Craft Book Spotlight: The Emotion Thesaurus

There are a thousand ways to express human interaction. So why do we fall back on the same few phrases to describe nonverbal emotion? This handy reference guide is here to help writers find new ways to express anger, disbelief, embarrassment, joy, and much more.

Do you have a character who “blushes” three times in 1,000 words? How about an antagonist who rolls her eyes in every chapter, or a protagonist whose eyes widen in every conversation?

Embarrassed characters can blush, sure, but they can also sweat visibly, freeze, swallow excessively, or hide their face in their hair. Where one character may roll their eyes, another may sigh heavily, cross their arms, or start talking over the speaker. Wide-eyed protagonists can take a step back, cover their mouth with their hands, or look dazed, depending on circumstance.

All of these reactions – plus dozens more – are covered in Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s book The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Readers “don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves,” write Ackerman and Puglisi in the introduction. “To make this happen, we must ensure that our characters express their emotions in ways that are both recognizable and compelling to read.”

The book offers a long list of physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensations for each emotion, ranging from adoration and agitation to wariness and worry. The authors also include cues of a character who has spent a lot of time experiencing a particular emotion as well as cues of suppressed emotions.

Each entry ends with a “writer’s tip,” such as “a ticking clock can ramp up the emotions in any scene” and “when introducing and describing characters, parcel out personal details in small bits. Anything that isn’t pivotal to plot or characterization can be left to the reader’s imagination.” 

The book closes with a list of recommended reading with titles ranging from Creating Character Emotion and The Definitive Book of Body Language. 

“It is both a reference and a brainstorming tool, and one of the resources I’ll be turning to most often as I write my own books,” praises best-selling author James Scott Bell.

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