According to Chuck Palahniuk you should avoid "Thought" verbs as much as you can. These include: knew, thought, realized, believed, etc.

However, I've seen many of them in books that I read. And I think they somehow simulate real speech (useful with first-person narrative). Here's an example from my own writing:

Lying back down, I thought about what he had just said—and realized I wasn't unhappy anymore; I no longer had this pressure in my chest; I felt released, light, as if I could reach the ceiling above me.

Are "Thought" Verbs a sign of weak writing? Or just an stylistic choice?

6 Answers 6


As I understand him, Palahniuk doesn't actually mean that you must avoid thought verbs, especially not at all cost. Palahniuk does use thought verbs in his own writing. That blog post is a suggestion for a writing exercise, not a rule for how you should write for publication.

The important part in that post, to me, is what Palahniuk calls "unpacking". As I understand this it means that instead of using abstract concepts like "love", you should write out the observable behavior that we mean when we say "love" and let the reader come to the conclusion that the charakter is in love.

For example,

John loves Joan.

is an essentially meaningless sentence. It does not tell us anything about what John does or what being in love means for him. Also, it is basically untrue in that it is a claim that, if made about a real person, could never be verified. No one knows if another person is in love, and most people don't understand themselves well enough to know what is going on in them when they say they are in love. So claiming that one character in a book "loves" another reduces the real world complexity to a fake cardboard clichee.

If on the other hand you write:

Every day John bought Joan a flower and walked to the other side of town to lay it on her door step - then quickly ran away so she wouldn't see him.

that will ellicit an emotion in the reader and give him a feeling for the kind of person John is.

What the "unpacking" does is that you stop interpreting the world for your readers. When you "unpack" thought verbs and other abstractions, you become a better observer, you stop writing about the world, from a meta perspective, and instead begin to directly translate the world into words, allowing the reader to experience that world for themselves. And you allow the reader to come to a different conclusion about it than you.

  • 5
    An excellent answer. The writing exercise is to teach you a method of "show, don't tell." Thought verbs can be "telling" the reader what the character is thinking, but by writing around the thought verb, you are more likely to show the character's thoughts/desires through dialogue and actions. Jan 20, 2015 at 14:32
  • Tangentially, this also reminds me of advice I got years ago to avoid simple, "sterile" language in favor of more descriptive or metaphorical language. An example the writer gave was "She is lovable" versus "She is like a cuddly kitten."
    – Jay
    Jan 23, 2015 at 15:09
  • In the words of a great man who went by the name Mr. Burns..."Ex-cellent..." Apr 28, 2018 at 0:11

I can see where he comes from saying that those words should be avoided, but I would not avoid them at all cost.

If you were writing a "classic" detective story, where the rugged detective is telling the story you should be allower the use of:

As I came back to my office, the door closing with a soft click behind me, I though about the days events. Some thing seemed off, but I could not put my finger on it. I'd been through it many times before of course, knowing all to well how this night would end. I would probably have my regular date with good old Jack and conteplate all the things I have heard. But as I reached my desk I realized what I had missed. Stopping dead in my tracks I knew what I had to do.

For me this feels like a stylistic choice, and a way to personalize the character. Although if you are do describe from a third-person perspective, or do some form of "out of character" description I would try to avoid them like he suggests.

Of course, I'm no writer by education and I'm in no position to tell someone what is best or the most "correct" way of writing. Only what I am most comfortable both reading and writing.


Advice of that sort should rarely be taken absolutely. If you get advice like that from a reasonable person, they will not say, "Never use ..." but rather "Avoid ..." There are lots of writing techniques that are easy to overuse or mis-use, and so you should be careful about them. But just because something is easy to abuse doesn't mean you should never use it, it just means you should be careful about it. Like just because many people get drunk and act stupid doesn't mean you should never consume alcohol. Just keep it in moderation. :-)

Beyond that I pretty much say "ditto" to What's answer.


Sorry, but there is no good reason to summarily banish "thought" verbs from a literary work. A class of "filter" verbs, these supposedly distance the reader from a character's POV, a faddish literary notion that has gained many adherents among agents and editors. However...

From lexical analysis described in a paper by researchers at Stony Brook University ("Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels"), verbs that describe thought-processing--recognize, remember, consider, ponder, perceive, believe, wonder, recall, etc.--are in fact generally found in more-successful novels.

Incidentally, they also confirmed that adverbs in any form, whether general or as adverbial phrases, are indeed frequent (i.e. overused) in less-successful novels.

  • Interesting paper. It also reports that prepositions correlate positively with success. Interesting read.
    – SFWriter
    Apr 30, 2018 at 17:02

Often, sentences that use "thought" verbs tend to provide distance between the reader and the action. This might be intentional or not. Consider your example, rewritten without the "I thought about" and "I realized":

I lay back down. I wasn't unhappy anymore; I no longer had this pressure in my chest; I felt released, light, as if I could reach the ceiling above me.

Especially in first person, it's not necessary to tell us who's experiencing these things.

Same for "I saw": "I saw the car drift into the intersection" vs "The car drifted into the intersection." The latter is more direct, and doesn't put the narrator between the action and the reader.

  • True, although that loses the aspect of the protagonist spending time contemplating what has changed. Using "thought" to emphasize that aspect makes sense.
    – Llewellyn
    Apr 30, 2018 at 15:46
  • Yes, and neither is right or wrong. It depends on what you're going for. (Typically, I edit for the more direct approach because in my early drafts I find my narrators being too present, getting in the way of the story.) Apr 30, 2018 at 15:59

In first person (as Ken says) thought verbs are less necessary or unnecessary, but they can be crucial in third person and absolutely necessary.

Mary knew Jack was lying, but she smiled anyway. "Oh, I guess I didn't think of that," she said.

Sometimes what the character is thinking is critical to their motivations, and can increase tension (or dread), and therefore conflict. That is a good thing. If Mary does nothing physical to betray her knowledge of Jack lying, informing the reader of her thoughts using some verbiage is the only choice, if we want that information revealed at this point. If Mary knows Jack is lying at this moment that can influence what she does next; e.g. cut their date short by feigning illness, continue the date and look for information in his apartment, or believe something else Jack tells her. Perhaps she is a spy and this lie tells her that her cover is blown, and that saves her life. Stuff like that.

What a character thinks or knows and does not betray by any physical display can still be important.

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