best as you can. In their place, add action and give your reader sensory details to enhance the story. This will go a long way to holding their attention. People are not convinced of the state of things by mere allegation, they want to see it for themselves. Good luck.

 

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