What is The Emotion Thesaurus?
ANGELA: It’s a tool to help writers show, not tell, emotion. Formatted similar to a thesaurus, the ET explores 75 different emotions, and lists out possible body language cues, visceral sensations (like shivering, a flush of heat or adrenaline, tightness in the throat, etc.) and thoughts a character might experience for each. The result is a brainstorming guide to reference when a writer is struggling with a fresh way to show the reader what a character is feeling.
What prompted you to create the Emotion Thesaurus?
BECCA: Back in 2004, the stars aligned, God smiled, and Angela and I hooked up with the same group of writers at Critique Circle. One of the first things I realized when I started seriously examining my writing was that my characters were always shifting their feet, narrowing their eyes, and fidgeting. To come up with new ways to show emotions, I started a list of physical indicators that I had seen in books, observations I had made, and phrases I had experimented with myself. Right about then, Angela opined that her characters were always biting their lips, nodding, and smiling or frowning. She began a discussion in our critique group about how to convey emotions through different indicators. When everyone responded that they struggled with the same thing, I shared my bare-bones list of emotional indicators. We agreed to contribute to the list and Angela kept a master copy.
That was how the idea started. It grew when we began The Bookshelf Muse and decided to open with a series of blog posts that covered this material. The information was pretty well received and people started telling us they’d love to have it all in a nifty book format. And...vóila! An Emotion Thesaurus was born.
How did the Emotion Thesaurus change your own writing?
ANGELA: well as Becca mentioned, it got us out of the eye rolling/shrugging/smiling camp, but for me, that was only the start. Overall, it forced me to really understand what telling was, a lesson I could apply to all aspects of description. I began thinking more about how the words I used and the descriptions I chose could create an emotional response in the reader. After all, that’s the goal--connect with the reader and make them FEEL.
Every aspect of the writing process comes back to emotion: character, storyline, description, theme, etc. Our goal is to use empathy to connect the character and his struggles to the reader. We write to offer them an emotional experience, hopefully one that will remain past the last page because it holds a personal meaning to their own life journey. It is in our nature to hunger for meaning, and to search for answers. So when an author writes emotion well, not only does a window open into the character’s world, one opens within the reader as well.
What are three common mistakes you see writers make when writing emotion?
Not enough emotion. Readers need to feel what the character’s feeling. Yet I see so many characters who don’t seem to feel much of anything. Ways to effectively convey emotion: 1) Don’t name the emotion (She was overcome with sadness); show it (She rubbed at her chest, where a gnawing void seemed to have swallowed her heart). 2) Always show a character’s physical response to any event or conversation that elicits emotion; don’t rely on dialogue alone to get the point across. 3) Make sure events in your story are dramatic enough to elicit true emotion; if they’re not, you need to add some conflict and tension to the mix.
Weak emotional range. Humans have the capacity to experience dozens of different emotions, yet many writers tend to focus on the most obvious ones. Characters who only express happiness, sadness, and anger fall flat after awhile. To avoid this problem: For each scene, look at your character’s goal and the conflict that keeps him from achieving it. Then ask yourself: What does my character feel as a result of this roadblock? If the answer is always the same, try varying those roadblocks or throwing in a new conflict to broaden his emotional experiences.
Repetitive emotional description. We created The Emotion Thesaurus because we found this problem to be a nearly universal struggle among writers. We’re all a bit stymied when it comes to writing emotion because we only notice and retain the really obvious cues, and we tend to rely on them. But any repetition weakens the writing. To avoid this problem: 1) Note the cues that you overuse, then search and destroy when editing. 2) Observe, watch movies, and jot down physical responses to different feelings. 3) Practice expressing old cues in fresh new ways (he clenched his fists becomes his fingers curled into trembling fists of knuckle and bone), and 4) use The Emotion Thesaurus to brainstorm new ways to express emotion.
The Emotion Thesaurus is available in ebook, PDF & print...which is better?
All three are awesome! LOL, no, really it's all about what the writer needs. The print book is handy because each entry is a 2 page spread like an open sandwich, meaning you can see the whole entry at once. Ereaders are smaller, so you can't do this, but the digital copies have handy-dandy links so a writer can move from entry to entry easily.
The Bookshelf Muse blog duo are co-authors of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with 75 different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion.