Fix 4 Common Writing Problems 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?Pin It
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!
Yes, I’ve discussed the print vs. PDF debate several times in Twitter conversations, so I figured I should point out the exception I make for the ET (and why) to consolidate that information. 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions about using the ET and thanks for the comment!
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.
LOL! at having both versions open at once. You know, I wanted to keep this post informational–as I love the ET so much this could easily have sounded like an advertisement–but in the comments, I’ll share more of my gushing. 😀
I know what you mean about the ET being invaluable. The ET transformed my writing like nothing else. The last “basic writing craft” technique I struggled with was getting emotion on the page. I was slowly improving, but it was hit or miss and like pulling teeth. The ET has completely erased that problem. Like all writers, I still need feedback to make sure the reader interprets the cues the way I intend, but I’m so much better with emotion than I used to be–and it’s all thanks to the ET. 🙂
Wow! That sounds like a fascinating character. Yes, I can understand how the ET would be helpful in that situation. Awesome job! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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!
It’s a great reference! After a year and a half, I’m still using it just as often. 🙂 Thanks for writing it and thanks for the comment!
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!
Yes, I knew I used the ET–literally EVERY day–but it wasn’t until I wrote this post that I realized why and realized how it helped with all those writing problems. I’m sure I even forgot a few. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Your comment on frowning finally spurred me to buy this. Looking forward to improving my work with it.
Yes, I’ve broken myself from “frown,” but breaking me from “smile” is NOT going to happen. 🙂 I do try to limit them or word them differently, but just a few a book? *pshaw* No. LOL! Thanks for the comment!
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.
As with everything in our writing, if we have a reason for “breaking” a rule or guideline, there’s nothing wrong with our choice. I’d say just to make sure that you’re conscious of all those occurrences and that they’re each there for a specific reason (like a well-defined tell or tic based on a definitive mood).
You’ve probably heard of the rule of three: if we mention something 3 or more times, we’re making it stick in the reader’s head. So just make sure all the mentions mean something, and you should be fine. Rotating a tic every 4-6 chapters shouldn’t be too overdone, especially with a reason behind them.
The problem with most of the cliches I mentioned is that they’re not saying anything specific about the character other than the behavior itself. They’re not hinting at a deeper personality issue. They’re just lazy shortcuts. And sometimes that’s all we want–just a smile and move on.
So there’s nothing wrong with using these, as long as we have a reason. Either we’re building something deeper or we purposely don’t want to emphasize a response. Make sense? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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?
LOL! Yes, I can think of some of my writer friends I’d like to have on my shoulder pointing out “that’s telling!” or other issues.
As I mentioned to Sharon above, tics can certainly be used to develop a character. Some readers will pick up on the subtext and some won’t. One book I read used a tic to show a non-POV character’s nervousness, and I didn’t notice it until the end of the story, when it was commented on directly (when the habit changed). But once it clicked, everything made sense.
So there’s nothing wrong with using repeating behaviors, as long as we have a reason. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
LOL! I don’t blame you. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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 »
Interesting! I haven’t seen the show but this makes me want to do a marathon of it like you did. 🙂
Back in my post about holding a power pose to help us “fake it until we make it,” I mentioned to you that I sometimes struggle with expressing the correct emotion. When people tell me bad/sad news, I have to consciously reflect proper sympathy in my expression because I’m naturally so smiley all the time (my 🙂 in my comments are true to life). As you said, having to pay attention to that stuff can be draining. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to do that on a regular basis. You do have my sympathy for that. Thanks for sharing and thanks for the comment!
Ever try focusing on the eyes and brow instead of your mouth? You can turn a smile sad or sympathetic that way. Shoulders can also help. 🙂
A bit of clarification since you haven’t seen the show: the lead MMC has a daughter, Emily. Viewers meet the daughter before they meet the ex-wife, Zoe, who is Emily’s mother, and Zoe echoes some of Emily’s mannerisms when she first appears.
Thanks for the tips! 🙂 It sounds like you’re an expert from necessity’s sake.
