Chuck Palahniuk on “Thought” Verbs

By Brendan O’Meara

I’ve been reading a lot of Brain Pickings lately. Maria Popova is so perilously good. It’s like how television wraps you in because as soon as a single show begins, the network is already teasing the next half-hour.

Sometimes I find myself just diving deeper and deeper into what Popova finds interesting because what interests her so interests me.

Aha! I came across something, referred “to me” via the Script Notes podcast, a great craft essay by the author Chuck Palahniuk. You may have heard of Fight Club. He wrote that.

His essay, titled “Thought” Verbs, is like getting whipped by bamboo. If you thought you were decent at this craft, he just dropped an A-bomb down your chimney. Basically this is just a fancy essay about showing vs. telling and he’s all about showing.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

What he means is don’t be lazy.

This is much more approachable in fiction. If you have it sketched in your brain that a character loves another, you can then craft an illustration of the love and let the reader make the connection.

He also talks about the “thesis statement” and how this totally emasculates a paragraph. Take this example:

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph  (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later)  In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph.  And what follows, illustrates them.

For example:

“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline.  Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits.  Her cell phone battery was dead.  At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up.  Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

If you lop off that first sentence you’ve established that Brenda isn’t going to make the deadline.

If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others.  Better yet, transplant it and change it to:  Brenda would never make the deadline.

I’m reading Michael Chabon’s fantastic book Wonder Boys and I’m looking for instances of “thought” verbs, even from a master like Chabon. I can’t find one and I’m 145 pages into the book.

How do you approach these “thought” verbs in nonfiction? It’s even more difficult than fiction and, sadly, more annoying for your characters. It may require some extra awkward questions to reach that level of depth, to really show someone is mad.

Maybe if someone is driving, you can be mindful of how they react to traffic. You may even ask them, How do you react to traffic? Does it stress you out? Make you angry? Make you impatient? If yes, then how are their actions illustrating these internal feelings.

Says Palahniuk:

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

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.

I like that last part. I like picturing myself in the courtroom talking to the jury (the reader) and laying out the facts (all the reporting). If done properly, if done well, you’ve sold the jury on your message.

Pullouts from Glenn Stout Talk in the Village

By Brendan O’Meara

Being in the orbit of NYC gives me access to things that being in Upstate New York doesn’t. Specifically there was a talk by Glenn Stout, series editor of the Best American Sports Writing anthology, at Le Poisson Rouge.

I took some notes (I appeared to be the only one taking notes, this in a room full of reporters) and I was the only one who wasn’t drinking beer (this makes me the freak in a room full of reporters. This reporter doesn’t have $10 for a pint of Guinness. Plus I’m slow-carbing it. ANYWAY.)

Here’s some great quotes from the great Glenn Stout.

On what makes a great story:

“Thorough reporting, you can’t have a story without thorough reporting, even if you’re working on memoir.”

“Leave them [the reader] some place they haven’t been before. Stories are made of stories. You need scenes.”

“It’s written from within. They’re confident from the first word as if every word is destiny.”

“You miss the words and you feel immersed in the experience. It’s like walking into water that is body temperature.”

“It unfolds and answers question. Creates a three-dimensional picture, plays to and involves the senses. We’ve got five senses, use a couple of them.”

“Every story has a sound, singular, emerge transformed like you have forgotten to breathe.”

“You’d better give them something at the end.”

“Every story I put forward is because I want to read it again.”

“The best written stories sound well. it’s gotta stick. It’s the one you want to share.”

“Long form refers also to the time spent reporting.”

So, that’s a chunk of what the talk was about. Good stuff. Share those quotes with someone you love.

Paperback Writer!!!!

Written by Brendan O’Meara

I received a paperback copy of Six Weeks in Saratoga today. Pretty exciting stuff. After three-plus years, the hardcover run sold out and SUNY Press, my gracious publisher, elected to go paperback with the book.

It’s got some of the review blurbs in the front of the book and I was able to comb through it and remove several of the typos that snuck their way into the hardcover editions.

It’s only $15!

Happy New Year


I’ve struggled with the motivation to write much in these little boxes. Most of the time it feels fruitless and a waste of time, but I’m going to adhere to my hero Austin Kleon, author of Show Your Work and Steal Like an Artist, and be forthright and giving with my work and work habits. Maybe it’ll help one person out there. Maybe not.

So I’m reading, among many books, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. It’s quite good. Reading about Franklin was a goal of mine as I’m trying to be a more optimized version of myself. I’m running on Windows 95 these days and need a system reboot.

In my journal, of which I write one-and-a-half to two pages in the morning as a mind dump and one page at night as a log book to detail the day’s accomplishments, I’m working on the Franklin’s thirteen virtues. I won’t write them down here, but you can easily click through and find out what they are.

By my nature, I’m messy and kind of a slob. Just look at that coffee table in the picture above. That’s basically my brain if my brain were a coffee table. Naturally I gave myself a red flag for “Order” on that day’s Franklinian Report Card.

Anyway, I’m not getting any younger, and neither are you. So it’s high time we seize what little time we have left and do good work. And I don’t know about you, but I love reading about morning routines and daily rituals. So here’s Austin Kleon’s. And mine:

My morning routine these days. Seems to be working so far. #keepwriting

A photo posted by Brendan O’Meara (@brendanomeara) on