I met with my book club recently. We all consistently liked the plot, the world, the idea of the book we were discussing. But something was missing. The author had failed to guide us into her world with her writing. In the end, there was only one scene that rewarded us with a vivid experience and an emotional reaction. In that one scene, the author had managed to show rather than tell.
As screenwriters, we craft stories to ultimately be seen through a visual medium. We are bound by the rule of show, don’t tell. Authors, screenwriters, and actors alike have been buzzing about a new resource by authors Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, called The Emotion Thesaurus. You can hear Angela Ackerman chat about this book on the TV Writer Podcast, ep. 70. Angela points out that up to 95% of communication is nonverbal. Yet clichéd or melodramatic character responses can leave the reader cold. Her resource allows writers to look up root emotions and discover lists of related responses. Reactions are broken down into three elements: physical signals (body language and actions), internal sensations, and mental responses. Some emotions are further linked to a “may escalate to…” field as well, in order to help the writer brainstorm further character reactions.
Ackerman’s blog, “The Bookshelf Muse,” is a valuable resource as well. It contains further writing aids, including thesauruses for symbolism, character traits, and setting. Given the reception of the first compendium, further writing thesaurus books are in the works.
Ackerman recommends using The Emotion Thesaurus merely as a starting point to visualize scenes. Other considerations will include the character’s disposition and how he or she would naturally respond, as well as the setting. Our characters must adjust their responses according to their surroundings as we do, for example by tempering their reactions in a workplace or public setting. The book also cautions against overuse of backstory, over-reliance on dialogue, and sudden jumps in emotion. All valuable wisdom for the screenwriter. I have my copy, and it’s a tool I can’t wait to put to use.