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.
“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.
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.