How do you convey emotion to readers?

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00058]Recently, I was reading a manuscript when I came across a particularly atrocious line about a character who was experiencing “a new emotion that was roiling within—anger.” What a perfectly dreadful bit of writing! And I can say that because the writer was myself. As an editor, I’ve trained myself to spot the lazy writing in others’ work, those occasions where an author is telling the reader that a character is angry rather than showing the character being angry. How did I miss it in my own work? All I can say is something that every editor-turned-writer already knows: everyone needs an editor.

In my case, I also needed some inspiration to help me imagine ways that a character who was in a car, and by herself, could show her anger. And so I turned to a useful book I purchased last year, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I had a feeling the word “anger” would be in there, and it was. And on the list of some thirty-six physical signals of anger, there sat number five: “Handling objects or people roughly.” Eureka! My character could hold her steering wheel in a death grip, and that was merely one way I could begin to show her anger rather than my lazy attempt at merely telling the reader she was angry.

The Emotion Thesaurus is not the sort of craft book that a writer will sit down and read cover to cover, unless perhaps he or she has an unhealthy fondness for lists. But someone might like to know that rubbing the back of the neck is a sign of embarrassment or that massaging the temples can be a sign of impatience. Those are just two more of the seventy-five “emotion entries” in the book, which I’ve already found to be quite useful in helping me describe my characters’ emotions. Perhaps you need a copy as well?

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