We’ve all heard about showing instead of telling. It’s one of the things my editor catches me on all the time. I end up grousing and repeating the words of
Princes Leia Carrie Fisher from When Harry Met Sally. “You’re right. You’re right. I know you’re right.”
Check out this example:
Anger filled Danny as he strode through the room. He was looking for Shiv. If he ever found his friend, he’d give him a piece of his mind.
There’s a lot of telling about Danny’s emotions in that paragraph. To make the storytelling more interesting, I’m going to turn to The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
The Emotion Thesaurus is a wonderful reference book that’s organized by emotions like amazement, confidence, gratitude, and shame. Each entry has a long list of behavioral cues authors can use to show instead of tell.
When I look up anger in The Emotion Thesaurus I see lists of 36 physical signals like “flaring nostrils”, “Slamming doors, cupboards, or drawers”, and “laughter with an edge”. After that is a list of internal sensations, mental responses, and cues of suppressed anger. All of these offer inspiration to unlock ideas of how I can show my character’s anger.
How about this:
Chin held high and jaw clenched, Danny shouldered through the crowd. He scanned through the room for Shiv. Curses boiled in his mind, building and building in pressure. The only thing that kept him from punching one of these idiots was knowing how happy Shiv would be to see him get thrown in jail for battery.
I built this new version by consulting The Emotion Thesaurus. I didn’t use the entries word for word. Instead, I riffed on them, used them for inspiration.
Check out The Emotion Thesaurus at Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.
What a wonderful resource! I’ll have to buy this because sometimes, the words just don’t come when you need them. And yes, your example became richer and more powerful. Thanks!
Honestly, I think the second verson is overwritten (although it would be fine if you removed the third sentence).
My worry with the Emotion Thesaurus is how many of the cues are cliches and how quickly the rest will become cliched. Even if you don’t use the actual things they recommend, you’re still going to be working from the same starting point as hundreds or thousands of writers.
I don’t get angry very often, but have never had a problem drawing on my own experiences of being angry or asking myself how I’d feel/act in a situation. Is this something other people find difficult?
It seems to me like this would be similar to reading a book, which as writers we should be doing ALL THE TIME. The second example definitely drew me into the action and scene much more effectively than the first and that’s because of the emotion. Like reading books, we would read this resource as a place to get ideas, not steal them and definitely not to repeat cliches. I look forward to picking this up and giving it a quick skim through. After my brain plays with it, I’ll twist the ideas and examples into something of my own making. Can’t wait.
Thanks for the comments everyone. I agree that mere copying from the Emotion Thesaurus would result in some cliche writing. On the other hand, the listings have been valuable to me and have helped me write (or overwrite) more engaging prose.
I tend to overuse characters’ facial expressions in my writing, so I’m constantly looking for other ways to show emotional responses.
That’s just it. I tend to find myself reverting to expressions I like best and overusing them. To throw some other ideas into my brain, along with what we naturally glean from our own fiction reading, seems like it would have to be a good thing. I like this book review concept. I hope we do some more along these lines.
I totally agree. Sometimes my writing feels stale because of overused words or phrases. Reading in different genres and books like Emotional Thesaurus provides new ways to consider things and new ideas for describing them. Emotion can be shown in so many forms: facial and bodily expression, dialogue, actions taken, and psychological/emotional reaction.