The Emotion Thesaurus

There are a library’s worth of how-to writing books out there. Which are useful? Which sit on your shelf?

My favorite books are hands-on. Books that sit next to me while I write that I actually use as reference.

My new best friend is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

I am lucky enough to have Angela on my blog today to talk about writing emotion. 

Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with seventy-five different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion.

Writing Extreme Emotion Without The Melodrama

One of the most difficult parts of writing emotion is finding a comfortable ‘range of showing.’ Finding the right balance of emotion can be difficult; too little and the reader will feel no empathy for characters, but too much, and the scene becomes melodramatic. Melodrama will pull readers right out of the story, because the character’s reactions seem too ‘over the top’.

If all emotions were of average intensity, they’d be easier to describe. But emotions vary in strength. Take fear, for instance. Depending upon the severity of the situation, a person might feel anything from unease to anxiety to paranoia or terror. Extreme emotions will require extreme descriptors, while others are relatively subtle and must be described as such.

Unfortunately, many writers make the mistake of assuming that to be gripping, emotion must be dramatic. Sad people should burst into tears. Joyful characters must express their glee by jumping up and down. This kind of writing results in melodrama, which leads to a sense of disbelief in the reader because, in real life, emotion isn’t always so demonstrative.

To avoid melodrama, recognize that emotions run along a continuum, from mild to extreme. For each situation, know where your character is along that continuum and choose appropriate descriptors. Just as extreme emotions call for extreme indicators, temperate emotions should be expressed subtly. The indicators for intermediate emotions will lie somewhere in the middle.

It’s also very important that your character follows a smooth emotional arc. Consider the following example:

Mack tapped his thumb against the steering wheel, one arm dangling out the window. He smiled at Dana but she just sat there, twisting that one loop of hair around her finger.

“Worried about your interview tomorrow?” he asked.

“A little. It’s a great opportunity but the timing’s awful. There’s too much going on.” She sighed. “I’ve been thinking about cutting back. Simplifying.”

“Good idea.” He nodded along with the radio and waved at the biker who thundered past on his Harley.

“I’m glad you agree.” She faced him. “I think we should break up.”

His foot slipped off the gas pedal. The air grew heavy, making it hard to breathe. The car veered toward the middle line and he let it drift, not caring whether he lived or died.


Unless Mack has a psychological reason for doing so, he shouldn’t jump from placidity to depression in a matter of seconds. A realistic progression would be to move from contentment to shock, then disbelief, and finally to grief. Done thoughtfully, this emotional arc can be shown with relatively few words:


“I’m glad you agree.” She faced him. “I think we should break up.”

His foot slipped off the gas pedal. “Break up? What are you talking about?”

“Mack. We’ve been headed this way for awhile, you know that.”

He gripped the steering wheel and took deep breaths. Sure, things had been rough lately, and she kept talking about taking some time, but she always came around. And she’d definitely never uttered the words “break up.”

“Look, Dana—”

“Please, don’t. You can’t talk me out of it this time.” She stared at the dashboard. “I’m sorry.”

His insides twisted. He darted a look at Dana, but she was curled against the window now, both hands resting easy in her lap.

He gaped at her. They were totally breaking up.

 Make sure that your character’s feelings progress realistically. Map out the emotional journey within the scene to avoid unintended melodrama.

All of this is not to say that real life doesn’t produce extreme emotion. Birth, death, loss, change—some situations call for intense responses that may go on for awhile. Many writers, in an admirable attempt to maintain believability, try to recreate these events in real time. This results in long paragraphs or even pages of high emotion and, inevitably, melodrama. Though real life can sustain this kind of intensity for long periods of time, it’s nearly impossible for the written word to do so in a way that readers will accept.

In these situations, avoid melodrama by abbreviating. This method is often used for other real-life scenarios—conversations, for instance. Small talk is left out to keep the pace moving forward. Mundane tasks are also cut short, because the reader doesn’t need (or want) to see the entire car washed, a piece at a time, while Bob ponders a problem at work. In the same way, extensive emotional scenes should be long enough to convey the appropriate information, but not so long that you lose the audience. Write the emotion well, develop empathy in your reader, maximize the words that you do use, but don’t overstay your welcome.


TIP: For more help on emotion, swing by The Bookshelf Muse and grab the free PDF, Emotion Amplifiers. A companion to The Emotion Thesaurus, this tool provides description ideas for showing conditions (Pain, Illness, Inebriation, Hunger, Stress, etc.) that make your character more reactive to emotion! 


  1. Hi, Angela! Love the Emotion Thesaurus. Got it sometime ago when I first heard about it and it’s been on my desk as a ready reference ever since. Genius – absolute genius. Can’t live without it. Thank you. (P.S.: Did not refer to it for this comment, so I hope I’m not over the top with drama.)

    • LOL, here’s to Melodrama-free mornings! Thanks so much for the kind words–I’m thrilled you’re finding the book helpful! :)

      Lori, thanks so much for the invite! <3 You are so awesome for opening your blog to me!

      And hey, it's FRIDAY! Woot!


  2. Lori,

    This caught my attention on Google+. I love how-to writing books and will put this one on my list.
    Your new profile photo is fantastic. I also like the way you angled your photo. Hope you don’t mind if I do the same in my next profile photo. Great post!


  3. Helpful advice and great example! I’ve considered getting The Emotion Thesaurus. It will now be moved up in my Amazon cart. Thanks!

  4. That sounds like a book that I need. I’m always getting from my critique partners, “You could really rachete up the emotion there, Janet.” LOL I participate in a group blog that tells about books to help our writing. Find it on

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