Unpacking your verbs

luggageWe were told by professors that adverbs are weak tools for writers, and often that was the extent of it. It most certainly is not the worst thing you can do. Here is a laundry list of other no-nos. Consider “thought verbs” and chuck them.

Think of your words on a page like a suitcase, from the outside it’s a rectangle that holds things. But what’s inside?

Language is full of subtext that is found in action (body language, a pause, a deep breath). What lies beneath is inside that suitcase.

The boring suitcase

Sarah “wondered” if Jonathan liked her as he guided her into his apartment, then she “understood” him clearly, he “desired” her, she “realized” he was a player, and before she “knew” it—what she “imagined” happened as he kissed her.

The above is a suitcase of thought verbs in quotes, which suck. They tell, but they don’t show. Your English teacher taught you better—as did mine (which is why my novel is on tab right now blinking up at me). The suitcase is a solid color of drab. Black, brown, leather, whatever.  Inside the suitcase is where the story lies.

Let’s unpack the suitcase. You may feel that you wrote a tidy sentence—or strings of them—that tell a story, and they most certainly do, but it’s boring.

Suitcases are boring. What’s inside of them is not. Being the curious girl that I am I used to snoop in guys’ glove box compartments and bathroom drawers when I was dating someone new. Having studied handwriting analysis, personality profiling, communication, and body language from the time I was 13 did nothing in comparison to what I could find in a glove box—or a suitcase for that matter.

What’s in the box?

Legal documents? Lingerie? A gun? Shoes? A change of clothes for Hawaii or Alaska? We need to unpack the suitcase to find out. Our reader wants to know what’s in the box—and if you put a chopped up head inside, they need to know that too.

Here’s a redo.

“Jonathan placed his hand at the small of Sarah’s back and guided her into his apartment. He bit his lip. She tried not to look away, but his unbroken eye contact made her eyes water if she let herself linger too long. The fresh hint of another woman stuck to the couch he led her to. As he kissed her she tasted the wine they had for dinner—the wine he’d accidentally spilled on her dress so he could peel it off her.”

No short-cuts or playing tattletale. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound and feeling—show us.

Thesis Statements

Avoid “thesis” statement openings—you know the ones from college (or high school) where one sentence sums up what the entire four page assignment is about? Can’t do it in creative writing unless you’re Faulkner, but he also waited for people to die so he could write about them using their real names, so let us avoid being him. In just one English class in college I was assigned to read 13 books (yeah I had a roll-y bag that made me look like a flight attendant that’s why for all of those jealous girls that hate that I rocked heels my entire college career. I can’t balance books, brains and my body on four inch heels).

Wow, back to 13 books. I obviously didn’t read any of them for that class. I skimmed. Faulker was the easiest. I read the first line of each paragraph and got the gist of it all. Textbooks do this. Novels shouldn’t. Even Palahniuk who is a great writer for an ADD generation doesn’t skimp on the details.

Here is an example of a “thesis statement” in a novel:

“He knew he would miss his flight. Traffic was clogged on La Brea, Fairfax, and the 101. His cell phone battery was dead, and he hadn’t printed off his ticket in advance.”

The strength is in what comes after the “thesis” statement aka total giveaway—why continue to read? You just told us he wouldn’t make his flight. Why not just tell us he won’t make his flight?

“He knew he would miss his flight” is a lot shorter than the two sentences that follow it so why not use it?

We don’t have to be lengthy writers, but we must be descriptive. If a character is about to miss their flight something must be at stake. What is the flight for? Is he running from something? Toward something? Why is he flying? Whatever the reason for this flight, it’s important we describe the circumstances around it rather than tell the reader what’s happening.

When someone is about to miss a flight there is tension, conflict, stress. Think of getting yourself to the airport. We want the reader to bite their nails right here just as you would! The reader has to bite their nails when you tell them to. The reader needs to be told how to feel, what to think—you are the world-builder and they have given you permission to take them on a magic carpet ride by picking up your novel, so show them what’s up. They want your drama, comedy, suspense, horror. In order to make them cry, laugh, stress, or pull their knees into their chests from fear, you must describe events that elicit such reactions.

I love/hate you

Now, to address feelings. Don’t say so and so loves/hates anyone. Show it. “Freddy stuck his gum in her hair.” (Assume he’s a 4th grader, not some creepy guy on the metro, and it’s a sign of a crush.) People tell us they love us all the time, but the proof is in the action. If love is a battlefield, then we’re taking this to court where all actions must be documented.

Forgetting and Remembering

Steven King masterfully tells stories in the present while reverting to the past in “Under the Dome” to provide memory as context. King doesn’t say his characters remembered or forgot anything; instead he provides context through memory which is very visual (packed with action). As writers we often provide context to situations by using memories. But we can’t be sloppy.

Don’t say:

“Jim remembered how Pam used to fake-call customers and talk to him on the phone at work instead.”

Instead say:

“A year ago, Pam’s eyes would light up before she pretended to call customers as she dialed Jim’s extension instead.”

Solitary characters

What do you do when you’re alone? You think and worry. So do your characters (and I am so sick of characters sitting in some window seat writing in their diary about their feelings with an imagined voice over—or a blog. It’s considered lazy fyi—if you follow me on FB there is an interview with TV writers who talk about this on the nerdist).

Don’t do this:

“Elena worried about her husband’s dangerous job.”

Instead of telling us your characters inner dialogue or telling us they are worried while at home alone, try this instead:

“Elena paced near the front door. The grandfather clock near the door read half past midnight. The old rug had worn under her feet, and its fibers were beginning to spread around the entryway. Elena gave her hands something to do as she poured herself a cup of coffee.”

Now while in a solitary state things get boring so giving her hands something to do is great, but getting someone else in the room with her is even better.

“He walked in the door smelling of coffee and donuts.”

Bam. He’s OK. And we know the source of her worry. He’s a cop. We could describe his uniform or SAY what he does, and he will certainly bring up his latest case with her, but character descriptions shouldn’t be lazy either. Keep reading.

Define character features through actions, not bland verbs/descriptions

Is and have—states of being are boring verbs. Matt has hazel eyes. BOR-ING.

What Matt has is boring. What Matt is, is boring. Your reader may well forget what colors his eyes are and fill them in with someone they’re fond of anyway (this sort of “telepathy” is discussed in Steven King’s “On Writing” and while great it is to have a reader fill in the blanks on character descriptions, it’s also pretty cool to take them somewhere—and King certainly isn’t lazy because he places physical descriptions with intrinsic qualities as well).

What isn’t boring:

“Matt swung his gear over his shoulder as his flight was called. It was the first time Laura had seen him in full uniform. While camouflaged in the field he stuck out at the airport. She didn’t want to give him his carry-on, but when she looked into his hazel eyes they were as assured as the uniform on his body.”

It’s sort of clever how the hazel eyes match the uniform on two levels. One, you know he’s in the Army because the BDU’s are brown and green (hazel) and two, the intrinsic quality of strength such a career holds he possess within his assured eyes.

It’s time to unpack your suitcase (and mine). I’ve got my novel blinking at me still. Time to go circle all of my boring thought verbs and re-write.


In August 2011, Chuck Palahniuk covered thought verbs


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