In 2007 I wrote two posts, “Color Me Obsessive,” Part 1 and Part 2, about a collaborative effort to compile a comprehensive list of terms describing emotions and feelings. With the help of classes I later taught, that list has grown to include 1100 words.
Many other posts here and on my Writing for the Health of It blog cover the physical and emotional health benefits of labeling and expressing emotion. But there’s a lot more to it. It’s not just for and about you.
Feelings and emotions are a corner stone of connecting with readers. Readers want to know what is going on in a character’s mind and heart. In the case of writing memoir, the only character you can speak directly for is yourself. That doesn’t mean that other people are restricted to the role of paper dolls. You can tell readers what you observe, assume, and hear them say.
The most obvious way of conveying these emotions is to express them directly as adjectives or verbs, but that’s limiting, and tends to keep a story glued flat to the page. In The Emotion Thesaurus Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman explain:
Readers have high expectations. They don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves.
In previous posts I’ve urged you to practice tuning in to your own non-verbal cues when you are in various states of emotion, and to closely observe these cues in others. Keeping a journal of your observations gives you golden nuggets to use as you write, helping you satisfy those reader expectations.
However, if you are writing now, you need a huge database now, and you don’t have time to spend a few years observing yourself and others to develop a strong vocabulary for adding this element to your stories, and even if you did, you probably don’t know how to go about it. I didn’t. Fortunately, Puglisi and Ackerman explain:
To convey feelings well, a writer must also utilize nonverbal communication, which can be broken down into three elements: physical signals (body language and actions), internal sensations (visceral reactions) and mental responses (thoughts).
The book goes on to give you tools for doing just that. It begins with a brief section overviewing the three elements, demonstrating how to use them, and describing how to avoid common problems like telling, clichéd emotions, melodrama, over-reliance on dialogue, and more.
Over 90% of the book is devoted to an in-depth analysis of 75 key emotions ranging from adoration to worry. Each word entry begins with a definition, then moves on to exhaustive lists of physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of acute or long-term (name of emotion), what it may escalate to, cues of suppressed (name of emotion), and a writer’s tip.
When I finally got around to buying this book a few months ago, my heart beat a little faster as I realized that I’d struck gold, perhaps more than they realized when they wrote it. This material will definitely punch up my writing, but it’s also helping me become more perceptive of others and more accurately assess what they may be feeling. Some fortunate people seem to have been born with an innate sense of this. Others of us need all the help we can get to emerge from the “clueless” state.
You may wonder how to reconcile the 1100 emotions on the list I developed with the relatively paltry sum of 75 they assess. As I scan the longer list, I can easily cluster the terms as synonyms for the 75 core emotions in the book, so you can take the long list and reduce any of the other 1025 terms to its nearest core word and go from there. But even if you limit your emotional vocabulary to the 75 and use them in the masterful ways you’ll learn in this book, nobody is going to miss the more elaborate terms.
If you are serious about putting wings on your words, this is a book you’ll want to keep at your fingertips.
Write now: using the words angry, sad and happy, practice writing sentences or paragraphs that express those emotions through body signals – language, actions, or appearance. Write two sets of these, one from your point of view and also as you observe them in somebody else. Then from your own point of view write about visceral sensations and inner monologue for each of the three emotions. Then look at a few old stories and look for opportunities to add impact by incorporating these additional modes.