Oh, yes, that’s cool about the mother/daughter–I was wondering about that reference. LOL! I’m sure I’ve picked up mannerisms from others over the years, but I couldn’t tell you which ones. I do know that I’ve consciously avoided picking up some mannerisms I didn’t like. 🙂 Maybe that means it’s easier for me to avoid or suppress than to create. Interesting! Thanks for the comment!
Necessity drives all sorts of things. I can even fake the eye crinkle of a “genuine” smile. (With me, eye crinkle on left = faked; eye crinkle on right = genuine.)
And the genuine expressions are usually far more subtle or muted than the faked ones.
The downside to all the faking is that, in person, I’m unusually good at lying and manipulating others, which disturbs me. It really freaks me out when I catch myself doing it automatically. :/ That’s why I try to keep “suppression” my default setting rather than “faking”.
Though my best friend actually enjoyed the time I manipulated her into trying tomatoes. (“How did you just get me to taste that? My sister’s been trying to get me to try tomatoes for years!”)
I suspect I could’ve been an actress. I was in a school play as a high school senior, and attendees assumed I was going to be a theater major. A few also expressed startlement at my quick Northern speech patterns after my Southern drawl in the play. 🙂
The question is, did your friend like the tomatoes she tried? 🙂
She actually did, to her surprise. 😀
Ha! I love it. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
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.
I’m glad I’m not alone in my love for the ET. 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions about the two new books. Thanks for the comment!
[…] 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 […]
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.
Yes, we’ve talked about your preferences before, and they just go to show that there are many audiences out there. So I should make it clear to everyone that these tips are all guidelines and not “rules.” 🙂
Absolutely, the unrealistic and exaggerated depictions of emotion aren’t any better. One project I read used two responses (an internal/visceral and a mental response) to something very normal. One would have been “Oh, okay, they’re startled but fine,” but two made it look like they were freaking out, which made me think they had a phobia or something.
That’s why I said the best thing we can do is match the response to the stimulus. All of those responses ADD UP and tell the reader things we might not want to say. 🙂
And like you said, the dialogue tags of roared, growled, hissed, etc. should be very rare. I’d say one each or so per book. Personally, I prefer using action beats instead of tags anyway, and that way I avoid the whole issue–no “said”s or “growled”s. LOL! Thanks for the comment!
Yeah, I prefer the action beats more than roared, growled, hissed too, if possible. As long as the action beats aren’t cliched or trite themselves. It makes you roll your eyes when characters are continually picking up their cups of coffee, then putting them down, then going to the kitchen to wash their cups, then coming back to the table and collapsing back into their chairs, and then picking up their cigarettes, then lighting them, then snuffing them out… XD Or maybe it’s just me… I would like to actually CARE about the action beats, so it would be nice if they were more than mere trivial things that add nothing to the story or characters.
“One would have been “Oh, okay, they’re startled but fine,” but two made it look like they were freaking out, which made me think they had a phobia or something.”
And yup, the emotional match-ups are definitely very important! Although we might have to watch out for characters who are naturally very dramatic and theatrical people…Some people in “real life” are over-reactive to everything after all, lol. (Some people seem to be naturally under-reactive too….:O)
Oh very true! Action beats can be just as cliche (and empty of meaning). The whole follow-up post I did to this one is about matching those responses. 🙂
Great point about how it might be difficult for us to judge the right amount of response though if we’re naturally under- or over-reactive. Yet another reason beta readers are so important. Thanks for the comment!
Yeah, imagine if you have two beta readers. One is naturally over-reactive and the other naturally under-reactive. And you yourself are an “average-reactive” person. All three of you would disagree so much, and you wouldn’t know what to do. XD One hopes that the situation would be less difficult than this hypothetical scenario though, lol.
