Re: Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs

Yesterday, my creative writing group experimented with a prompt derived from Chuck Palahniuk’s essay Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs. We read the essay out loud (link) followed by a group confession of addictive “thought” verbs. We talked about what we found agreeable or disagreeable in Palahniuk’s essay before working on the prompt individually.


The group liked Palahniuk’s advice on thesis statement paragraphs and burying detail in actions or gestures. However, we noted the necessary quality of frontloading in short stories.

We did not entirely agree with his argument against leaving characters alone. We agreed that, as readers, we wanted to see a character worry and wonder.  We wanted to see the inside of his/her mind. I mentioned Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin as a novel that shined primarily through its exploration of the main character’s thoughts.

And so, the discussion continued weaving at times between contradiction and flattery and frustration…


Pulling the three sentences from Palahniuk’s homework section of Nuts and Bolts, I asked the group to avoid “thought” verbs and write about the sentence of their choice.

1. “Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”

2. “Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”

3. “Larry knew he was a dead man…”

We ended up with pieces about Nancy the dumpster diver, Nancy the homewrecker, and Nancy the waitress. Some writers combined all three sentences into one story. In another piece, Larry was right. He was a dead man.

Final Thoughts

After writing, participants noted how they kept having to go back and rewrite sentences, because of their subconscious reliance on “thought” verbs. Occasionally, a writer found that a verb slipped through the cracks. (“Dammit, remember.”) We also mentioned that Palahniuk’s advice was more applicable to the body of prose writing, not dialogue.

I can’t say that anyone from the group will keep up Palahniuk’s challenge through December, but for a restrictive prompt, there weren’t any complaints.

What do you think about Palahniuk’s essay? Do you agree or disagree?


  1. j.e.glaze · September 27, 2013

    very interesting stuff.

  2. jr cline · September 28, 2013

    I’ve not read Palahniuk’s essay. It would be difficult for me to write without using thought verbs.

    • Sarah Key · September 29, 2013

      It was a challenge. Palahniuk’s essay really gives the reader a how-to on writing stronger verbs and the “show, don’t tell” principle though, which made excluding “thought” verbs a bit easier.

      The verbs he points a finger at include think, know, understand, realize, wonder, believe, remember, want, desire, imagine, love, hate, forget, is, or have. This includes any of the verbs in past/future tense or their synonyms.

      But you’re right. It would be difficult. I think Palahniuk’s advice is applicable when used in moderation.

      • j.e.glaze · September 29, 2013

        I’m going to work on this, in my own writing, Sarah. I’m glad you posted about this.

  3. distractedbyzombies · September 29, 2013

    Agree. I can’t wait to employ this in my own writing.

  4. D. Eaton · September 30, 2013

    It’s funny because most of my favorite Chuck Palahniuk quotes use thought verbs…

    • Sarah Key · September 30, 2013

      Hey Danny!

      This has come up a lot in my reaction to Palahniuk’s essay. Again, I think his practice is best used in moderation. Now, the question remains; are our favorite quotes by Palahniuk memorable because of his “thought” verb restraint? Do these quotes stick out, because the words he uses in them (hating, knowing, remembering) have become rarities and thus more delightful for the reader?

      It’s certainly something to consider.

  5. LAMarcom · May 14, 2014

    Sarah, most of what I read here goes right over my head.
    However, I am going to keep coming back. Because I am drawn to intellect.
    (even though my writing is simple, too much so, it seems)
    I love writing dialog and have been criticized roundly for using too much.
    But my thoughts run thus: Shakespeare wrote dialog mainly, eh?
    I do love developing characters, but my methods are random. I give a character a name, then I write with no Earthly idea what said character will do or say.
    The character becomes a stream of consciousness (mine) and sometimes they surprise and elate. Sometimes they are just boring. But hey! I can always kill them off if they displease me, right?

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