A Writer’s Best Resource For Showing Not Telling

The Emotion Thesaurus by Ackerman and Puglisi

Christmas came early for me this year in the form of Amazon’s marketing genius. While buying yet another book on writing, I spied an intriguing title under Amazon’s Frequently Bought Together headline:  The Emotion Thesaurus. What in the world is that?

It’s Christmas, your birthday, your anniversary, and Happy Writer’s Day all wrapped into one beautiful gift from authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. These attractive, talented, wonderful, intelligent, funny (No, I don’t really know them, but I’m grateful, okay?) women have compiled a resource that every writer would probably shell out fifty bucks at least for, but Amazon is only asking $12.32.

So let me unwrap this divine present from the writer goddesses for you. Pick an emotion that a character would feel. I’m feeling pretty Adoring towards Ackerman and Puglisi right now, so let’s use it. Keep in mind as I take you through this in depth entry for Adoration, that there are 74 more emotions covered in this book.

First you get Adoration’s definition. Next comes a list under the heading Physical Signals. This list includes thirty-two outward indicators that a character might be experiencing adoration. These signals would be obvious enough that not only your reader should pick up on them, but the other characters in a scene should be able to observe that the character exhibiting them is Adoring someone or something. For example: lips parting, nodding while the subject speaks, releasing an appreciative sigh, etc.

I would have been thrilled with just this first list. Instead of writing telling sentences like, “The heroine adored her big brother and listened to everything he said.”  I now had a list that helped me come up with showing sentences like, “Big Brother spoke of his most recent battle, and Heroine listened with her lips parted, nodding encouragement every time he paused.”  However, the entry doesn’t stop there.

The next heading under Adoration is Internal Sensations. Ackerman and Puglisi give us seven more ways to show Adoration from the perspective of the character experiencing it.  This list included descriptors like quickening heartbeat, breathlessness, and feeling one’s pulse in the throat.

If our heroine adored a love interest instead of her big brother, she might want to be a bit more subtle and hide those outward cues. The Internal Sensations then become very useful. “Love Interest drew closer to Heroine. She bit back a sigh, but she could not help the pulse pounding in her throat.”

But wait! There’s more. Our next section is Mental Responses, a list of five. These are great for helping you craft inner monologue for your POV character or providing her motivation in a dialogue scene. For example, using the authors’ suggestion of “an inability to see the subject’s flaws or faults” gave me the idea for the following short dialogue exchange:

Heroine:  “Love Interest would be a great father.”

Best Friend: “You mean the guy who can’t keep a goldfish alive?”

Heroine:  “That’s different. A kid would ask for food.”

With Cues of Acute or Long-Term Adoration, things really get fun. Thirteen more suggestions are listed, and these could lead to some intense conflict:  stalking, fantasizing, and taking on traits or mannerisms of the subject. “Heroine could almost feel Love Interest’s caress as she flushed goldfish number twelve.”

The authors note that acute or long-term adoration can escalate to Love, Desire, Frustration, or Hurt and give you the page numbers for each of those emotions, so you can look up all the goodies they’ve given you for them, too.

The final section of the Adoration entry is Cues of Suppressed Adoration. Nine more ways of showing instead of telling are provided for you. The list includes clenching or hiding one’s hands to hide sweating or shaking, avoiding conversations about the subject, and creating chance run ins.

I’d give you another example, but what you really want is the link. Merry Christmas. The Emotion Thesaurus by Ackerman and Puglisi.

Questions to Ask While Revising

Book cover of James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure

James Scott Bell’s book Plot and Structure has some useful information, but I would rank this one as more of library loan instead of a must own. Plot and pacing come more naturally to me.  Description and setting are generally my problems, so I ended up doing a lot of skimming. However, I did find the chapter about revision to be very helpful.  Here are some of the questions JSB suggests mulling over while editing:

Questions About Your Lead Character

  • Is the LC memorable? Compelling? Enough to carry a reader all the way through the plot?
  • Does this character avoid clichés? Is he capable of surprising us? What’s unique about the character?
  • Is the character’s objective strong enough?
  • How does the character grow over the course of the story?
  • How does the character demonstrate inner strength?

Questions About Your Opposition

  • Is your opposing character interesting?
  • Is he fully realized, not just a cardboard cutout?
  • Is he justified (at least in his own mind) in his actions?
  • Is he believable?
  • Is he as strong as or stronger than the Lead?

Questions About Your Story’s Adhesive Nature

  • Is the conflict between the Lead and opposition crucial for both?
  • Why can’t they just walk away? What holds them together?

Questions About Your Scenes

  • Are the big scenes big enough? Surprising enough? Can you make them more original, unanticipated, and draw them out for all they are worth?
  • Is there enough conflict in the scenes?
  • What is the least memorable scene? Cut it! Now we have a new “least memorable scene.” Consider cutting it, too.
  • What else can be cut in order to move the story relentlessly forward?
  • Does the climactic scene come to fast (through writer fatigue to finish)? Can you make it more, write it for all it’s worth? Set a ticking clock?
  • Do we need a new minor subplot to building up a sagging midsection? Do you need to cut a subplot to clarify a tangle of melodrama?

Questions About Your Minor Characters

  • What is their purpose in the plot?
  • Are they unique and colorful?

In Progress

I have not arrived.  Neither have most people I know.  It is not their stories that I hear, however, but those of experts who already have everything figured out.  There is certainly wisdom to that logic.  As someone who had the misfortune of getting a resident (doctor in progress) on an emergency room visit that went comically wrong, I understand why expertise is important.

There is a danger to only telling the stories of those who have made it, though.  We lose the voices of those still slogging through, still trying to figure things out.  By the time the expert goes back to write about the process they have conquered, they are no longer experiencing the frustration, fear, or elation that was so real to them in the moment.

I am a novelist who has just started trying to navigate the publishing world.  As I figure it out, I’ll keep you updated, but not just about what went right.  I’ll tell you what went horribly wrong, too, so you can avoid making my mistakes.  I hope to not just share technical details, though, but help you get a sense of what life in progress as a writer feels like.

Part of what I find so powerful about fiction is finding yourself in the world the author has created.  A character most resonates with me when I’ve felt what they are feeling.  I have made it very easy to leave comments on this blog because I want readers to be able to engage with me.  Was a post encouraging or helpful?  Tell me.  Was it confusing gibberish?  Tell me that, too.  Have a question?  Ask it.