You may have seen this essay from Chuck Palahniuk before, but I just stumbled on it a couple weeks ago. It’s been around for awhile and I can’t seem to (easily) find the original original source, but Palahniuk put his imprimatur on this one when he tweeted it, so I’m pretty comfortable with its provenance.
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.
Oh, how I agree with him here. You’ll recall how I’ve moaned about memories, in particular.
But the best part of this little essay is, if you pay close attention, Palahniuk’s talking about Show, don’t tell. I wish I could send this essay to the author who—when I pointed out the myriad ways the manuscript was telling, not showing—said, “Strictly speaking, it’s all telling (it’s not storyshowing).” No, my clever darling, my sweet, no. Narrative is narrative, but these interpretive phrases, here, they’re telling.
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. … In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.
Read his examples. They’re fantastic. The man can write. But we knew that.
I like how he points out that the telling statement steals the scene’s thunder. Copy out that paragraph about Brenda, then correct it the way Palahniuk suggests. Much better, no?
And here’s where he gets serious about Show, don’t tell (emphasis here is mine):
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.
Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s it exactly. I’ve said it before, but maybe now you’ll believe me?
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