Story writers: Have I got a book for you…The Emotion Thesaurus

“Show, don’t tell”–we’ve all heard it and likely read it several times. Important advice for sure.

And not just for fiction writers. Nonfiction writers too.

Stories and anecdotes are popping up in blog posts constantly, in magazine articles, memoirs, even sales copy.  Why? Because stories are potent attention-grabbers.  When we write nonfiction, we need those story-telling skills just like novelists and short-story writers.

Showing rather than telling is easier said than done.  It’s tricky, challenging.

And just to be clear on what I’m talking about here: It means dramatizing your story by depicting its events, not just telling what happened.


Randy was upset and angry. She left the room, closing the door decisively behind her.


Randy glared at them, stomped out of the room,  slamming the door behind her.  They’re being ridiculous, she thought.

Showing rather than just telling, or telling much at all means showing a character’s emotion through her actions, body language, thoughts and even, most powerfully, her internal visceral reactions:  She started to heave.

But if you’r writing a story or did so recently you’ve probably noticed how challenging describing those emotions can be.  It’s so easy to latch onto the first wornout cliché that comes to mind.

It takes creative thought and work to come up with fresh expressions.

That’s where The Emotion Thesaurus comes to the rescue.

This super-useful book by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is a brilliant and tremendous resource.  Why didn’t I think of that? I’ve been waiting for this book to come out in print and Kindle format.

It’s not a book of formulas but instead is a resource, a starting point for coming up with your own original words and phrases to express what a character is feeling.

The book starts with a fine essay on aspects of including the power of character emotion in your writing, portraying body language, including a POV character’s thoughts and internal visceral reactions,  avoiding those clichés and melodrama, identifying the root emotions, getting help from the setting.

This is one of the best essays I have come across on this vital part of story-craft.

But the heart of the book is the thesaurus.

It lists and thoroughly describes 75 emotions and the possible body language cues, thoughts, and visceral responses for each.

The dictionary-thesaurus type entries are alphabetically arranged for easy navigation and start with a definition, then list physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and other cues.

For example, here is the beginning of the entry for “anxiety”:

DEFINITION: mental apprehension and unease; a sense of foreboding


Rubbing the back of the neck

Crossing the arms, forming a barrier to others

Standing with one arm holding the other at the elbow

Clutching a purse, coat, or other object

Wringing one’s hands

Twisting a watch or ring


Hands repeatedly rising to touch one’s face

Fingering a necklace

Rolling one’s shoulders

Bouncing a foot…

That entire entry on “Anxiety,” quoted in part above, runs for a total of 319 words (my count).

The introduction also includes instructions on using the thesaurus, including the sage advice to “view entries as a launching point.” But there are also suggestions for twisting those worn-out clichés for fresh wording, trying related emotions, and several others.

The authors are the creators of The Bookshelf Muse website (, voted as one of the top ten blogs for writers for 2011 and 2012. The book can be ordered from the site in .pdf format or through Smashwords, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon (including the Kindle version).

By the way, at the website/blog you can find a listing ofa number samples from this thesaurus and also others: the “Weather & Earthly Phenomena Thesaurus,”  “Color, Textures and Shapes Thesaurus,”  “Character Traits Thesaurus,” “Setting Thesaurus,” and the “Symbolism Thesaurus.”

I’m glad I have my copy. I’ll be using it constantly.

Why not check it out?



6 thoughts on “Story writers: Have I got a book for you…The Emotion Thesaurus

  1. Angela Ackerman

    What a nice write up on our book–thank you so much! This totally made my day reading this.

    Not sure if you knew, but there is a free PDF companion book on the blog as well: Emotion Amplifiers (sidebar). This document is written in the same style as the Emotion Thesaurus only it covers the conditions that can alter a character’s mental and p0hysical states (Pain, Illness. Attraction, Exhaustion, Hunger, Dehydration, etc.), making them react more strongly to emotion.

    Happy writing!

    1. admin Post author

      Thank you. My pleasure and privilege, really.
      By the way, I also wrote a similar review for my alma mater The Longridge Writer’s Group, published a few days back.
      Thanks for the heads up on your “Emotion Amplifiers.” I downloaded it and will be using it for sure.
      I’m interested in all your writer helps.

  2. Angela Ackerman

    That’s a familiar group–I think someone I used to critique belonged there. Amber something? Ugh, the name is lost in my swiss cheese brain, LOL. Thanks so much for reviewing it there as well. 🙂


  3. Ali Luke

    Bill, you find all the best resources! Thanks for the heads-up on this one — have just bought the Kindle version and am looking forward to digging into it. 🙂

    1. admin Post author

      Hi Ali, yep it’s a good one. I’m sure you will get a lot of out this thesaurus.


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