I’m at the editing stage with my WIP, so I’ve been reading writing books like crazy. I’ve always felt confident in my content, my story, plot, and characters, but not so much my prose. I’m forever on the search for the secret to better prose, and one area that I need help with is showing character emotion. I could really use an emotional thesaurus.
So today I’m reviewing The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
It is exactly what the title says it is, a very emotional thesaurus.
The creative writing thesaurus starts out with an introduction and then tells how to avoid common problems when writing nonverbal emotions. Don’t tell the reader the emotion: “Dan is sad.” Instead show the physical and internal responses of the emotion. Use sensory details, similes, verbs, and body cues that all go with the emotion. That’s all pretty standard but good advice there.
The book encourages writers to avoid cliché emotions such as “The grin that stretches from ear to ear.” Instead, think about how you react to emotions and how your individual characters would react.
Avoid melodrama. Well, yeah, that’s a given for any novel. Make sure your character’s feelings progress in a way that’s natural. And yada, yada. I’m not going to tell you all the book’s advice. You’ll have to buy this emotional thesaurus for that, but trust me, it’s all pretty typical stuff.
It points out that you need to balance both the verbal and nonverbal, thoughts, dialogue, and action, to properly show emotion, and then the book explains a little more about how to use the thesaurus. It encourages you to use your setting to express emotion too, tells you less is more when it comes to emotion because you don’t want to slow down the pace of the plot, and so on, all mostly obvious tips.
CREATIVE WRITING THESAURUS LAYOUT
Then you get into the actual meat of the book, the emotional thesaurus itself. It has seventy-five emotion entries listed in alphabetical order. Yes, you will be using the table of contents a lot. Want to describe envy? It’s on page seventy-two. Flip to it, and you find a list the length of two pages. Every single emotion in the book has lists that take up exactly two pages. Some of them fill the white space on the right side a little more than the others, but it’s surprising that none of them go over the two page allotment. One would think emotions like anger and love would have a lot more entries than things like gratitude and wariness, but alas, they all take up two pages.
They’re all structured in the same fashion. First the emotion is defined, in case, you know, you missed kindergarten and didn’t learn your basic emotions. Then there’s a long list of physical signals, so, back to our example of envy, it lists things like “glowering” and “crossing the arms over the chest.” Basically it’s a list of body language and actions, which is probably the main reason you bought the book, because if you’re like me you have your characters smiling and shrugging their shoulders too much, and that becomes annoying.
Next it gives a shorter list of internal sensations for envy such as “quick heartbeat” and “dry throat.” Then there’s another short list of mental responses (thoughts) such as “frustration” and “self-loathing.” Then a little list of cues of acute or long-term envy such as “fighting and arguing with the envied one to release frustration.”
After that, this creative writing thesaurus gives suggestions to what that emotion, envy for example, may escalate to and the corresponding page numbers. So envy may escalate to Determination (54), Resentment (130), Anger (22), Depression (48), Jealousy (102). (Aren’t envy and jealousy the same damn thing? Am I missing something? Do I need to go back to kindergarten?)
Then there’s another short list of cues for suppressed envy such as “forcing a smile.”
At the very end of every entry they have a writer’s tip boxed in gray. This tip, while useful, almost never has anything to do with the emotion is follows.
For example envy’s writing tip says: “When crafting the details of a fight scene, remember that less is more. Too many details create a play-by-play feel which can come across as mechanical.”
Oh, okay, thanks. My character was envious of the President of the United States, but I guess he can … fight the President … I guess. But truthfully the tips don’t bother me. They’re happy little random boxes thrown in there that I can choose to read or not read. (And no, I’m not really writing a book that has anything to do with the President. I’m so sick of presidency news. I’d hang myself before I wrote a book on the subject.)
Let’s talk about what bothers me about this emotional thesaurus.
I love how in the physical signals list under anxiety is the word “impatience.” That’s a physical signal? And then later in the book, impatience has its own damn list. Impatience is one of the seventy-five emotions. Why stop there? Why not have the word “happy” listed as a physical signal for amusement. I mean, come on!
And how are nervousness and anxiety separate emotions with separate lists? Their lists are different, but basically interchangeable. Only now, due to the fact that they’re in alphabetical order, they are a million pages away from one another, making me flip back and forth in order to read through what should have been one giant list.
Another issue I take with this book is that some of the things listed are just silly. For example one of the things on the list for physical signals of confusion is “touching the base of the neck.” What? Oh, yeah, readers will definitely know how confused my character is once I tell them SHE TOUCHED THE BASE OF HER NECK. No confusion there.
Want another silly one that doesn’t fit the emotion at all? Unease: “slipping hands into pockets” Really? I do that all the time myself. Here I thought it made me look laid back, but no, apparently I’ve been standing around in constant unease and didn’t even realize it. Ooh, another good unease one. “A swinging foot that suddenly goes still.” Yes! Yes! That’s the one I want to use from now on whenever my character is uncomfortable. “His foot was swinging, but then… suddenly …” Dun, dun, dun. What were they saying about melodrama earlier?
Every list I read through had a few questionable suggestions in it, but most of them were just plain obvious.
Hurt: “Letting out a whimper” “Eyes that water”
Come on now. I could have come up with those off the top of my head. The idea behind me buying this book was that I wanted better options than the ones floating near the top of my fried little brain.
Now there are a few good, unique suggestions in there. I liked “corded neck” and “thick swallows.” I’m not sure I’ve ever used either of those phrases to describe an emotion, and now I will. However, the good suggestions are few and far between. Most of it’s obvious.
The book claims to be a “brainstorming resource,” and it is merely a brainstorming resource. The fact that they state several times it’s just for brainstorming makes me less angry because it is useful to opening your mind up to more options. Your character is smiling constantly? What else can you have them do? Boom, here’s a list.
I had unrealistic expectations coming into this book. I used to watch that now-canceled show Lie to Me. It was a crime drama on Fox around 2010. The idea was that the characters in it used psychology to pick apart micro expressions and body language to figure out if someone was lying and to figure out their true feelings. I found it fascinating. It taught me things like if you’re disgusted you might briefly raise your upper lip toward your nose, or if you’re trying to hold your tongue, you might absent-mindedly press a finger or knuckle against your lips. If you want to pretend to be happy, but you’re not really happy, you’ll smile without engaging your eyes muscles, so it’s all mouth, no eyes.
This stuff is science, and I guess I was thinking The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression would be based on the science of body and facial expressions. Goodness was I wrong. It is merely a creative list compiled by writers, not scientists. Just random, top of the head stuff. Oh, if you’re angry you.. will.. stomp! Yeah. Nailed it.
Almost anyone could make lists like these if they weren’t too lazy to do so. Just poll your friends and family or watch people, and start jotting down ideas. It’s actually better if writers make their own lists because they’ll remember the actions easier if they think it up themselves.
But for the lazy writer, this is a decent brainstorming guide. My advice is to use it sparingly for when you’re really blocked and need some inspiration. Otherwise, use that creative noggin of yours and come up with your own stuff.
Turns out the real psychologist behind the show Lie to Me, Paul Ekman, has over a dozen books published, so I might just pick up a copy of his Emotions Revealed, and see if I can’t learn a little about physical signals that are based more in science than fiction.
I give this thesaurus three out of five stars. I’m being generous, but it’s because I think the authors truly wrote it in an effort to help writers, and I have to give them credit for that.
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