Monday, July 16, 2012

The Emotion Thesaurus

a wonderful new resource for fiction writers,
recommended by Jodie Renner, freelance editor

Fiction writers are always hearing this critical advice from writing gurus and editors: "Show, don't tell." And for good reason. Showing is bringing a scene to life on the page, so the reader feels they're right there with the characters. Telling the readers what's going on or how someone is feeling falls flat, doesn't engage the reader. Don't tell us your character is sad or angry or frustrated or delighted - show us through their actions, reactions, and emotions.

But one of the biggest challenges facing fiction writers is to find just the right words and imagery to convey characters’ emotions so the readers feel what the character is feeling. Trying to think of different ways to show characters’ reactions like fear, rage, worry, amusement, doubt, rage, joy, embarrassment, confusion, anxiety, shock, relief, jealousy, anguish, impatience, and so on can be a lot of work and very time-consuming, even exhausting as we try to recall similar situations and how we felt.

As a content editor, when I read a scene, I’m constantly trying to visualize the movements, body language, facial expressions, physical sensations, and inner reactions of the characters in various situations, and analyze whether the words and phrases the author has chosen really capture the emotions expressed. For example, a client might have someone’s eyes widening in anger, where to me they should have their eyes narrowing or glaring in anger, and widening in shock or surprise or fear. And when I question something, I always like to offer alternative examples. But I feel I’m no expert, so often I have to really think about situations I’ve been in and how people acted when they were indignant or angry or nervous or depressed or whatever.

The good news is, my job has suddenly become much easier—and so has yours, as a fiction writer. Recently I discovered the perfect resource to find just which facial expressions, actions, and body language are best for expressing various emotional states, as well as likely internal sensations and mental responses.

It’s called THE EMOTION THESAURUS, A WRITER'S GUIDE TO CHARACTER EXPRESSION, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, and the way they’ve laid it out makes it quick and easy to choose from a variety of spot-on actions, mannerisms, voice inflections, attitudes, and facial expressions to portray any given emotion. The book has a list of 75 different emotion entries, each with pages and pages of both external and internal indicators for each emotion. For the A’s alone, we have Adoration, Agitation, Amazement, Amusement, Anger, Anguish, Annoyance, Anticipation, and Anxiety.

For ANNOYANCE, here are just some of the indicators on the list:

DEFINITION: Aggravation or mild irritation


• A pinched expression
• An exaggerated sigh
• Taking over a project due to impatience: Here, I’ll do it.
• Narrowing eyes
• Crossing the arms
• Tapping a foot, fidgeting
• Swatting at the air
• Lips pressed into a white slash
• Clenching the jaw
• Folding the arms across the chest
• Hands that briefly clench
• Tugging at clothing
• A gaze that flicks upward
• Holding the head in the hands
• Pacing
• A sharp tone
• Speaking in short phrases
• Sarcasm
• A sharpening tone, using short phrases when speaking, clipped answers
• Rigid posture
• Nodding, but with a tightness to it, like one is holding back from saying something
• Throwing the hands up
• Rubbing the brow as if to ward off a headache
• Avoiding looking at the person, staring downward
• Pressing a fist to the mouth
• Fidgeting

… and lots more, followed by these other subcategories, still under Annoyance:





And they’ve even added a writer’s tip at the end of each emotion.

I bought the Kindle edition and like it so much I've ordered the paper version. One of my clients pointed out that it’s also available as a PDF from Ackerman and Puglisi's blog, The Bookshelf Muse. My novelist friend really likes the PDF as she can have that right up on the screen when she’s writing scenes, and flip to it easily for ideas.

This book is available in both Print and Digital formats through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the iBookstore, and Smashwords. Or, download the PDF straight from their blog (sidebar). They also offer a free companion PDF called Emotion Amplifiers, which covers fifteen conditions (Pain, Stress, Attraction, Exhaustion, etc.) that can compromise your character's mental and physical state, ensuring they become more emotionally volatile. You can find it in the sidebar of their blog.

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medal winner in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.




  1. Thanks, Jodie. I'll be heading over to Amazon to buy this one. Showing takes a lot more work and anything that can help gets my vote.

  2. Jodie, thank you so much for the lovely feature here. I am so pleased that you've found the ET to be a valuable tool. We created the Emotion Thesaurus because this is such a difficult area to master, and there is so little material out there to help in this area. Hopefully those who need it will find their way to it and writing emotion will get a bit easier. :)

    Have a great week!


  3. Wow. Thanks for such a thorough and honest review of The Emotion Thesaurus. So many of us tend to think that professionals in the industry--published authors, editors, etc--have "arrived". It's encouraging to hear that The Emotion Thesaurus is helpful to people at all points along the writing path.

  4. This is excellent. I often google "moods" to find out the appropriate behavior so I can show and not tell. I read a recent interview by Lee Child, who breaks the rules and states we are storytellers, not story "showers," and, therefore, it's okay to "tell" a story. Interesting.

  5. I think there are appropriate places in a story to tell rather than show. They just aren't always clear to me while I'm writing. I'm no exception to the rule that most writers tend to take the easy way out more often than not and tell. But truthfully, it's not as much fun to write.

  6. Oh, and LOL Jodie… you must have mentioned this book earlier because when I went to Amazon and put it on my Wish List, they told me I had already placed it on my list, so they were moving it up to the top position.

  7. I agree, Peg, it's more fun to show, and more fun to read an author who shows rather than tells. I'm gong to get this book, too.

  8. Jenny, the best advice is to "show" the important critical scenes in real time, with action and dialogue, to really bring them alive and suck the reader in, and to "tell" the transition scenes, to get past them quickly and on to the next big scene. Or even just use a paragraph or two or a few sentences to transition quickly from one important scene to the next.

    Anyway, this resource is just excellent for zooming in quickly on the best and most appropriate gestures, facial expressions, body language, sensations, feelings, etc. for any given emotion you want to portray.

  9. And yes, Peg, I did sing the praises of this book by email a few weeks ago, when I first bought it! It will save novelists a lot of time trying to decide how to portray various emotions.

  10. As a new writer to the craft I bought this book about a month ago and love it. It is the tool I use the most!

  11. What a wonderful book to add to my writer's tool box. I love the idea of buying it in PDF format so I can access the information while I'm writing. Thanks for suggesting this book!

  12. Thanks, Lucy and ksmill7. I'm finding it really helpful in my fiction editing, too! And yes, I love the PDF version, which can be on my screen under the manuscript I'm working on, and I can toggle back and forth.

  13. Thanks Jodie. Looks like a great resource. I'm going to get it right now!

  14. Congratulations to Angela and Becca.

    I've been a fan of their blog:
    since last year. Use it often (yes, it is me visiting you from Central AMerica :-) ) and have recommended it to quite a few fellow writers.

  15. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your kind words, Jose!

  16. Sounds awesome! Thank you very much for the recommendation and great review!

    *off to buy*

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