December 10, 2013

Fix 4 Common Writing Problems with “The Emotion Thesaurus”

Cover of the Emotion Thesaurus with text: Writing Tips with The Emotion Thesaurus

A couple of weeks ago, Becca Puglisi, one of the co-authors of the fantastic Thesaurus books, shared her tips for using the new The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus books. Her advice can help us develop our characters at all stages of planning, drafting, and editing.

But the comments of that post pointed out that I don’t have a similar article on my blog for their original release, The Emotion Thesaurus. Given how much I’ve stated my love for the ET, this was a serious oversight on my part. *grin*

If you’re not familiar with The Emotion Thesaurus, let me give a quick overview. The ET lists physical, internal, and mental responses for different emotions.

In other words, all that showing instead of telling we’re supposed to do? The ET has our back. I literally use the ET every day I write. Take a look at some of the ways the ET can help our writing, and you’ll understand why.

Avoid 4 Common Writing Problems with The Emotion Thesaurus

#1: Avoid Naming Emotions

If we state the name of an emotion, we’re generally telling instead of showing. We can tell the difference by thinking of whether a video camera could capture the details of our words.

  • He was angry.

What does this “angry” emotion look like? Sure we could all guess, but we’re telling the reader the emotion instead of showing how a camera could observe the emotion. To improve our writing, we’d look up “Anger” in the ET and find two pages of suggestions for specific physical, internal, or mental cues like:

  • His nostrils flared.
  • He ground his teeth.
  • He imagined breaking them from limb to limb.

Showing is subtext, while naming an emotion is often too “on the nose.” Aim for subtext to draw the reader deeper into the story.

Watch out for emotions stated by name.
These are red flags for telling.

#2: Avoid Head-Hopping

Unless we’re writing omniscient point-of-view (POV), readers should know the internal thoughts and reactions of only one character—the POV character—at a time. And we’d usually have only one POV character per scene.

However, we often want the reader to know the emotions of the non-POV characters too. That means we need to use non-internal or mental responses for our non-POV characters’ emotions. Luckily, the ET has nearly a page of physical cue ideas for each emotion.

The Physical Signals section for each entry lists how to convey an emotion in ways that both the POV character and the reader could observe. That way we can provide information about other, non-POV characters and not head-hop, which can disorient readers and take them out of our story.

Watch out for internal or mental cues from non-POV characters.
These are red flags for head-hopping.

#3: Avoid Clichéd Behaviors

In the romance genre, sometimes it seems like the hero isn’t truly a hero until he “rakes his hand through his hair”—usually in frustration at something the heroine does. And don’t forget the heroine who nibbles her lip so often that we worry it’ll start bleeding. Ugh.

I don’t know about any of you, but when I’m drafting, sometimes I get bored by all the clichés of “head nods,” “smiles,” and “frowns” in my writing. And if I’m bored, I can bet the reader would be too.

Angela Ackerman, the other co-author of the Thesaurus books, once said we should limit our characters to one “frown” a book. Now, that’s not to say two or three frowns in a book would be out of line, but her point was that we should stretch ourselves to come up with unique descriptions.

During revisions, we can do a search for common actions or body parts (smile, frown, nod, shrug, sigh, brow, etc.) and change up most of them. One frown per chapter would be something to watch out for.

The ET enriches our vocabulary of those physical cues so we’re not relying on the same clichés over and over. In addition, we can mix up internal and mental responses, so we’re not limited to physical signals either (except for non-POV characters).

Watch out for repeated descriptions and behaviors.
These are red flags for clichés.

#4: Avoid Flat, Unemotional Writing

Stories are made up of actions and reactions. At the sentence and paragraph level, we call these Motivation-Reaction Units (Dwight Swain’s MRUs). Many times, when our writing feels flat, it’s because we’re missing a proper emotional response to a motivation.

Maybe we’re missing any response at all, like if a new character walks into the room and our POV character doesn’t react (look up, say “hi,” mentally grumble, etc.). Or maybe our response is too weak for the stimulus.

In one of my stories, I wrote a “would cause a normal person to freak out” scene. Originally, I had it that the character did react, but feedback from one critiquer pointed out that the character didn’t freak out quite enough.

That left the scene feeling flat because the reader didn’t feel like they had permission to react as much as they wanted to. The character’s underwhelming response restrained the reader’s emotional response.

The critiquer was absolutely correct. Even if I was trying to establish that this character didn’t get freaked out (which I wasn’t), I should have included mental responses explaining or dismissing the stimulus.

So when we have big emotional scenes (adrenaline rush events, turning points, “black moments,” epiphanies, etc.), we can use the ET to come up with multiple emotional cues. The character might have an internal (visceral) sensation and a physical response and a mental internalization.

In some cases, we might give them conflicting responses. Romances will often have the character think negative thoughts about the other or display “rejection” body language, but their visceral responses give away their attraction.

Watch out for missing or weak reactions.
These are red flags for flat writing.

Using The Emotion Thesaurus with Our Writing Process

Depending on our writing process, we might use the ET more during drafting, revising, or both. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a slow drafter. Part of the reason for that is that I try to avoid many of these problems in the drafting phase.

I give specifics rather than naming emotions, I use physical cues for non-POV characters, and I now expand an emotional response until it feels complete. The one thing I’m too lazy to “get right” in the drafting phase are those clichéd responses. *sigh* I just hope I catch them in revisions.

There’s no wrong way to approach this step, however. Some writers might head-hop during drafting and clean up those non-POV character cues during revision. Others might name emotions at first and figure out how to show them later. Like I said, there’s a reason my copy of the ET rarely closes. *grin*

Other Helpful Features of The Emotion Thesaurus

Each entry of the ET also lists “May Escalate To” emotions. For example, “Anger” may escalate to “Rage.” Each of those entries has a complete list of ideas for responses. So if I can’t find something that feels right for the character and situation on one list, I’ll check the related lists.

Either during character creation or revision, we might also look at the emotions linked to the character’s fatal flaw or backstory wound. Each emotion entry includes “Cues of Acute or Long-Term X” and “Cues of Suppressed X.” These ideas might help us come up with consistent characterization responses throughout the story.

Often, when considering the big list of response options, some reactions will feel right for a character and some won’t. That’s a good sign that our character isn’t just a puppet. When characters are individuals, they should react differently to the same stimulus. Don’t fight that subconscious voice just for variety’s sake. Find different ways to word “their” response rather than pasting in a reaction that doesn’t fit.

A Note on The Emotion Thesaurus Versions

Like many other authors I’ve spoken with, I usually prefer purchasing craft books in print so I can mark sections, flip pages for reference, etc. However, the ebook version of the ET includes a hyperlinked Table of Contents, as well as links for those “May Escalate To” emotions.

So in the case of the ET, I’ve found the ebook version (I have the PDF version on my desktop) good for quick reference, and because others also default to print for craft books, I wanted to mention the special circumstances for the ET. I’ve heard from many authors who buy both the print and the ebook versions for this reason.

The print and Kindle versions of The Emotion Thesaurus can be found at Amazon. Other ebook versions (including the PDF version) can be found at Angela and Becca’s site, Writers Helping Writers. And hopefully you’ll find the ET as helpful to your writing as I’ve found it for mine. *smile*

Do you struggle with any of those common writing problems? How do you overcome the issue? Have you used The Emotion Thesaurus (and if so, what version)? Do you use it during drafting, revising, or both? Do you have additional tips for how to use the ET?

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Comments — What do you think?

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A.M. Buxton

Another great post, Jami! I am going to dig my ET out right now and slap it next to my computer. I didn’t even know about the new books, and I love the PDF option! Thanks!

Davonne Burns

I love this book (and the others). I’m one of the ones who bought both the print and the ebook version. Sometimes I have them both open at the same time. ^_^

The Emotion Thesaurus has been invaluable for me. Especially since my MC is an emotionally crippled telepath. He has no name for many emotions he senses in others so I HAVE to find ways to describe the emotion without naming it. I’ll just say, it was the hardest thing about the book and I am forever grateful to have the Emotion Thesaurus.

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Jami, you’re awesome. This is a great breakdown of how writers can use The Emotion Thesaurus. It makes me so happy to know that after it being out for a year and a half, people are still using it and talking about it. Thanks for spreading the word!

Angela Ackerman

Jami, thank you for such an incredible post! <3 <3 <3 I love reading about the different ways the ET helps with common writing struggles. Becca and I had hoped it would help people when we wrote it, but I don't think either of us anticipated this huge reaction to the book. It feels so good to be able to give back in this way to a community that has helped me so much!

Kathryn Jankowski

Your comment on frowning finally spurred me to buy this. Looking forward to improving my work with it.

Sharon Hughson

Thanks for doing a post on this resource. I have the book and thumbed through it several times, but I don’t want to take the time to check it while writing my fast draft. I know I will use it to death during revision and I printed out this post so I can make sure to check for all the miscues.
One thing about clichéd reactions – you mentioned biting the lip – I have my protag pushing her hair behind her ear and biting her lip quite often. These are tells for her personality (and by the end of the series she doesn’t need them anymore). Do you believe this is still a misuse? It’s not in every scene, but one or the other happens in every second or third chapter, I would estimate.
You’re awesome!


While I edit I’d like a little Jami sitting on my shoulder saying, “look, see?” Using my ET has become a habit. When you brought up consistent characterization responses, I think of tells. When a character shows a response, like an eye tick, to a certain stimulus and it’s shown again, and maybe again, can the reader know what that character is feeling and thinking?

Amber Argyle



I finally watched the TV show Lie to Me. (My brother has Netflix and put it on while I was visiting.) That was…Saturday, I think. I’ve already finished the entire show. It’s been fascinating to finally have a definite answer to “That’s what I’m seeing!” …and the show is something of an emotional thesaurus in itself. Plus a nice example of how details can fit together—something that was quite obvious thanks to my marathon. For instance, the first time Zoe comes on the screen, she’s using some of Emily’s mannerisms. For some things on the show, it was “Oh! That’s what I’m seeing!” For others, it was “Oh, yeah. I know [or forgot] about that.” And then there are the things for which I’ll want to watch the series again, because I didn’t see them and don’t know if I missed them or if they were there to begin with. (That’s the downside to referencing film for emotional cues—how do you make sure to use a good reference?) With my hormone disorder, I’m used to having to fake what I should be feeling when the hormones aren’t working right. It takes a lot of energy, and I save it for when I need it. Otherwise, I focus on suppressing the not-fitting emotion. That faking (and suppression) means I have a lot more control over my facial muscles than a lot of people…and since I look a good decade younger than I am, I make use of body language to help…  — Read More »

Stacey Zink

Great blog post! I have this book and love it. I haven’t bought any of the other books, but need to check them out.


[…] time, we discussed ways to use The Emotion Thesaurus to avoid problems like telling instead of showing, head-hopping away from the point-of-view character, …. The fourth issue we touched on was avoiding flat or unemotional […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Cool. I agree with basically all your points, except–maybe I’m weird, but I’m actually not that bothered about directly stating (telling) emotions. I think it’s because I’m used to reading literary classics, which ALMOST ALWAYS tell emotions rather than show them (at least, from what I’ve read.) So I’m actually LESS used to the style where showing emotions takes precedence over telling them, lol. So I guess it depends on which audience I’m writing for… But I do personally think that some authors try too hard to show emotions, that we get SO much teeth grinding, teeth gritting, hissing, etc, to the point that it feels unrealistic and over-exaggerated, yikes. Not saying that all authors fall into that trap, of course. 🙂 But that some seem to.
Yet, instead of seeing people try so hard to say things like “he roared”, “she growled”, etc., I’d rather they be straightforward and say ” She said angrily” instead. Things like “she growled” aren’t inherently wrong, but they do get annoying, at least to me, if it looks like the author is forcing themselves too much to come up with such actions to replace simple emotion words. That’s only my humble opinion, of course, from a person who reads too many classics, lol.

Frank Colella

Hi, Jami…

Great article about a subject that I’m doing a lot of research on. I’m not a professional writer, but as a life coach, I’m exploring the relation between our “stories” and our emotions and how they form the basis of our perceptions and our world view. I’ve been “googling” different emotions to assist my clients to get in touch with their feeling, and the “Emotional Thesaurus” seems like an invaluable tool for this kind of process. Thanks for the review!!


[…] Jami Gold: Fix 4 Common Writing Problems with “The Emotion Thesaurus” […]


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Amos L Mashigo

I stumbled on to this post while doing some research because I wanted to write an emotional scene. I’m struggling with that. Thanks for this. Very informative. .. yep, even though this was written 4 years ago…


[…] The Thesaurus books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are a must-have for every fiction author. I’ve raved many times about the awesomeness of their Emotion Thesaurus and how we can use it to improve our writing. […]

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