Review: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

Having decided that it was time to get (reasonably) serious about my writing; this book will most likely be the first in a small library of books on writing.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is what it says it is: a thesaurus covering a wide range of emotions. Each entry, from adoration to worry, contains a definition of the emotion, and ways in which an author can express that emotion using nonverbal (and occasionally verbal) cues. The authors break these cues down into three categories: physical signals, internal sensations, and mental responses, provide cues for acute or long-term expressions of a particular emotion, including possible escalations (adoration, for instance, may escalate into love, desire, hurt, or frustration), and cues for repressed emotions. At the end of each entry, the authors include general tips for showing, not telling, how characters feel.

Those of you who have read my work (if you haven’t read anything I’ve written, go click on the tab that says “Free Fiction!” at the top of the page) will know that I am pretty terrible at showing emotion. I’d make this into a drinking game–take one sip every time Gef tells you what her characters are feeling–but you would probably be drunk by the time you finished a single paragraph. So this book is an absolute godsend for those of us writers who need a little more help decoding nonverbal communication. The authors point out that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of cues, but they are meant to serve more as jumping-off points, and they encourage the reader to experiment with finding new ways to express emotion than tired old cliches. The cues aren’t meant to be “cheat codes” you can just cut and paste into your writing, but they can give you an accurate picture of how people express certain emotions.

Now, because I should probably provide an example, here is a snippet from the entry for amusement (pp. 20-1):

Physical Signals

A shiny or rosy face

Chuckling or cackling

Holding onto a chair or walls for support

Plucking clothing to cool down

Internal Sensations

Pain in the ribs or stomach

Wheezy breath

Mental Responses

A need to sit down

Replaying the humourous event

Cues of acute or long term amusement

Uncontrollable laughter

Body quaking

Begging people to stop


Needing to leave the room

May Escalate to: Happiness, Satisfaction

Cues of Suppressed Amusement

Clamping the lips together

Shaking the head

Swallowing laughter

This is pretty much how I express amusement: I laugh until I can’t breathe/my back starts to hurt, and then I start begging people to stop. I’ve also been known to leave the room if I just can’t stop laughing my ass off.

The entire list of cues is much longer than this, BTW, I’m just using it as an example.

As with most books I read, I do have a couple of issues. The first is obvious in that there are only so many emotions in the book, although the authors do recommend looking up similar emotions if the one you want isn’t in there. The writer’s tips are generally useful, but some of them are completely random (ie. a warning against including brand names in your work, which dates it) and overall I really think the book could have benefited from more examples, especially since some of the tips really could have used an example to illustrate the point. Considering how thin the book is, I think it definitely could have benefited from being a bit thicker (and perhaps a bit smaller). The examples at the beginning of the book were great, I just wish they would have included more in the rest of the book, not for every entry, but certainly for some of the tips (like, say, a brief blurb on the difference between “closed” and “open” posture).

Overall, I think this would be a great book for those of us who want a quick reference guide to showing rather than telling emotional states. It’s not an exhaustive guide by any means, but if you’re like me and you hate people watching don’t have the greatest grasp of nonverbal cues, this book may be just what you need to help you improve your writing.

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