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.”

9 Responses to Show a Little Emotion

  1. This doesn’t seem any different than studying body language. Actors do that – why shouldn’t we? Any resource that gets you heading in the right direction is a good tool, as long as it doesn’t become cliche and repetitious. I’ll have to check this book out the next time I’m in the bookstore. Thanks for the tip.

    • And the authors do recommend writers pay more attention to body language, in others and ourselves. I agree with that…learning from our world and applying it to our craft. Thanks for the comment, Dianne.

  2. Watching repetition, and a balanced approach to showing and telling are obvious caveats, but I can definitely see a use for this book.

    Another option is to choose certain body language traits and use them exclusively for one character, adding to their distinctiveness.

    The four tips were great – very helpful – except for the use of ‘always’ in tip two. Given the huge variety in styles and genres of written fiction, surely it’s time sensible writing guides stopped putting the “a” word into their otherwise good advice? Just a thought…

    A great mini-review though. Thanks, Marianne.

  3. Finding that niche for you to get further into the characters mind is the key thing here. You want an emotional attachment as a reader and as such its something that many people either don’t think through or leave it alone hoping that other elements such as pace will bail them out.

    Thanks for this post Marianne, definitely something that I agree with and you’ve brought it to the fore to help back my reasons for trying to add more emotion to my pieces.

    If you need a book example “God Save the Queen” by Kate Locke follows a lot of these points quite well.

  4. Cheating? Why the hell no? I use a regular thesaurus and a dictionary to help improve my verbal vocab, so why not a book to help develop my emotion vocab? I think the important thing is never to rely too heavily on any one resource or let it limit you. I think I might pick up a copy of this for my Kobo. Thanks for sharing your review.

    • That’s a good point. It’s true we use resources for our writing, The Emotion Thesaurus is just one more that can be helpful. Thanks, Chrissey.

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