There are no cheats when it comes down to this most important ingredient. It boils down to hard, dedicated, and sometimes grueling work for the author. And it it's done right, it appears effortless and seamless to the reader. That's why I wanted to share this invaluable writing tool with you:
If you haven't heard of it yet, do yourself a favor and get it immediately! This writing guide by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman is chock full of useful tips and information. Most importantly, it works like a typical thesaurus, only with emotion. Too many arching eyebrows or gritted teeth in your story? No problem. Simply determine your character's emotion and find it in The Emotion Thesaurus. It offers lists of alternate body languages to bring your characters and stories to life. After all, that's what adds the emotion to our stories. When our characters feel, the readers feel.
Besides this awesome book (which is in paperback as well as eBook,) Becca and Angela offer a blog called The Bookshelf Muse, which has been instrumental in the crafting of my most recent story. Not sure how many times I perused their blog for character traits during the writing process, but it was a LOT!
As luck would have it, I recently met Becca at our regional SCBWI conference and she's fantastic, as expected. And of course, Angela is as well. Both are so down to earth and friendly and just all around shiny happy people. :)
Becca stopped by today to offer one of you a free eBook copy of The Emotion Thesaurus. All you have to do is comment and I'll do a random drawing. (I've got mine downloaded on my Kindle and keep it open while in the revision process.)
Here's a snippet from The Emotion Thesaurus that Becca has allowed me to share:
By definition, nonverbal emotion can’t be told. It has to be shown. This makes it difficult to write because telling is easier than showing. Here’s an example:
Mr. Paxton’s eyes were sad as he gave her the news. “I’m sorry, JoAnne, but your position with the company is no longer necessary.”
Instantly, JoAnne was angrier than she’d ever been in her life.
This exchange is fairly easy to write—but not so easy to read. Readers can figure things out for themselves. They don’t want to have the scene explained to them, which is what happens when a writer tells how a character feels. Another problem with telling is that it creates distance between the reader and your characters, which is rarely a good idea. In the preceding example, the reader sees that Mr. Paxton is reluctant to give JoAnne the bad news and that JoAnne is angry about it. But you don’t want the reader to only see what’s happening; you want them to feel the emotion, and to experience it along with the character. To accomplish this, writers need to show the character’s physical and internal responses rather than stating the emotion outright.
JoAnne sat on the chair’s edge, spine straight as a new pencil, and stared into Mr. Paxton’s face. Sixteen years she’d given him—days she was sick, days the kids were sick—making the trip back and forth across town on that sweaty bus. Now he wouldn’t even look at her, just kept fiddling with her folder and rearranging the fancy knickknacks on his desk. The vinyl of her purse crackled in her grip. Clearly, he didn’t want to give her the news, but she wasn’t about to make it easy for him.
Mr. Paxton cleared his throat for the hundredth time. “JoAnne…Mrs. Benson…it appears that your position with the company is no longer—”
JoAnne jerked to her feet, sending her chair flying over the tile. It hit the wall with a satisfying bang as she stormed from the office.
This scene gives the reader a much better opportunity to share in JoAnne’s anger. Through the use of sensory details, a well chosen simile, specific verbs, and body cues that correspond with the featured emotion, readers can see that JoAnne is angry, but they also feel it—in the straightness of her spine and the cheap vinyl in her hands, in the force it takes to send a chair flying across the room simply from the act of standing.
An example like this also reveals a lot about the character. JoAnne is not well-to-do. She has children to support. She may be angry, but she’s also strong minded, family oriented, and proud. This information rounds out JoAnne’s character and makes her more relatable to the reader.
Showing takes more work then telling, as word count alone will indicate, but it pays off by drawing the reader closer to the character and helping to create empathy. Once in a great while, it’s acceptable to tell the reader what the character is feeling: when you have to pass on information quickly, or when you need a crisp sentence to convey a shift in mood or attention. But the other ninety-nine times out of a hundred, put in the extra work and you will reap the benefits of showing.
Becca Puglisi 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 75 different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. The Emotion Thesaurus is available for purchase throughAmazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords. A PDF version is also available at her blog.
Big thanks to Becca for sharing this! And don't forget to leave a comment for a chance to win an eBook copy of The Emotion Thesaurus! Trust me, you want this!
Do you have trouble showing character emotion? Have any tips you wanna share? Love to hear from you! :)