Unpacking It—How My Favorite Books Stack Up


Many of you have probably seen some variation of the writing advice Chuck Palahniuk posted on Tumblr with the introduction:
“In six seconds, you’ll hate me. But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.”

The assignment is to cut all “thought” verbs, including: thinks, knows, understands, forgets, remembers, realizes, believes, wants, imagines, desires, loves, and hates. He also includes “has”, as well as “be” verbs such as is, was, and were.

The advice is to un-pack sentences that use these lazy verbs into something more evocative, applying specific sensory details that allow the reader to experience what your character thinks, feels, and wants without simply being told about it.

So I searched my own work for a thought verb and a be-verb to unpack. It didn’t take long to find them. I’m going to try unpacking them here:

Lazy writing: “Residents expressed concern that the house would fall into disrepair or even be bulldozed. It concerned me, too.”

Oh, what a sluggish second sentence. How about changing it to:
“Only a monster would destroy a work of art that invited the public not only to view it, but to wander inside and spend an afternoon surrounded by its mystery.”

Well, better.

And this: “Employees were allowed to explore most areas of the mansion, but we weren’t supposed to climb on the stones.”

Hmm…how about exorcising the “were” and “weren’t” with: “Berand encouraged employees to explore most areas of the mansion, but climbing on the stones would get you a month of sweeping the massive front porch with a push broom each morning.”

Not genius, but also better. Evocative details added. Be-verbs killed and their bodies disposed of. You might put a dent in your forehead training yourself to do this, but it will improve your writing. My training continues.

Palahniuk suggests that we search our favorite novels for thought verbs and the like, passages that could use some unpacking. So I am taking William Peter Blatty, Susanna Clarke, and John Gardner to task. I’m even going to give them grades.

On the first page of The Exorcist, I find Merrin wondering, knowing, and having a thought. But two of the sentences are so well written, already nicely unpacked in spite of the thought verbs. The third is simply, “And yet, now he knew better,” which I think could be improved.

The other two are: “The bones of man. The brittle remnants of cosmic torment that had once made him wonder if matter was Lucifer upward-groping back to his God.” And: “What was beginning? He dusted the thought like a clay-fresh find but he could not tag it.”

The line about his knowing better is surrounded by such fine writing, it’s like a little sip of water to go with an excellent wine. I’d give the page an A.

Now. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. We begin with a be-verb statement, perhaps interesting enough to be forgiven: “Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.” However, it could be combined with the sentence that follows it: “They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.” Combined, it would read: “Some years ago, in the city of York, a society of magicians met upon the third Wednesday of every month…” You could argue that this drains some of the life from the prose.

Later on the page: “They were gentlemen-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic, nor ever done any one the slightest good.” You could eliminate this “were” in many ways, the simplest probably being: “As gentlemen-magicians, they had never…” This may damage the historian-like voice.

And then: “Northern magicians, he reminded his audience, had always been better respected than southern ones.” Specific examples here, instead of the statement, would unpack this “been” nicely. Something like: “Northern magicians, he reminded his audience, had attended royal weddings, while poets wrote discourteous limericks about southern magicians.”
I’ll give this page a B.

And finally, Grendel. We have a ram deciding: “He cocks his head like an elderly, slow-witted king, considers the angles, decides to ignore me.” The final phrase in the sentence could be unpacked. The ram could turn on the rocks and show Grendel his backside. I don’t even think the line would damage the poetic prose.

Farther below, the be-verb “am”: “…I let out a howl so unspeakable that the water at my feet turns sudden ice and even I myself am left uneasy.” He could tremble or hide. Any number of physical reactions could show us his uneasiness.
Also a B.

I’m still combing my bookshelves. Without opening every book I own, I’ve searched for nearly an hour, and my large test batch included two Palahniuk books. I still haven’t found one that would garner an A+. That would mean absolutely no thought, be, or have verbs on the first page. A couple of my Dr. Seuss books accomplish it, but I’m still searching for non-children’s market book that do.

Join me? Can you find one?


6 thoughts on “Unpacking It—How My Favorite Books Stack Up

  1. I did a check on the book I’m currently reading, Holly Black’s TITHE. I’m on my ereader so I’m not 100% sure what the first page actually is, but I counted 5 instances of “to be”; a “think”; and a “feel” on the first screen alone. The first: “The air was heavy and stank of drying mussels and the crust of salt on the jetties.” The rest of the description helps hide the “was,” but it could easily be replaced with “hung.” Then: “Waves tossed themselves against the shore, dragging grit and sand between their nails as they were slowly pulled back to sea.” This “were” is more difficult to avoid, because technically it’s the gravitational pull of the sun and moon that pull the waves/tide. However, to write that out would sound stupid. It would also requite making the sun and moon the subject of the sentence or clause, thereby removing the focus from the waves, which is where it’s supposed to be in this instance.

    Skipping ahead to: “It was so good to be able to breathe, Kaye thought.” The thought tag can be omitted with no loss to the prose. However, I’d let the “was” and “to be able” go in this instance, because we’re in Kaye’s deep POV (or would be, without the thought tag), and this is the way people think. To omit the “was” would require heavy reworking of the sentence, and quite possibly result in something that’s not at all Kaye’s voice.

    In any case, as much as possible, I do try to remove all the passive and weak verbs during my final edit (no sense, to me, in that level of word-smithing if I wind up deciding to cut the scene). But I don’t think it’s possible to do entirely. Language often depends on those helping verbs. If they’re not overused, they fade into the background–when I first read that first bit of TITHE, I didn’t think, “Oh no, she uses verb “to be” five times!” There was enough other pretty description (I actually love the personification of waves having nails) that they didn’t stand out.

    • I wonder, if you did eliminate all these verbs entirely, if your work might begin to read as contrived or something. I plan to write a short story following this rule and see what happens.

      Holly Black is one of my favorite YA writers. I don’t read much YA anymore, but I liked her books a lot. I don’t remember thinking her writing was bad in any way. Still, I like your edits of her.

  2. In Grendel: Why not, “I howled so…”?

    I agree with the comment above; it isn’t always possible to eliminate all thought, all “to be” forms, etc, but if you must use them, the rest of the sentence should carry enough weight the no-nos disappear. Useful way to edit.

    The bigger question for me, though, is how much does making changes to eliminate these no-no words interfere or even ruin style? Although I hate many of those words, often their use seems to relate to style, as you mention in the middle example. (How could I restate that statement to get my meaning across?)

    I’ll check some books later when I’m not supposed to be writing. Onwards to eliminating those annoying verbs, etc.

    • I howled so…unspeakably? I agree that “let out a howl” isn’t stellar. If I were writing it, I might try using an action verb to throw the howl or something.

      Your meaning about style comes across just fine, I think, and I agree. This rule, like all writing rules, should be followed only as far as it is wise to. And of course, that will be a matter of opinion and instinct.

  3. Can leave out the unspeakably, too. Just say you howled, the water turned to ice, etc. I get it and I feel it more but maybe he wanted the syllables for some reason.

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