Age-Old Wisdom: Show, Don’t Tell

On the eve of this summer writing challenge, such advice couldn’t be more felicitous or more deft: cut all “thought” verbs from your writing.  If you’ve already written, go through every page, every paragraph, every sentence.  If you’re just on the cusp of writing, be ruthless with every word from now on.

Because this could mean the difference between a good story and a powerful, persuasive tale.

According to Chuck Palahniuk, author of the famous Fight Club, the danger lies in “thought” verbs such as thinks, knows, understands, realizes, believes, wants, remembers, imagines, desires, loves, hates, etc.  We love these verbs.  At least I do.  It’s easier to use “thought” verbs to guide a story.  I use them to point out a character’s feelings, translating all actions and thoughts for the reader.  With this method, a reader can never be wrong.  And I use these signal verbs constantly.

Distilled, it’s the age-old battle against telling.  We tell readers that our characters love, dislike, and wonder, but we need to be showing those feelings and thoughts with actions.  For instance, don’t blatantly reveal that a boy likes a girl.  Instead, point out that he notices the way her hair catches the sun.  Highlight the fact that he picks out his clothing the night before their Monday class.  Hint at the way his hands tremor when he passes her the exam.  All these examples help build your scene with images and actions, and ultimately allow your reader to come to the conclusion that this boy likes this girl.  By giving your readers greater power to analyze and translate in your text, you’re giving them the opportunity to engage with the characters and enter into a story that wasn’t initially their own.

Leave the thinking to your readers and stick to the tangible observations.  And then watch as your writing gains power and mastery.

Read Chuck Palahniuk’s essay on “thought” verbs here.

Are you already on the lookout for such verbs in your writing?  Is there ever a reason to tell rather than show?