Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs

Chuck Palahniuk.  Photo by Yasmin Moya

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use. 

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

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

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.

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.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts.  Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

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…”

Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows?  Don’t do it.

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.

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.  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’.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.  Writing, you may be alone.  Reading, your audience may be alone.  But your character should spend very, very little time alone.  Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.  

For example:  Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take..”

A better break-down might be:  “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57.  You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus.  No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap.  The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late.  Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”

A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives. 

Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember

No more transitions such as:  “Wanda remember how Nelson used to brush her hair.”

Instead:  “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”

Again, Un-pack.  Don’t take short-cuts.

Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.  Get them together and get the action started.  Let their actions and words show their thoughts.  You -- stay out of  their heads.

And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.

For example:

“Ann’s eyes are blue.”

“Ann has blue eyes.”


“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”

Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures.  At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it. 

And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for:  “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”

Please.  For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use “thought” verbs.  After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t. 

For this month’s homework

...pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb.  Then, find some way to eliminate it.  Kill it by Un-packing it.

Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing.  Be ruthless.

“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”

“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”

“Larry knew he was a dead man…”

Find them.  After that, find a way to re-write them.  Make them stronger.

Thanks for last month’s questions.  If you have more, submit them, and I’ll get to them in mid-June.

If You're Thirsting For More Writing Lessons From Chuck
We Have 35 More Of Them Right Here!

*Photo credit: Yasmina Moya

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Philipbias43's picture
Philipbias43 January 5, 2021 - 2:50pm

I thought you explained yourself very well—let me try that again.   Philip sipped his Goggle-Fogger Hefeweizen and began reading the article on thought verbs. How many times had he heard to “show, don’t tell” or even “unpack your characters”. He tried it immediately. Easy? You tell me; by the time he finished giving thanks to the author, his Hefeweizen resided in his belly not his glass. He ordered another giving thanks this time to the Author.


Philipbias43's picture
Philipbias43 January 5, 2021 - 2:50pm

I thought you explained yourself very well—let me try that again.   Philip sipped his Goggle-Fogger Hefeweizen and began reading the article on thought verbs. How many times had he heard to “show, don’t tell” or even “unpack your characters”. He tried it immediately. Easy? You tell me; by the time he finished giving thanks to the author, his Hefeweizen resided in his belly not his glass. He ordered another giving thanks this time to the Author.


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Showing rather than telling using text takes up more words, takes more time to read, as evidenced by Chuck's examples. With film, showing rather than telling demands a higher budget: more visuals mean more props, more ornate sets, visual effects, etc. This is why theater, which uses more sparse visuals than film usually, is a more dialogue heavy medium. It tells more than film does. 

There are different forms of showing vs. telling. If you mean using words vs. implying, Chuck's examples actually tell more. All of his examples replace sparse, lean prose with heavier, more verbose prose. Is that really showing rather than telling? He's actually telling more.

“Lisa hated Tom" is lean, right to the point. If the audience is invested, they will want to know why. What makes Tom such a bad guy? Stay tuned to find out!

This takes the circuitous route:

“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’.”

I would argue that from a certain perspective, Chuck is actually the one telling, rather than showing. He's delivering it on a platter. Regardless, fiction is a medium where readers want to hear a character's inner monologue. How else can we both a) take the reader into a character's thoughts, and b) not use thinking verbs? Not every internal monologue can be a dialogue between a character and his alter ego!

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MarcMaurer's picture
MarcMaurer March 12, 2019 - 4:22am

Dear Mr. Palahniuk,

First, I have to buy at least one of your books. Unfortunately my english isn't that good and I hope, that translations of your books are good enough to get all those points across. In case they're not, I have to improve my english. Would be a good idea anyway.

Second, I do not hate you for this advice. To explain my thoughts and feelings while I was reading this post and also afterwards, I have to cite a char out of one of my favourite TNG episodes: "Sokath, his eyes uncovered!"

Please don't stop sharing your knowledge with us. If I could, I would take a private writing class with you. Sadly there is a lot of water between the two of us.

Have a nice day and keep on writing and teaching.


HT Aaron's picture
HT Aaron from Virginia, USA is reading THE GENESYS PROGRAM September 2, 2018 - 4:05pm

Super useful, Chuck. Thank you.

Rachel Capps's picture
Rachel Capps from Sydney, Australia is reading Fight Club April 20, 2017 - 4:39pm

Your post is some of the best "teaching" I've seen. Thank you! Can't hate you for showing a necessary rule

PJ Michalski's picture
PJ Michalski April 20, 2017 - 12:15pm

Great info! Thanks.

MarcoSmithAuthor's picture
MarcoSmithAuthor January 19, 2017 - 11:59am

This is great, I haven't put it into practice yet but I can see the improvement it will surely make. Thank you for sharing.

Matt Ponder's picture
Matt Ponder from Indianapolis is reading Beautiful Boy May 2, 2016 - 10:31am

Brilliant. This has already made me create better work.

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault June 5, 2015 - 4:14pm

Chuck makes his point in the same way he conveys themes and rants in his books: exaggeration. Having read all of his essays on here, I've realized he presents his advice to such an extreme degree purposefully. The way he goes way over the top in his own work to get your attention and drive points home, he's challenging us to start from a tight grip, discomfort, being super conscious of every line and detail, making it tight, spare, effective. And from there, when it gets easier, every writer can discover wiggle room, their own space to work in with the techniques that've stuck. 

Alan Donnelly's picture
Alan Donnelly March 30, 2015 - 1:45pm


If it's a thought process then you don't need to say "she thought" or "he wondered", ect.

The reader already knows this. 

