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Enrich your characters’ and readers’ emotional experience with these cues

Readers pick up a book to have an emotional experience. They want to connect with characters on an emotional level that will eventually, by the end of the story, enrich their own lives. (Tweet this). 

Readers don’t want to be told how a character feels. They want to experience the emotion themselves. Dialogue is one way to convey or show character emotion, but much of a character’s emotion is nonverbal.

In The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, the authors break down nonverbal communication into three elements: physical signals (body language and actions), internal sensations (visceral reactions) and mental responses (thoughts).

In their book, the authors list over seventy emotions, such as anger, depression, doubt, excitement, happiness, loneliness, relief, and sadness, and offer suggestions on how these emotions can be shown through the three elements above.

Below are a few examples for the emotion of desperation: 

Physical Signals:
Feverish, over-bright eyes
A darting gaze
Rubbing one’s upper arms for comfort

Internal Sensations:
Racing heartbeat
Excessive or manic energy

Mental Responses:
Constant planning and obsessing
A willingness to do anything

In addition, for each emotion, some possible acute or long-term effects of the emotion are listed as well as the effects of suppressing the emotion.

According to Ackerman and Puglisi, “Each scene must achieve a balance between showing too little feeling and showing too much. Above all, the emotional description needs to be fresh and engaging.” Avoid clichés, melodrama, and telling your characters’ emotions instead of showing and you will draw your readers’ into your story.

The Emotion Thesaurus is fun and easy to use. Use it as a jumping off point to help generate your own ideas. As long as you use the thesaurus with common sense, it can enrich your characters’ emotional lives and, thus, your readers’ experience.

For more ideas on how to enrich your characters’ emotional landscape read my previous post, “Use character emotions to show vs. tell.” 

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