Monday, October 1, 2012

Mad, Glad, Sad? Show, Don't Tell.

 Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo. She and her partner, Becca Puglisi, are co-authors of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression, a book that I own and use consistently.  Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with seventy-five different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. She lives in Calgary, Alberta, in the shadow of the Rockies, with her family who she describes as crazy and therefore awesome, a dog and one slightly zombie-like fish.

If you would like to see a sample entry on FEAR straight from the book, just click here! Welcome to Book Blather, Angela.

If there is one universal fear among writers, it’s the bad review. No one wants to get one, even though we prepare for them. After all, taste is subjective and our work won’t appeal to everyone. But there’s a particular criticism that we are especially wary of, one that transforms our insides into a free-falling elevator if mentioned in conjunction with our book: cliché.

This Word That Must Not Be Named hits us at the core because as writers our biggest goal is to bring something new and unique to the reader. Often times however, clichés slip into our writing because we cannot think around the common (and often accurate) descriptions. This is especially true when writing EMOTION. Below is a small excerpt of the book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression where Becca and I offer a few strategies to use when writing emotion that will help you stay clear of the worn and overused gestures and bodily reactions.


• The grin that stretches from ear to ear
• A single tear pooling in the eye before coursing down the cheek
• Quivering knees that knock together

Clichés in literature are vilified for good reason. They’re a sign of lazy writing, a result of settling on the easy phrase because coming up with something new is too hard. Writers often fall back on clichés because, technically, these tired examples work. That grin implies happiness as certainly as knee knocking indicates fear. Unfortunately, phrases like these lack depth because they don’t allow for a range of emotions. That single tear tells you that the person is sad, but how upset is she? Sad enough to sob? Shriek? Collapse? Will she even be crying five minutes from now? To relate to your character, the reader needs to know the depth of emotion being experienced.
When writing a certain emotion, think about your body and what happens to it when you’re feeling that way. Excitement, for example. The heart races and the pulse quickens. Legs bounce. The speech of a methodical person becomes fast paced with streaming words. The voice is pitched higher and louder. For any given emotion, there are literally dozens of internal and external changes that, when referenced, will show the reader what your character is feeling. The lists in this thesaurus are great for providing ideas, but your own observations are just as helpful. Watch people—real flesh-and-blood specimens at the mall or characters in movies. Note how they act when they’re confused or overwhelmed or irritable. The face is the easiest to notice but the rest of the body is just as telling. Don’t overlook changes in a person’s voice, speech, or overall bearing and posture.
Secondly, know your character. Individuals do things differently—even mundane activities like brushing their teeth, driving, or making dinner. Emotions are no exception. Not every character will shout and throw things when angry. Some speak in quiet voices. Others go completely silent. Many, for various reasons, will cover their anger and act like they’re not upset at all. Whatever your character is feeling, describe the emotion in a way that is specific to him or her, and you’re almost guaranteed to write something new and evocative.


  1. Thanks so much for having me here, Marilee!

  2. I completely love The Emotion Thesaurus. I use it every time I write (which is every day)!

  3. Great post on the danged ole cliches!

  4. Aw, thank you so much, Cathy--so happy you're using it a lot!

    Thanks Kathy--appreciate the comment :)

  5. I just got The Emotion Thesaurus. Love it. It's wherever I am when I write.