Karie Limage's picture
Karie Limage March 15, 2015 - 2:56pm

*dies slowly*

I just have one question. What do you do if it's first person narrative and they're thinking to themselves? Example: That dress is hideous, I thought to myself.

arianab's picture
arianab from Seattle, WA is reading Dean Koontz - STRANGE HIGHWAYS January 23, 2015 - 3:44pm

Not to be among the beautiful bots above and below me, but this was a great article. I am in the midst of editing a book right this second. I had to pause and see if the current chapter held any of these.

I have these words on my "Editing Checks" notes that I keep (things I find to look for, things my editor points out, or notes that my readers send me to check), and I never understood how to improve the sentence, and why specifically the words sucked. This cleared that up, and made much more sense. Thank you!

P.S. I love that definition: un-pack the sentence. This is something I am trying to learn. Noticing the details in my head and the scene playing out in there, and being able to write it down for the reader to get the sense of the same scene. Or as close as possible to my own since nobody can ever get the exact replica of what I'm seeing.

jspcrazyboy7's picture
jspcrazyboy7 from Amherst, NH is reading Neverwhere by Gaiman December 31, 2014 - 8:57am

Thank you for taking pliers to my eyelids. I definitely needed this read.

Ciaran Deevoy's picture
Ciaran Deevoy from Ireland is reading Diary December 1, 2014 - 7:25pm


Phil Sykora's picture
Phil Sykora from Stow, OH is reading Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck September 19, 2014 - 9:43am

@Remittancegirl In my opinion, films and other visual media haven't resulted in a lack of emotional engagement.  I think that's kind of ridiculous.  It's like saying that movies and television shows never have you connect with characters, that you can't feel anything when a character suffers.

In short: it's a false analogy.  Just because you don't feel very much when reading Palahniuk's novels doesn't mean that visual media fails to evoke any sort of reaction.  Or, just because you "see" a movie and "read" a book doesn't mean that one beats the other in terms of emotional involvement.  That's all up to the consumer.

I understand your point.  Use books to the best of their story-telling ability.  But you're being a little general when you say that leaves people entirely emotionally unengaged.

P.S. the lack of a proper reply system on this site is almost as bad as the "free college paper" spammers.  Almost.

junoba's picture
junoba from Canada is reading Ann Beattie The New Yorker Stories March 14, 2014 - 1:35pm

To be blunt: This has been a worthwile experience. It is hard, but truly rewarding. I'll always keep his advice in mind.


ElaineJackson's picture
ElaineJackson from England is reading The Intruders by Michael Marshall Smith March 9, 2014 - 2:14am

I found this post via @Roz_Morris on Twitter. So impressed that I've signed up to .

charmingmanuk66's picture
charmingmanuk66 from England is reading Autobiography - Morrissey February 11, 2014 - 4:13am

Would anyone care to practice applying these gems on this poor piece of writing?

Thanks in advance.

“Come on people, let’s help the guy. If that’s hit the femoral artery he’s in trouble.”
Claire didn’t know what Solomon was talking about but he clearly knew more than her and it didn’t sound good.

Here is my (poor) attempt

Claire had played Operation as a child but had no idea what he was talking about except that it was bad news.


Femoral artery? How did Solomon know? Claire was worried even though she had no idea what he was talking about. 

Help please!

Adam Birch's picture
Adam Birch from all over, currently North SF Bay Area is reading Brotherhood of the Blade by Diana Gabaldon January 5, 2014 - 3:03am

So many writers tell you "show, don't tell". You showed us how to show, not tell. This masterstroke aside. This single essay was worth the entire six month subscription I bought tonight and so much more. 

cowardm's picture
cowardm December 30, 2013 - 8:12am

Dear Chuck,

I completed the first draft of my first novel recently and while I'm pretty proud of my accomlishment, I've always felt like I was stylistically missing something.  I already kind of knew the stuff you talked about here (we talked about it briefly in my creative writing class in college and Brandon Sanderson covers it in his online lectures), but to have it so much more in-depth was really helpful.

While I haven't completely gotten away from the passive voice, you've taught me a lot about writing in an active and more descriptive voice.

I just wrote a nice piece in my second novel and thought "Damn it, I need to stop and go thank Chuck."  So, thanks.

Jeannette Welsh's picture
Jeannette Welsh from Marlboro NJ is reading The Chronology of Water December 16, 2013 - 4:43pm

This is a very helpful article! 

I have just joined this group and i am already having a hard time reading people's posts and comments.  I cannot believe the audacity of people who can challenge and criticize.  I see them giving themselves their little "I got you" pats on the back. 

I am not sure i like humans and their ability to sit behind a computer and use all of their energy to try to poke at someone's work; especially when the writer is successful and is only trying to help others emulate his commercial successes. 

I saw you in baltimore at a reading for your new Book- Doomed.   It was a thrill to hear the words from the mouth and brain of the creator.  Thank you for your words!

Ameraka's picture
Ameraka December 16, 2013 - 8:34am

Thank you for the article. It does in general make writing stronger to show instead of tell, but I wouldn't go so far as to say never use thought verbs. Use them sparingly, only when they can best say what you want to say. The abstract IS sometimes necessary; one of my favorite things about writing/reading is that you can get into a characters' thoughts, which is what separates books from film, which can only imply what a characer is thinking. I believe that showing a character's thoughts is what helps create more empathy in the writer/reader than only showing the externals. You actually get to BE that character, rather than being a passive spectator. Also, one of my favorite authors, Dostoyevsky, was in his character's heads at least half the time, deliciously navigating the psychological intricacies of a character.

Natso's picture
Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick December 5, 2013 - 10:01pm

I think this is very important tool in the craft of writing. Thank you, Mr. Palahniuk.