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.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.
Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The
mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
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.
Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.
Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later). In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.
“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”
Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.
If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.
Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. 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.
Present each piece of evidence. For example: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”
One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.
For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take…”
A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”
A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.
Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.
No more transitions such as: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.”
Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”
Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.
Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.
Get them together and get the action started. Let their actions and words show their thoughts. You—stay out of their heads.
And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”
“Ann’s eyes are blue.”
“Ann has blue eyes.”
“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”
Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.
And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”
Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use thought verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.
For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.
Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.
“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”
“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”
“Larry knew he was a dead man…”
Find them. After that, find a way to re-write them. Make them stronger.”
These are some of my girl rules when regarding and writing female characters:
- Girls have authority. Show leaders that are female and show leaders that aren’t female taking advice from women and girls. Every other piece of media and the world around us is sure to impress that girls don’t have authority- we don’t need it in media we create.
- Girls are subject to reality. There are enormous expectations on girls every day in every way, but our media tends to omit everything but an image of what girls ‘should’ be. For every beauty queen, there is their time spent and money devoted to makeup and clothes. For every lifestyle, there is the support of said lifestyle. Girls have homes, have chores, have jobs, have families, have triumphed, and have made mistakes. They pay understandable penalties for their actions, and enjoy success as applicable. They have a context just like male characters and we need to show it, because for some reason in much of our media girls seem to emerge from the ether fully formed, fit, toned, shaved, styled, with money in a wallet, super awesome karate powers, nice clothes— and no shown lifestyle or background to support it.
- Girls defy gendered expectations. In light of the above, we also have to identify what actually isn’t ‘reality,’ but society and what we feel is normal but is not set in stone. Girls can have any job and any background boys can, can look the same or have the same body type as any boy can, can perform any feat a boy can. There are female firefighters and female wrestlers and female loggers and female construction workers— and they are just as good at their jobs whether or not they have the same body type as their male peers. I don’t want to see any more women put on a cool crime fighting team and said ‘well they can be the spy or the scout because women are smaller than the muscular men.’ Women don’t have to be small, spies can be large, and a small woman can use her body to achieve the same results as a male bruiser. The same goes with women in any other profession- what qualities aren’t actually reality, but are just our expectations?
- Girls define themselves. In our culture, femininity is often perceived as a lack of, or a contrast to, masculinity— but this is a terrible idea and renders female characters dependant on male ones to have an identity. If a character says she’s a girl, no matter what she looks like, sounds like, seems like, she is a girl, and her traits are traits that belong to a girl. We can categorize traits as traditionally typical for cis males and cis females (‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’) but traits that belong to a character, are the property of that character. Girl power is just as much butch as it is hard femme. Girls define themselves, and are not to be defined by others.
- Girls have agency. Girls want stuff, and girls get stuff. They aren’t along for the ride, or are just one of a set: they have their own strong opinions and motivations for their actions. They’re able to decide what they want and to change their situation without judgement or being thought of as ‘inconvenient’ or ‘a nuisance’ by others. If they need something, they should be allowed to seek it or ask for it or even demand it, without being considered a burden. Girls can say ‘no’ to anything, at any time, and not have that be taken as a reflection of their worth, or an opinion to be persuaded.
- Girls are not mysterious. There is nothing mystical or wondrous about femininity. It is an identity. Girls do not act in ‘mysterious’ ways, there is no ‘female intuition,’ and women are not ‘impossible’ or ‘unfathomable’ or more difficult than men are. When we respect the ideas, the feelings, the speech, and the motivations of others, these ‘mysteries’ of women vanish entirely: a falsehood enforced by male privilege not understanding that women face different realities, implications, and social problems than men. We shouldn’t enforce a ‘mysterious’ or ‘mystical’ or ‘special’ femininity in our media, either- women are half the human population, not puzzles or unicorns.
- Girls are not tools. No plot should depend on someone being female. A female character can have something depend on her abilities (a cis woman’s ability to bear a child, for instance) but that says nothing about her femininity- no more than her ability to win a tournament or lead an army.
- Girls are not limited in their interactions. Girls talk with girls about anything they want. Girls talk with boys about anything they want. Girls talk with anybody of any gender or lack thereof about anything they want. They are not merely conjured up when they have something only the designated girl can say, or when they plot demands girly things. There’s no reason for girls not to be present at all times, involved in any conversations nearby. They don’t go on a shelf while others are talking.
- Girls are fun. They’re fun to be around, are interesting, are clever, are animated, and they have a lot to say that’s both meaningful and entertaining. Too often female characters and their arcs are more detailed, yet also more ‘serious’ or ‘tragic’ than the arcs of some of their peers. Often this seriousness has to do with a male character’s influence, arc, or demise. No thanks!
Of course, these rules apply to any gender, and nongendered individuals too. But female characters are often denied these things in media that we both consume, and media we personally create. Coded cis male characters do these things constantly, at length. Non-males? Not so much.
EDIT: I forgot a rule. It’s here.
one thing i never do is write a rough draft it’s all or nothing go big or go home
i really like the idea of a fantasy setting but in modern times. elves on smart phones and taking pictures for their instagram. dwarves getting into console wars and calling each other casual gamers. mages casting dangerous spells for the vine. i want it.
CAST IT FOR THE VINE
When I was in the hospital
I was roomed with a schizophrenic
And she was the most gentle person I have ever met
There was a boy with a long deep slit across his neck
Who told very funny jokes
A girl who never spoke a word
Would draw the most beautiful pictures
The boy who shook with anxiety
Could hold the most intelligent conversations
Even the girl who screamed in her sleep and picked at her skin
Had a heart the size of the ocean
We are not who you think we are