Palahniuk wrote an essay called Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs that went wide around January, urging writers to swear off those ‘thought verbs’ of the title. That is when in narrative the author writes something like, “She remembered the time…” or, “He knew how his mother felt about…”
Palahniuk asserts the verb is almost always unnecessary. He asserts that removing those verbs makes the writing stronger, that by removing the instructive element and replacing it with a natural flow of events, the reader is blessed with a richer reading experience.
For example, if my first draft was:
“Lawrence sat down beside Susan. He remembered the day she introduced him to Donna, and felt gratitude rising in him, whilst simultaneously dreading informing her of his wife’s death.”
I don’t know why I would write that—it’s not an excerpt, just something off the top of my head—but if I did, using Palahniuk’s advice I would alter it to:
“Lawrence sat down beside Susan, the woman who introduced him to his wife, who was maid of honour at their wedding, who had helped them through the tensions rife in any marriage. Now Susan’s best friend was dead.”
It’s longer, yes, possibly too baggy now, but richer than it was before, I think.
It doesn’t always need to be longer, of course. Just restructuring or simply cutting out words like “remembered” or “thought” or “knew”.
“Phil hid behind the car. He knew trucks were streaming by, full of enemy soldiers, who would shoot him on sight. And he had already learned he needed to reach the Shahid family before the police traced their phone signal.”
Okay, it’s a hammy scene. But just dropping those “he knew” lines makes it instantly stronger.
“Phil hid behind the car. Trucks streamed by, full of enemy soldiers who would shoot him on sight, but he had to reach the Shahid family before the police traced their phone signal.”
Editing that further, I could replace “hid” with a stronger verb, find a better phrase for “full of enemy soldiers” (probably don’t need “enemy” for starters) and “he had to” annoys me every time I see that I’ve written it. So it’s a crappy sentence, but far better than the one with “he knew”.
“Phil ducked behind the car. Trucks streamed by, packed with soldiers, all familiar with his image, each one under orders to shoot him on sight. The Shahid family lived three blocks from here, and the police had a ten minute head start.”
So it gets a little better with those tweaks. But those tweaks all stem from that first edit: cut out the thought verbs.
Sometimes, yes, when you cut them out completely it becomes too obvious that the author is dancing around the easy option, making it an awkward read. When that happens, sure, throw one back in there. Sometimes you just need it.
Three Years Dead is a thriller about a detective sergeant in the city of Leeds. After an attempt on his life, he wakes up with no memory of the past three years, and learns he became a corrupt scumbag of a copper over that time. No one really cares who tried to kill him, so it’s up to him to do so, while seeking redemption by tracking down a missing youth.
So, he has a lot to figure out. A lot of introspection. But the first draft of this was packed with thought verbs. “He remembered”, “he figured”, “he calculated”, “he THOUGHT”. The synonym function was working its little socks off. I dredged the whole manuscript, cutting 50% of them without altering another word, and culling around 40% by tweaking the sentence entirely. That’s 90% of my thought verbs gone.
And I think it was worth the effort.
Thank you, Chuck Palahniuk. Hopefully, my readers will thank you too.