Tension and Authority Day 1 - Avoiding Thought Verbs

These are more exercises that I borrowed from Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Consider This. I am combining Tension and Authority (two separate sections in the book) because I think the flow will be better for songwriting exercises to blend them. The first thing we are going to do is look at Tension.

He introduces tension with a quote: “Great problems, not clever solutions, make great fiction” - Ira Levin. As writers, we can create, sustain, and increase chaos, all as a means to eventually resolve it somehow. He directs you to consider a traditional burlesque show. They alternate between strippers and comedians. Strippers build tension with thoughts of sex. Comedians relieve the built up tension. Arouse the audience first, then exhaust them with release of laughter.

In this exercise, to build tension, we are going to try to stay away from thought verbs. When we read a physical verb, like swim, your brain responds as if you are actually swimming. However, when you use verbs like “is” or “has”, or even abstract words like “believe”, “remember”, or “thought”, no sympathetic cognitive mirroring takes place. Here is his example:
Using thought verbs:

Arlene was at the door. She had long, brown hair, her face had a look of shocked surprise.


Arlene stepped into view, framed by the open doorway. With one gloved hand, she brushed her long, brown hair away from her face. Her penciled eyebrows arched in surprise.

They both basically say the same thing. But reading the second one is more engaging to most people.

Here is another:

Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night.


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.

The trick is to avoid abstract verbs in favor of creating the circumstances that allow the listener to do the remembering, thinking, and loving.

Here is an example from a song:
Thursday - Cross Out the Eyes

Let’s call this the quiet city
Where screams are felt as the waves of the stoplights
Drive through the streets
As gunshots punctuate the night
The sides we take divide us from our faith
And the mourning dove gets caught in the telephone wire

Asleep, you set the fire in your own house
And the night was a knife that cut
And I’m paralyzed

Cross out the eyes, blur all the lines
Tearing this canvas from the wall
Cross out the eyes, put lines through these cries
Pull all the leaves from the trees that fall

A silent dance that we did into this hospital bed
Hear voices from another room
Say “It happens all the time”
But July in the sand with
The leaves falling and counting down our days to live
Drain the blood from this valentine

We can rise on the wings of the dove
See blue skies getting caught in the trail of all this smoke
We can rise, like candles in the dark, yours always
And an envelope marked with your new address

Asleep, you set the fire in your own house
And the night was a knife that cut
And I’m paralyzed

Cross out the eyes, blur all the lines
Tearing this canvas from the wall
Cross out the eyes, put lines through these cries
Pull all the leaves from the trees that fall

It was the first time face to face
Crossing the line talking to the other side of death
Hearing the words that choke memories into flat lines
Calling your name, hoping for something to wash these dreams of you away
Memories to flatlines
Cross out the eyes 'til we set off these lines

Our fence was blown down in a winter storm in this field
(Cross out the eyes)
Stretches out of this world into the sound
(A trace of)
What can we do to put a stop to the coming white days?
(A love song)
I’m hoping for snow to wash these dreams of you away
(Stretches out of this world, let’s drive back the dead)

Although there is the occasional use of a thought verb, it is usually followed by an active verb. Imagine if he would have said something like “This city is noisy and violent. Nature has no place in it. I feel confused and torn. I don’t want to see it clearly. I wish I could start anew. I got hurt and went to the hospital. I believe that we don’t know how much time we have, somethings are unexpected. People keep moving on, but I feel stuck. I should love myself, even when things get tough.” Not quite as interesting. What I like is that the thought verb “hoping” at the end kind of works here, because it acts an an emotional release, a relief from the built up tension all the verbiage up to that point brought, but is still followed by action “wash” to draw you back in. Also, in the pre-chorus, where he says “And the night was a knife that cuts”, I now find myself asking if maybe there was a better, more active way of saying it: “The night sliced the darkness” or something?

This is the basic idea of showing, not telling.

For this exercise, let’s try writing something, it can be a few lines or stanza, or even a paragraph that avoids thought verbs to help build tension. Then, try to write the same thing using thought verbs, to practice feeling the difference.

Check the thermostat, boy
Thick humidity blazes in your lungs
Exhale, feel it trapped beneath
The crumpled pile of grief
Stuck in your throat
Clinched fist, clinched fist
Burning white at the curvature
Each knuckle embraces the hidden
Explosion trapped in stiff joints
Breathe in, force the air to sting
Walk away
Live to struggle again
The ember embeds deeper in your spine
But we’ve long since lost the match
This tinder smoulders
Placing pressure behind your ears
Count backwards from five
Close your eyes
Scan your body
Erase the flames
Call the hotline and
Float out of yourself

USING THOUGHT VERBS SUMMARY: I am angry. I feel the need to fight. I learned to hold it in, but never deal with it. Now, I am too far gone. I learned techniques that I thought would work, they are failing. I lose myself to the rage.

i read the newspaper
it slept on the table
ring of coffee permeates the page
leaves a stain
the tabletop burn-in

burning toast smokes in chains
every day loops like a song
rattling chains erase the form
around my ankles
take me home

abstract: it feels like im living the same day over and over again. i wake up and repeat the same self-destructive habits. im losing myself and i think its too late. i feel like a prisoner in my own body. just kill me

1 Like

Reading the newspaper is a great way to start. I can kind of sense being there and my eyes briefly want to go from side to side. Permeates is a fun verb and gives me a clean visual. The looping song next to rattling chains is also really strong. Great exercise.

1 Like