One of my favorite writing craft books/resources has got to be Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus. It truly is a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.
Creating authentic and engaging emotions in your narrative can help evoke emotions in your reader, which will create a stronger connection to the story and a better reception of your book
I have a printed copy of the thesaurus because I enjoy flipping through it quickly and book-marking specific emotions with sticky notes. There is an e-book version that a few author friends prefer, and can also be highlighted and marked-up. But either format you choose, the Emotion Thesaurus is a useful tool to have while editing.
I will repeat that for emphasis. The Emotion Thesaurus is a useful tool for editing.
1. An editing resource
When I am writing a first draft, I embrace the art of writing badly. I shut out my inner critic and editor to just get the story out on paper. I’m more concerned about discovering the inter-workings of the narrative than the polish of my prose, often leading to more tell than show in my first draft.
The Emotion Thesaurus can be used while drafting, but I recommend putting it aside until you are editing. The fewer interruptions to your writing flow, the better.
The Emotion Thesaurus is a great resource to have on hand when you start your line edits (little picture edits). Look for moments when you tell the reader what emotion a character is experiencing and then you can use the thesaurus to help you show that emotion instead.
“I told you that yesterday,” Charles said with irritation.
Charles forced a laugh. He uncrossed his arms and barked, “I told you that yesterday.”
2. A crash course in the craft of writing emotion
The first 25 pages of the book are a gold mine! It provides an introduction prior to diving into the thesaurus (which takes up most of the book). But this section also includes topics such as:
- The power of emotion
- Character research: what to know to write authentic emotion
- Using dialogue to write emotion
- Common problems with non-verbal emotion
- And more!
The intro even provides tips on how to better use the thesaurus. It simplifies a lot of information down and gives it to you in a nice manageable package.
Since most of the thesaurus provides non-verbal/action based emotional cues, this intro really helps you focus on how you can write emotion that holds true to your character, aligns with your narrative, and touches the reader. I took some diligent notes when reading through this bit.
3. A brainstorming tool
The authors end the introduction with a final note encouraging writers to use the thesaurus as a springboard for ideas and not as a copy and paste mechanism, which is probably one of the biggest take-aways to keep your writing fresh and unique to your voice.
It is your job as the writer to take the standard, near-cliché reactions and infuse them into your story so that they are rich and vivid. A way that you do this is to integrate emotional cues (like action or dialogue) into the interesting details of the story.
Use setting, character attributes, reoccurring jokes, or other “set pieces” to show how the characters are feeling.
4. A deeper analysis of character emotion
Rather than providing a laundry list of actions that show a certain emotion. Each entry in the Emotion Thesaurus covers the following:
- A definition of the emotion
- Physical signals and behaviors
- Internal sensations
- Mental responses
- Acute or long-term responses
- Signs the emotion is being suppressed
- Emotions it could escalate to
- Emotions it could deescalate to
- Associated power verbs
That’s a lot to consider! Obviously, you will cherry pick through these details to select what best works in the scene. But being presented with this gallery of considerations allows you to think about the character more deeply.
We also feel multiple emotions all at once and, by understanding them deeper, can better instruct how different emotions might play together.
5. A foundation for character inspiration
As I mentioned in the brainstorming bullet, the thesaurus is great for an idea springboard. This can also be used when plotting a novel or creating a character. The Emotion Thesaurus can guide you while you’re discovering your character’s emotional wound (or the shard of glass in Save the Cat)
I recommend looking closer at the long-term responses and signs the emotion is being suppressed when doing this. These will help you piece together the emotional mosaic that threads your character arc together.
Want more from the thesaurus?
In case you were wondering, there are more writing thesaurus books by the same authors! It’s all part of the Writers Helping Writers collection and includes.
- The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma
- The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places
- The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces
- The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes
- The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws
- The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers
- Emotion Amplifiers: A Companion to The Emotion Thesaurus
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