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Writing About Emotion: The Emotion Thesaurus

Let’s talk about emotion!!!!! Portraying emotion through writing is no simple matter. Human beings are complicated creatures. We show emotion in all sorts of ways, for all kinds of feelings. How does one illustrate this with mere words? Hopefully I can help.

When it comes to human emotion, the spectrum is wide. You must first know what your character feels. Is it adoration? Annoyance? Curiosity? Disappointment? Envy? Hatred? Indifference? Oh, I could go on…You get the point. The types of emotions a character can feel are numerous. And what about the symptoms of those feelings?

What is a symptom of emotion, you ask? A symptom of emotion is the resultant behavior exhibited in response to sadness, happiness, love, etc. Does your character bite his/her nails when nervous? Do they clench their jaw when frustrated? Those are symptoms. But there are more than symptoms when it comes to portraying emotions.

If someone feels paranoid, in other words, if they experience excessive or illogical suspicion and/or distrust of others, what kind of behavior do they exhibit? What physical signals do they display? What about their internal sensations? And their mental responses? What happens if this paranoia becomes a long term problem for them?

That’s a lot to think about for just one emotion. Especially when our characters experience numerous emotions throughout a story. Overwhelming, right?

When you write about your character, you want to avoid spelling everything out for your reader. That takes the mystery away. The last thing you want is to deprive your reader of using their own imagination. Oftentimes, things are better left unsaid. Therefore, you want to avoid saying things like, “Jessica was paranoid,” especially if the reader already believes that Jessica was paranoid. Why restate the obvious? Why waste words?

Okay, so how do you make Jessica’s paranoia known without blatantly stating it? One way to show Jessica’s paranoia is to cue your reader to physical symptoms of Jessica’s paranoia. Various symptoms of p

aranoia include:

-Startling easily

-Clenching the jaw

-Darting eye movements

-Excessive safety precautions (locks, guard dogs, video surveillance)

-Restless sleep


-Rapid breathing

Perhaps Jessica was walking home from a late night college class and she thought she saw someone watching her from a nearby alleyway. Let’s write this scenario out:

Jessica tightened her sweater about her, warding off the chill of the winter evening. The early darkness and lack of moonlight left long shadows jumping out at her. A sudden movement caught her eye. Her gaze darted across the road to a particularly ominous alleyway. Was that a man she saw standing in the shadows or merely the shadow of a trash can? Surely it was a man!

She continued on, only, now she thought she heard footsteps behind her. Looking over her shoulder, she caught a movement from the corner of her gaze. Someone was following her! Was it that same supposed man in the alleyway? She began to sweat, despite the chilling air. Her walking increased to a quick, erratic pace. She continued to look over her shoulder, even as a clatter sounded behind her. A cat darted out into the roadway, snarling, as another chased it away. She sighed with relief. It was merely a feline. She had nothing to worry about, these streets were safe.

Okay, let’s take a look at what I wrote above. I think it’s reasonable to say we can tell Jessica is a wee bit paranoid here. Yet, not once did I say, “Jessica was paranoid as she walked.” Instead, I showed you that Jessica was paranoid. I used several cues to do so. First, I mentioned that she looked over her shoulder. That is a symptom of paranoia. Second, I mentioned that she began to sweat. Third, her walking increased to a quick, erratic pace. All of these are symptoms of paranoia.

Let’s have another example. How about the emotion amazement? Amazement can be represented by various symptoms such as:

-Wide eyes

-Taking a step back

-Pulling out a cellphone to record the event

-Eyebrows raising

And some of the internal sensations one might feel are:

-A heart that seems to freeze, then pound

-Stalled breaths

-Adrenaline spikes

Then there are possible mental responses:

-Momentarily forgetting all else



-An inability to find words

So let’s get back to Jessica, since we know she’s a college student prone to paranoia. She’s just returned home from a study group late at night. She’s in her final year of university, and she’s been eagerly applying to various jobs around the country.

Jessica traipsed through her living room, taking a seat at her computer. As she powered up the machine, she sipped on her hot chamomile tea. The first thing she did when the desktop screen appeared, was launch her email. Lately, she was obsessed with checking emails. She spent every spare minute jumping on to see if she had any bites.

As she sifted through her inbox, deleting and skimming the load of junk, her eyes fell on a subject line that made her suck in a quick breath. At first, she just sat there staring. Then she quickly clicked the title, a response to her inquiry with the New York Times.

As she skimmed the words, her heart seemed to freeze, then it began to pound. It couldn’t be! She scooted her desk chair closer, until her nose nearly touched the screen. She re-read the email before jumping up from her chair and quickly dialing her mom’s phone number.

“Honey, everything okay?”

“Hi Mom! Better than okay! You’re not going to believe this. I got the internship!”

So let’s go through this example of amazement. Hopefully, as you read that, you saw some clues to Jessica’s amazement. Jessica receives an email from the New York Times, hoping to get an internship with them. When she sees the email, she almost can’t believe it. She’s amazed, yet, I never blatantly said this. The first symptom of her amazement is when Jessica sucks in a quick breath. Then she sits, staring at the email. After this, she has more of an internal response—her heart freezes, then begins to beat rapidly. Then Jessica scoots closer to better read the email. Finally, her need to share the news with someone—her mom, is also a symptom of amazement.

Thinking up behaviors to fit a specific emotion is not easy. It takes practice. If you’re serious about using unique behaviors, rather than repeating the same cues such as, “She swallowed the lump in her throat,” for the umpteenth time, there is help!

While there are plenty of free online resources to gather together behaviors with emotions, I recommend doing yourself a favor and purchasing “The Emotion Thesaurus.” You can get a digital copy for your computer, or a paperback copy. I’ve linked the book I use throughout my writing. I can tell you it was an investment well made. The Emotion Thesaurus gives about seventy-five various emotions, with a plethora of physical symptoms, internal sensations, mental responses, and long term effects. If you are serious about writing, you won’t regret adding this to your toolbox. I certainly don’t.

But, if you can’t afford to purchase something, I recommend Google. Go ahead and google the emotion you plan to write about, and making sure your characters display behavior relevant to that emotion. That’s how you make your writing more believable.

Hope this helps!! If this is a topic you’d like to see me discuss more in depth, with more examples, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what kinds of writing advice you’re looking for, and it need not be related to this particular post. Thanks for reading!


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