To Think or Not to Think… In Which Your Faithful Narrator Rebuts Palahniuk’s Banishing of the Thought Verbs

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.

Palahniuk writes:

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.

  7 comments for “To Think or Not to Think… In Which Your Faithful Narrator Rebuts Palahniuk’s Banishing of the Thought Verbs

  1. Bravemouth101
    August 18, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    I concur. As you have presented, there needs to be a reasonable balance between evoking images or creating background to develop the story in the readers mind and just getting on and telling it. In fact, something else you both outlined is the changing audience. Most of that younger audience, to whom an author must appeal is that of a generation who have the attention span of a gnat. From six months out of the womb we bombard them with new toys, new tv programs, new, new, new.. they don’t get the same opportunity to develop any lasting connection or commitment to anything (the ritalin generation is on its way, I tell you!). How can we expect them to commit to reading a book that forces them to take the long route to every conclusion?

    What is key is achieving a balance that makes for an enjoyable journey and one that treats its various subjects in a befitting manner… sometimes it is just enough to worry how the long the bus journey might take. If the story has been well enough constructed up to that point, the Woody Allen neurotic does not have to emerge and the reader can just get on with it, knowing why.

  2. August 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    Well argued, RG. I particularly agree with your comments about the way film has influenced popular literature (and the level of tolerance some readers have for interior narratives). I find reading nineteenth century literature remarkably refreshing on occasion, because the authors were not subject to the tyranny of the visible.

    I just finished Greta Cristina’s amazing collection BENDING. It’s full of kinky activities, but nevertheless it’s very clear that the only important events are those happening in the narrator’s mind. The fantasy, the fetish, the awareness of what she is doing, the shame and the astonishment – this is what arouses her, not the acts themselves. The acts are merely a jumping off point.

  3. August 18, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    Most of what interests me in erotica, and therefore most of what I write, is the internal thoughts and emotions of the characters. My dominant style as a writer is to go heavy on the internal monologue. Yeah, I can go light on the “thought” type words, but sometimes they’re just ‘dialogue’ tags. E.g., Wow, I thought. Sometimes they’re equivalent to action verbs: “I thought about it a bit, and then said xxxx.” If I walked through the ‘showing’ of the internal thought process there, I’d be writing Ulysses, and probably equally incomprehensible. The words are necessary.

    Which means the case I agree with Chuck on is when “thought” type words are used unconsciously as a short cut to avoid showing. The key word being unconsciously.

    Fex, instead of “Lisa hated Tom,” how about, “Lisa loathed Tom. She couldn’t think of his face without shaking in rage and wanting to spit. His voice raised the hair on her neck and visions of punching him flooded her when she heard his name. “Buttwipe was the best verbal smack she could come up, so she used it, almost in reflex.”

    Not the best prose, I admit, but I consciously used the equivalent of “thought” words in all four sentences. Cut this all out? Well, then we just have a movie in print.

    • snarkyxanf
      August 19, 2013 at 2:05 am

      The “Lisa hated Tom” vs a scene example is unfair, because of course a descriptive scene is more vivid and engaging than a one sentence conclusion. “Lisa hated Tom” is more on par with “Lisa insulted Tom every day”, which is also a bit unexciting. Even if it had no descriptions of actions, a more detailed version like yours, or something like “Lisa hated Tom. She hated his arrogant smirk, she hated the tone of his voice, she hated the way he walked, she even hated the sound of his breathing. There was not a single reminder of him that didn’t fill her with bile.”

      A more detailed description is not only more engaging just because it’s more interesting, it also encourages the reader to recall similar specific feelings (the way I hated an annoying childhood friend vs. how I hate a politician vs. how I hate bugs vs. how I hate some food, etc) rather than general ones.

  4. K. A. Burton
    August 20, 2013 at 3:32 am

    I find it amusing that he thinks that movies make the general public smarter about storytelling. I would have said it makes the lazier. If he paid any attention to the entertainment industry he would realize that the movie studios have been bought up by large corporations like Coca-Cola and Time-Warner. Decisions are not made by creative people, but by financial boards. I am not sure how he thinks this makes for good storytelling. Sure they manage a decent movie every once and a while, but such sucrose imbeded garbage as “Ted” is more par for the course. I will stick to writing books and leave Hollywood to those who want to stick their big toes in that pond.

    • August 20, 2013 at 8:45 am

      I don’t want to dismiss sophisticatedness of movies as a form of storytelling. But it is fair to say that Hollywood tends to, for instance, stick quite strictly to a Hero’s Journey framework for most mass appeal films. It’s also fair to say that most thriller genre novels do exactly the same. Structurally, I believe storytelling has become more homogenous as, as you so rightly point out, media companies serve their shareholders first and any artistic aspirations second.

      But I do believe that visual storytelling taxes the viewer’s imagination far less than textual stories, simply because provides viewers with imagery instead of forcing a reader to make their own visuals up in their heads. I’m not saying that movie storytelling never engages its audiences in the kind of interactive participation that text demands, but its not as common and not as intense an interaction.

      Hmmm. This deserves a blogpost of its own, methinks.

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