Show a Little Emotion

Emotion: it’s a key ingredient to any good book.

Without emotion, we don’t care about what the characters are doing or why. Stories that play out interesting plots without the element of emotional experience lose our interest because we are human and emotion is at the core of who we are.

Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman get that. They have written a book called The Emotion Thesaurus and it’s filled with tips for writers on how to convey the right emotion at the right time, without the telling that separates a reader from the character.

The book devotes a few pages to each emotion, giving suggestions on how that particular emotion can be written. Seventy-five root emotions, including anger, love and confusion, are broken down into their physical signals, internal sensations and mental responses. So if you’ve exhausted ways of showing your reader how a character is angry, look it up and pick something from the list like cracking knuckles or a pulsing vein.

While I think this resource could help writers, especially novice writers, it does feel a bit like cheating. It’s like writing a test with notes in your desk and when you get to the tough question, just take a peek and find the answer.  But who knows, the next time I’m faced with a tricky emotional description, I may find myself skimming through the list for ideas.

Despite my hesitation, what I really liked about the book are the writing tips that appear after each emotion’s summary. Here is a list of my four favourite tips:

  1. “To increase tension in a scene, think about what is motivating your character, and which emotions could get in the way. Introduce an event that creates the very emotions the character wishes to avoid.”
  2. “Emotion should always lead to decision making, either good or bad, that will propel the story forward.”
  3. “One way to create emotional intensity is to have the character remember the stakes on the cusp of taking action. Worry over the outcome can add a slice of desperation to any scene and create a compelling emotional pull for the reader.”
  4. “If your scene includes a small dip into the past to retrieve information that has direct bearing on the current action, make sure there is an emotional component. Emotions are triggers to memory and help tie the present to the past.”