Kill the Thought Verbs! Get Readers Involved
Story is action. Verbs create action. When your characters act, readers turn pages. But, you may slow down your readers when you go inside your character’s head. Not because you are going inside their head but because you revert to thought verbs.
What are thought verbs? They are the verbs you use to tell your reader what your character is thinking. You don’t want to use them.
The major baddies:
Each of these verbs, and there are many others, tell the reader rather than showing them.
Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk wrote about thought verbs in Lit Reactor. His advice is:
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.
How to Show the Know
You’ll make your writing dynamic by changing each instance of using a thought verb – know, realize, think, etc. – into a descriptive passage where action and sensory detail shine through.
Thought verbs often start as the premise sentence to a paragraph. A simple workaround is to remove the first sentence, use the following details, then restate the premise at the end, minus the thought verb. For example:
Conrad knew he was trapped. The thick iron door slammed behind him. He heard the lock fall into place. No signal to his mobile in this underground space, so he couldn’t call for help. Somewhere in this dark, Jack Collins waited for his first stumbling move.
The thick iron door slammed behind him. He heard the lock fall into place. No signal to his mobile in this underground space, so he couldn’t call for help. Somewhere in this dark, Jack Collins waited for his first stumbling move. Conrad was trapped.
In a more advanced technique, remove the thought sentence and replace it with sensory action. Show the reader why that “thought” would be in the character’s mind.
Becky knew Emmy should marry Mr. Dobbins, that’s why she had to show Emmy the letter.
Emmy sighed at the memory of George. His goodness lived in her heart all these years. Becky reached in her bag and pulled out her letter from George, the one she had kept all these years. Emmy’s face lit up when she saw George’s handwriting. Her trembling fingers reached for the paper. She read the letter.
Write detail by detail. Your reader follows each action and will understand what the character knows without needing it stated. Your prose is richer. Your reader gets an emotional ride. They may not understand why they like your story, but they will.
Scout Your Manuscript
Improve your manuscript by searching for thought verbs. Scrutinize each one and rewrite to add action detail. When you replace the thought verbs, your story becomes stronger.
Replacing thought verbs will improve your storytelling skills. Go through the manuscript for each of the nine verbs.
- Search your manuscript for the thought verb.
- Read the paragraph.
- Decide whether you want to reverse the sentence order in the paragraph or replace the thought sentence with a new action/detail paragraph.
- Write the new sequence.
If you have been short-cutting important story information with thought verbs, you face a bracing revision. Your story will be stronger with action and detail to engage your reader. Instead of telling, you’ll show your readers why your character thinks, realizes, wants, or hates.
Mary hated Jim.
Jim sat down at the adjacent desk. Mary cringed, waiting for the next humiliating sarcastic statement. He uttered them sotto voce but loud enough for the six other people in the office to hear. Mary heard the snickers. She winced at the sardonic smiles she didn’t see. Today was her day for revenge.
Add details so readers have a sense of place and action. Action verbs create empathy and understanding that no thought verb conveys.
Get Your Character in Conversation
One easy way to get your character out of their head is to get them in dialogue with another character.
Reactive scenes are an important element in pacing, and great to use after an action-filled scene. Our earlier example with Conrad could be reworked from interior monologue to dialogue. Get him talking with the opponent rather than ruminating on his fate.