LOL! I’m sure that’s happened. 🙂
Btw, I just remembered something related to this topic. One reason why I tend to prefer telling rather than showing emotions is because of my own idiosyncratic reactions: I have emotional and often even physiological reactions to MERE WORDS like euphoria, elation, sublime, gladness, joy, happiness, etc. In contrast, two friends of mine do NOT have physiological reactions to such mere words and instead react only to concrete actions that show the character’s emotions. I, strangely, react LESS to specific actions and MORE to mere emotion words!! XDD. Seriously, I have NO idea why I’m such a weird reader, lol. (Well I DO react to actions, just much less than to words.) So I understand that not everybody would react like I do (probably MOST people don’t react like I do, lol), so it might be best to get a compromise. (Fox thinking! XD) I can do a lot of the classics-like telling to my content, but also put in SOME actions. Or, at least, that’s my plan. I guess the reason why I’m so skeptical of using actions to replace emotion words is because of what I told you above: I keep feeling that I’ll be forced to use the same old stock phrases and cliched actions. And the problem is, when you try to use a more creative action, I.e. depart from the stock phrases, some readers will hate it because they are ONLY USED TO reading those stock phrases. XD. So it’s quite aggravating that when you… — Read More »
LOL! at Fox thinking. 😉
Ooo, that’s a great point for you to understand about yourself and why telling works so much better for you than it does for others. To be honest, having an emotional reaction to a word itself happens to me sometimes, but only if I’m in a certain mood.
I recently read a whole story (i.e., I didn’t put it down in the middle) without a single internal visceral reaction or a physical response. The POV was omniscient–so this makes more sense–and every emotion was told (“He was confused.”), explained via mental responses (“He didn’t know why this was happening.”), or both.
It wasn’t a “deep” reading experience for me (meaning I never truly related to any of the characters), but the story did keep my interest through to the end. So I guess I got enough of the emotions through the telling technique to make it work on a rudimentary level for me.
You’re quite right–it’s not about coming up with strange reactions. After all, if the reaction is too strange, readers won’t know what emotion it’s referring to. LOL! It’s about coming up with unique ways to describe the reaction. I usually try to go deep POV to come up with those. Character A’s voice and experience would lead her to describe something differently from Character B’s voice and experience.
Thanks for the great discussion! 🙂
Thanks for the great discussion and for sharing your experiences too! :D. Yeah I have to keep reminding myself that not all people react to emotion words as strongly as I do, so actions FTW. 😀 Hey great idea about how different characters, with their different experiences, would describe the same action in a different way. BTW I just bought the emotion thesaurus out of curiosity, and checked the entry on curiosity (lol). It was very entertaining to imagine my characters do all those various gestures XD, which reminds me that though I would want variety, I have to be careful that the gestures stay in character too. Like one of my characters in my head was reading the disbelief entry with me, and he asserted that he would never run his hands through his hair, hold it back, then release it even if he were in disbelief. Lol. And he warned me, don’t you dare write me doing anything I would never do! XDD. The Emotion Thesaurus is also very interesting to me as a psychology student, as I clearly don’t pay as much attention to body language than I should, lol. BTW, apart from body language, I quite like the idea of conveying emotion via dialogue, the actual speech itself, and not the action beats. So it was good that the ET also covered some things that the character may say, or things like starting from chatting generally, then subtly becoming more probing when they get curious. Loved… — Read More »
Exactly! Not everyone will react the same way to events, so I like the big lists in the ET because I can almost always find one that would fit the character. 🙂
I can’t think of any stories that stand out as far as showing emotion off-hand–mostly because I tend not to analyze my pleasure reading that much–but if I come across any, I’ll let you know. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Okay, thanks! 😀
“Exactly! Not everyone will react the same way to events, so I like the big lists in the ET because I can almost always find one that would fit the character. :)”
Haha, the list will be fun for observing and analyzing myself too. XD
Hee. Very true, Serena! 🙂
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!!
How interesting! I definitely agree that having a better understanding of our emotions can help us in life in general. I know that since I started writing–and paying more attention to this stuff–my life has become more fulfilling in ways unrelated to the writing itself. 🙂
I hope you find great insights! Thanks for the comment!
[…] Jami Gold: Fix 4 Common Writing Problems with “The Emotion Thesaurus” […]
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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…
I’m glad it could help! 🙂 Writing advice doesn’t change that quickly, so luckily, the posts stay good. LOL!
[…] 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. […]