resources · writing

What Are Feelings, Really? How to Write Emotions

In the immortal words of Samantha Sang and the Bee Gees, “It’s just emotion that’s taking me over, caught up in sorrow, lost in the song.” Unfortunately novels lack accompanying singers who let the reader know how characters feel.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing is portraying emotion. Sometimes that is fine – a little ambiguity can be good for a story – but other times writers rely on tropes or telling instead of showing to illustrate a character’s inner world. Unlearning these bad habits can be difficult. Luckily, some great resources exist to help writers learn how to represent feelings on the page. The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is one of those resources.

The Emotion Thesaurus acts as a guide for portraying emotions. It begins with a brief explanation of the do’s and don’ts of writing emotion including descriptions of common clichés, the need to vary the intensity of a character’s feelings, and the danger of relying too heavily on thoughts or dialogue. From there, the book delves into the different types of emotions. Readers can find examples of how to describe anger, confusion, desire, embarrassment, indifference, paranoia, rage, worry, and dozens of other feelings. I know that it may sound silly to need a resource like this, but seeing emotions well-written can be incredibly helpful for authors.

As with any reference material, The Emotion Thesaurus has its potential pitfalls. A writer shouldn’t simply replicate the examples in the book but should instead use them as a jumping off point. And, of course, sometimes a scene needs a writer to break the rules and tell instead of show. It all relies on the author’s ability to understand his or her own work.

Even if you aren’t interested in actually purchasing The Emotion Thesaurus, I suggest that you explore its preview pages on Amazon. The intro and most of the first chapter are available to everyone that way, and both sections provide some interesting food for thought. (Make sure you check the Kindle preview rather than print preview; it offers a better look at the bulk of the text.)

If you know of other great resources for writing emotion or if you have written about the topic yourself, please share! This can be a difficult subject for authors to wrap their heads around, so any advice is appreciated.

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22 thoughts on “What Are Feelings, Really? How to Write Emotions

    1. That is great to hear! If you don’t mind sharing, how have your students taken resource recommendations? When I helped students revise their work, I always struggled to get them to embrace reference materials like this one. (That may be a condemnation of my teaching skills more than anything though.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They are great – always very receptive and keen to receive such recommendations. But then, many of them have been with me for the past 8 years, so they are clearly happy with my teaching methods and my handouts:).

        Liked by 1 person

  1. To be honest, I don’t think having accompanying singers to go along with the book would lessen the ambiguity. After all, music is a matter of interpretation. How one person hears something could be quite different than another person (same goes for reading books). So, while the author may pick a song which they think embodies said emotion, a reader may be utterly confused. (I tend to be one of those readers, by the way. The one who hears a different emotion in a song than everyone else. Hahaha!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true! You know, lots of authors create soundtracks that pair with their books, but I don’t think I’ll ever be that kind of writer. I love music, but songs don’t alway fit with novels in my head. (Now if I ever wrote a screenplay on the other hand…)

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  2. Hi Kisten,
    I think you have a crystal ball. I’m working on my second book based on my life story. It deals with a lot of emotions I experienced growing up. It covers the whole gambit from joy to anger. Plus the character grows from a child to adult. I have the draft completed, yet I wasn’t satisfied. Too many times I “told” rather than “showed”. I knew better, but wasn’t skilled enough to know how to make those changes without losing what I though was my focal point.
    I’m anxious to start using this helpful source and see how much of a positive change I can make. Thank you for sharing this source.
    If you get a chance, I wrote a blog on the significance of Christmas. I would love to get your opinion.
    Merry Christmas and a healthy New Year. God Bless

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Kristen for pointing out this resource. I’m taking your advice and looking at the kindle version. I do agree with you too much ambiguity about a character’s emotional state is not comfortable for the reader. It is even worse the writer handles the character’s emotional state in such a way that they inadvertently shift the motivation of even personality they have been constructing for chapters. I’ve come across this once or twice and it has absolutely broken the novel’s spell – which is the essential suspension of disbelief – and the novel never recovers. When the reader is firmly on your side they will forgive a multitude of lesser sins.

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  4. I’ve got this book – it really helped me out when I was somewhat at sea, and as you say it makes a great jumping off point for getting you into the ‘zone’ of a particular emotion, relating it to thr body both internal and external. It’s a kind of reasurring presence on my desk, I love it!.

    Liked by 1 person

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