An Emotional Deep Dive!


Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because they feel the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next, because of this connection.

The debate whether a story is character-driven or plot-driven is outdated, even cursory. The truth is characters drive the plot, and the plot molds the character. The relationship is intimate and inseparable.  And at the core of this connection is the heart – the emotion -- of the story.

Remember how you felt when you read Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, or the tear-worthy Marly and Me, by John Grogan? Did you gasp when you read Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon? Or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple? Eegads, I still cry at the very thought of Fred Gibson’s Old Yeller!

Did you cheer (as I did) when Harry Potter finally, finally beats Voldemort?

I could go on, but you get my point.

These reactions -- and the ensuing thematic expressions that ultimately define a classic with literary stay power – are courtesy of the emotional connection between story and reader.

But how does one show emotion while telling a story? By definition, nonverbal emotion can’t be told. It must be shown. So say writing coaches and authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Writers HelpingWriters

The fine art of dramatizing emotionally complex characters is a struggle for many writers at every stage of their career. What has helped me is Ackerman and Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. This is the second expanded edition, and so much better than the first! Considered “the gold standard”, the ultimate show-don’t-tell guide for emotion, I've found the entire series indispensable in my writing and as teaching aids in my MFA classes.

Key points include:

·       Telling creates distance between readers and the character.

·        But showing takes more work than telling.

·        Cliches are vilified for good reason: they’re a symptom of lazy writing, a result of settling on an easy phrase because creating something new is hard.

·        Word choice is important in expressing emotion, but it only goes so far.

This thesaurus, and others included in the series, takes on each of these points to illustrate what writers can do before drafting to make sure a character’s emotions are consistent and realistic.  The book includes instructions  -- an actual demonstration on how to employ emotion! – to reveal hidden feelings and emotional subtext.

Check out their other resources on of my favorite blogs, Writer’s Helping Writers. Each entry is a deep dive into various literary devices. It’s like taking an MFA course!

What books made you cry?

Thank you for reading!

-- Bobbi Miller


  1. It was so much fun exploring the emotional component of writing in my verse novels. They really lend themselves to that. Thanks for the post.

    1. Hi Darlene! I agree whole-heartedly: verse novels -- and poetry in general -- are so powered and defined by the emotional experience, both visceral and mystical. Similar to how music evokes emotions in a very deep and compelling, even unexpected, level. Absolutely! Bobbi

  2. I am so glad this book is giving you brainstorming help when you need it, Bobbi! Emotion is common ground between readers and characters, and so the more effectively we describe emotion, the more we make the characters and their experiences/struggles relatable to readers! Happy writing!

    1. Thank you, Angela, for these excellent resources!

  3. Just snagged a copy! Thanks so much for this.

    1. There's a new title in the series that's coming out next month that looks like another must-have. I'll keep everyone posted.


Post a Comment