Contest: To Avoid Thought Verbs
Let's create a library of better options
Okay, I’ve got twenty+ big heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Can you help me out here?!
Years ago a reader sent me a clipping from the magazine Scientific American. It described an experiment in brain science that seemed to show that active, physical verbs have a greater impact on us than conceptual verbs. For example, when we read the verb “kiss” it activates the portion of our brain that would engage if we were actually kissing. In theory, in a well-written scene your brain wouldn’t know you weren’t the character kissing or kicking or simply brushing lint from his jacket.
That’s in contrast to conceptual “thought” verbs such as: love, believe, remember, realized, knew, hate, ponder, muse … you get the picture. Or you don’t. Because this study suggested that conceptual verbs had little effect on the brain. Go figure.
In a way it’s the difference between showing and telling in fiction:
“Do you follow?” > “Do you understand?”
“She told herself.” > “She thought.”
“It went through his head.” > “He thought.”
“It went over his head.” > “He felt confused.”
“It struck her.” > “She realized.”
All this is part and parcel of my battle against vague abstracts such as measurement and pejorative language. A “six-foot-tall woman” and an “ugly” man don’t occur for every reader in the same way. Worse, they cheat the reader out of hearing how the character or the narrator perceives such people.1 Even worse, they force the reader to do the writer’s job.
With that said, I’m always looking for physical ways to depict cognitive processes. As in the examples above, these physical phrases contain active verbs, but need not be wordy. The trouble is that our culture has moved away from the visual, physical ways to depict brain stuff. Instead, we take the shortcut of the abstract “thought” verb.
Actors don’t have this luxury. A good actor can’t say, “I realize now, Cynthia hit me with the cactus!” No, the actor must snap his fingers or tap his forehead to indicate a cognitive A-ha! moment. A good actor can’t say, “I feel such shame right now.” But must avert her gaze, mask her face with a hand, blush, close her eyes to avoid crying, and cry regardless.
A decent writer will take the time to unpack most of her abstracts. A bad writer will just default to abstracts and leave the reader with no part to play. As a compromise, I suggest we create a library or inventory of simple physical phrases that can be used to replace thought verbs. This smacks of a paint-by-number writing method, but it’s a good start. Such a library will collect and share the physical phrases from different cultures. And it will inspire writers to invent new physical phrases for depicting cognitive stuff.
If you’ve got back issues of Reader’s Digest, check the feature Toward More Picturesque Speech. It was always a font of classic ways to make the vague seem visceral. Talk to old people, old-person speech tends to use more concrete language. Either Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett wrote, “She had a body that would make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” That’s a little wordy and too specific for my purposes here, but you get the idea. You can see where this is headed. Simple physical verbs that replace abstract “thinking” verbs.
You may post as many entries as you like. I won’t choose my favorites until this coming Thursday, Feb. 10th. Good, basic language will carry more weight. Anyone is welcome to post, one prize per winner, and the prizes will include a large, heart-shaped box of chocolates, an inscribed copy of my gonzo erotic novel Beautiful You, and flowers. If you’ve questions, post them soon, and I’ll keep an eye out.
Please avoid posting actual physical gestures. I’ll run a similar contest for those in a few weeks.
In the future people can continue to add to the library and to refer to it. All in the service of stronger writing.
This is a contest I can get behind. The pirate-speak prizes ship out tomorrow morning. Now jump to it, people. Show me what you’ve got. Don’t let someone else walk off with your chocolate!
Among my favorite classic unpackings of the abstract: When Nicole Kidman divorced Tom Cruise she told the press, “Now I’ll be able to wear heels again.” Got it!