First, have a read of this very interesting essay by Chuck Palahniuk on ‘thought’ verbs and why you shouldn’t use them.
Hopefully, I haven’t lost you. I’m going to attempt to put together some robust arguments for why I think he’s wrong. Not completely wrong. A great deal of what he says is true, makes sense, and works for readers. Having said that, Palahniuk’s fiction doesn’t work for all readers. Although I recognize him as a tremendously accomplished writer, most of his books don’t work for me. About half-way through his books, I feel so ambivalent about his characters, I can’t work up the motivation to find out how the story ends. At the same time, writers who flood their narrative with nothing but abstractions and emotional content are equally hard for me to engage with. I feel like someone is constantly trying to manipulate me. It puts my back up. I believe there’s a happy medium.
Concrete vs Abstract
It needs to be said: a narrative that deals with the tangible brings immediacy to the story for readers. They can see it, feel it, smell it, touch it. They can make up their own minds about how the characters feel or what they’re thinking by the way they act. No question.
However human experience isn’t constantly concrete. We walk around experiencing and processing. The processing part – the feeling and the thinking part – is as real as the concrete. In fact, I’d argue that the origins of consequences lie just as often in the abstract part of our experiences as they do in the concrete. “I didn’t get out of bed today because I didn’t feel like it” has real consequences, just as “I didn’t get out of bed today because the ceiling fan fell on me and cut my head off.” A lot of the things that motivate people don’t have concrete representations, and trying to do spectacular and long-winded back-flips to SHOW a series of concrete evidences of emotional or intellectual rationales is as artificial as leaving them out completely.
Show vs Tell
I know this has been the mantra for writers since the beginning of the 20th Century, and it is no coincidence. It coincides with the rise of visual mass mediums: photographs, films, TV, video. There is a lot of telling in novels prior to the 20th Century and that doesn’t make them bad.
Here’s Palahniuk’s take on it:
My personal theory is that younger readers distain most books – not because those readers are dumber than past readers, but because today’s reader is smarter. Movies have made us very sophisticated about storytelling. And your audience is much harder to shock than you can ever imagine.
I don’t think being so attuned to a single mode of storytelling (movies) makes a reader smarter. It certainly makes them less flexible, less tolerant of the modes in which they can consume stories. Nor do I think it’s my job as a writer to cure that handicap. I’d argue that the different modes in which a story can be experienced – through text, through visual media, through audio – come very close to making those stories fundamentally different stories. Not in plot, but in how the consumer experiences them. Lord of the Rings readers who saw the movies mostly have praise for its translation into the visual realm, but they will also tell you that their long-term emotional engagement with the story is to the text, not the films. This is, I think, because text requires a deeper investment, a greater interactivity with the story. That commitment – to ‘write’ as you read, to visualize internally – is what results in a long-lived relationship with the story.
Similarly, it’s incredibly easy to shock people visually. It’s easy to allow for a betrayal of perception. Now we have a dark room, next we have a horrific face 3″ away from ours. The sheer mechanics of reading make that kind of shock very hard to pull off in text. It requires a that the writer perform a betrayal of reason, instead. But when a writer can pull off shock in a reader, it doesn’t evaporate in the next scene. It lingers. Because they’ve been complicit in its formation.
So, in a way, I think Palahniuk is participating, rather than mitigating, the homogenization of how stories are consumed. And, as a person who likes choice, I don’t think that’s the way to go.
Writing Does Well What Film Does Badly
There is a reason why literature is full of interior narratives and film is not. The thought verbs allow the writer to show what is going on inside someone’s head. I’d even debate the premise that thought verbs are always a type of ‘telling’. They’re ‘showing’ thought and emotion, internally. Because words, unlike a camera lens, can actually do that. I’m not sure when this became an entirely illegitimate approach to storytelling, but Palahniuk clearly feels it is. When film tries to do this, it usually does an injustice to the glory of the medium and ends up boring you to death. I can’t think of a lot of examples of interior narratives done well in film. “Shame” comes to mind. But if you’re like me and find many Woody Allen films unwatchable, now you know why.
Yes, Readers are Smart, so Don’t Waste Their Time.
Not allowing a writer to ever say what a character thinks, in first person or third person proximate, requires a lot more text. Fictional time is not real time. But sometimes I read Palahniuk’s work and it damn well feels like it. Like I’m being dragged through the mundane, not to have a deep reading experience but in service of his writing ideology to SHOW me everything. Some things, you can tell me. Just get on with it.
Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”
Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail. Present each piece of evidence. For example:
“During role call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout: ‘Butt Wipe,” just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”
Well, he better tell me Lisa hated Tom, because knowing what I know about highschool, the evidence he’s presented me with is not obvious in the least. In fact, I suspect Lisa likes Tom very much indeed. Otherwise, she wouldn’t get in his face so often.
There’s a difference between ambiguity and confusion. One leaves open possibilities of interpretation, the other is just plain misleading. If this is all the evidence for Lisa hating Tom that Palahniuk has to offer, I’d argue that he IS treating his reader like they’re stupid; he’s assuming there’s only one way to read this piece of literary cinematography. In film, we’d see Lisa’s face, hear the tone of her voice, watch how she interacted with her friends, and get some idea. But text isn’t film. It can’t be, for better or worse, and so trying to approximate film in text is, in my view, a waste of time.
If I tell you that Lisa’s heart was racing, and her muscles were gnawing at her bones as she waited until the teacher called Tom’s name and, not being sure exactly how else to call attention to herself, she blurted out “Butt Wipe,” I’m pretty sure you’d realize she has a serious crush on him. Admittedly, she’s not a well-adjusted young lady, but who the hell is in highschool?
Please don’t get me wrong: read Palahniuk’s essay on thought verbs. It’s good, and we could all probably use a lot fewer of them (just as we could all cut out half our adverbs). It does help get the narrator out of the sightline of the story. It does allow for a natural flow of events in the narrative.
But don’t kill all your thought verbs. Some of them serve a very good, specifically literary purpose. They stop your characters from remaining utter strangers all the way through the story. I understand that Palahniuk seldom wants us to like his characters, but because he never lets us get to know them (through their thoughts and feelings), I find it hard to even give a toss what happens to them. So I don’t bother finishing the book.