Emotion Thesaurus

I’m working on connecting to my emotions as an adult; it’s a crutch of mine, and I want to better understanding what I’m feeling day-to-day. Since 2019 I’ve written fiction, and much of my writing has been about how people feel, and what they’re doing. Emotion is a weakness for me. I’ve spent far too many words telling my audience what the protagonist is feeling, instead of showing. 

Here’s an example of a typical sentence I might write.

John understood she wasn’t coming back and felt the weight of that emotion roll over him.

Now, that sentence is passable. I wouldn’t mind if I had to ship it, and if you read through my books, you’ll find similar passages. Adding emotion, though, similar to my attempts to remove adverbs from my writing, is taking time and effort. 

Earlier this year I listened to a podcast episode by Joanna Penn, where she interviewed the author of The Emotion Thesaurus. The idea was like a bolt of lightning to my mind. I bought the book before I’d even finished listening. The idea is simple. You pick an emotion that you want to convey and jump to the section in the book. Each emotion has two full pages explaining the feeling and showing physical traits that help to define how a person would react. 

Back to the line about John. There are better ways to define emotion in a scene. 

Right now what I’m dealing with is a protagonist that is feeling loss, despair, and agony. He knows he’s about to lose the woman he loves and doesn’t know what to do. There are so many ways to write this scene and push the reader to feel what’s happening.

Before hearing about this book, I did my best to write something describing John’s feelings and move on. Now I’m pausing and trying to feel the pain and anguish of the protagonist. So, taking a metaphorical page from The Emotion Thesaurus, let’s try that scene again. 

John watched Elissa walk away, saw her silhouette disappear along the docks, fading into the fog. He swayed against the planks and held out an arm to a nearby street lamp. He touched the cold metal and slid down to the ground, burying his face in his hands.

I rewrote the scene based on what I was feeling, what I imagined I might do in a similar situation, and calling on times where my whole body felt a downward fall toward gravity, toward loss. There are other ways to write that scene, a million ways in fact, but I’m happier with how that one turned out than the first attempt.

Now, as I write this I don’t have the actual book in front of me. I reference it each day when I’m writing at home, but don’t always have it on the road. So, I’m guessing the book would suggest a better way to convey despair and loss. The point, though, is that it’s encouraged me to think about the external traits that a person shows when they’re feeling something. Too often I write wooden characters, bereft of affect, and following through the motions. That’s fine if you intend it, and the person is like that on purpose. However, for most characters, most of the time, that’s going to feel dull and boring. 

And so I persist, attempting to put myself into the scene day after day, trying to feel John in that moment.