The Emotion Thesaurus by Gia de Cadenet

If you’re here on the SavvyAuthors blogs, it’s because you’re somewhere along the writing path.

Maybe you’ve just got an inkling of an idea, maybe the characters are laid out before you, ready to jump into the action you’ve got set for them on the page. If you’ve been following my posts, we’ve talked about the importance of understanding your character’s goals and motivations with the help of Debra Dixon. You’ve read about the need for conflict. Lisa Cron’s Story Genius has helped you work on key ways to get to know who your characters are as individuals.

Manuscripts can go from just okay to un-put-down-able through conflict, but where does the spice come in? How can you get your character’s feelings on the page? That’s when it’s time to pick up The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

We’ve all read the advice about speaking plainly – using simple dialog tags like “said” rather than “exclaimed”; about limiting use of exclamation points, adverbs or other short-hand methods to give your readers the true dimensions of the story you have in mind. (For more on that, Stephen King’s On Writing is a great resource.) But sometimes your character didn’t just say something, they were exclamatory. Sometimes they were enraged instead of just angry. How can we make our character’s emotions clear without relying on “shouting”, “vociferating” or “bellowing”? How can we move from telling to showing?

In everyday life, we use our bodies to communicate. In a heated discussion with a friend, we lean forward, our eyes narrowed, our jaw or our shoulders tense. Consider an example:

“No,” Jenny beseeched. “I cannot live without you, Michael. You can’t leave.”

“Yes,” Michael uttered, looking down at her with a hand on the doorknob. “I can.”


“No,” Jenny said, touching her fingertips together, then letting her hands fall to her sides. “I cannot live without you, Michael. You can’t leave.”

Michael’s slumped shoulders went ramrod straight. A hand on the doorknob, he tipped his chin up, eyes hooded. “I can.”


The basic action is the same in both paragraphs.

Jenny doesn’t want Michael to leave, and the reader understands that Michael wants to go. But the second example is alive, much more textured than the first. The reader doesn’t need the word “beseeched” because Jenny’s posture makes it clear. At no point does it say that she’s pleading him, but the mental image provided shows that she was: her hands together in supplication, followed by her loss of hope as they fell to her sides. We also understand that the interaction is difficult for Michael in the second example, but he is resolute. He shows his decision with his body language. The slumped shoulders make him sound defeated, but the choice to draw himself up and away from her takes the reader through the emotion along with him.

The second example is richer than the first, and makes for a more entertaining and engaging read. But how do we get there? With the Emotion Thesaurus.

In the example, it’s important to convey anger, disappointment, even disgust. Simply look those words up in the thesaurus and see what descriptive options are suggested.

Ackerman and Puglisi make it easy by suggesting that the writer first focus on the root emotion, then turn to the appropriate page. A definition is provided, followed by signs that fellow characters could pick up on, as well as those the main character is experiencing. This is an excellent tool to have in your arsenal.

Textured, visceral writing helps you stand out from the myriad queries the average agent receives. If you’re planning on going the indie route, stories that your readers can feel go a long way to making them into fans eager for all of your work.


The Emotion Thesaurus can take your writing to the next level.

Love this? Check out Gia’s extended mentoring program:

Gia de Cadenet is a business school professor, former translator and editor for UNESCO. Her first manuscript was showcased in the 2017 PitchWars mento...
One of my favorite tools! Use it a lot!