Wednesday, August 8, 2012

August is Awesome Because of Angela Ackerman

Now you must be careful around this awesome woman.  She can read you like a book.  In fact, if she's watching you closely then you--or at least what you're doing--might end up in her next one.

Her Emotion Thesaurus (and blog) is an invaluable tool for writers who want to show a character's emotion rather than simply name it for the reader.  And really, anyone who strives to help you improve your craft is awesome, right?

Please give Angela Ackerman an awesome welcome! 

Hidden Emotion: Telling What Characters Don’t Want To Show

One of the struggles that comes with writing is when a character feels  vulnerable  and so tries to hide their emotions as a result.  Fear of emotional pain, a lack of trust in others, instinct, or protecting a reputation are all reasons they might repress what’s going on inside them. After all, people do this in real life, and so it makes sense that our characters will too.  Protecting oneself from feeling exposed is as normal as it gets.

But where does that leave writers who STILL have to show these hidden emotions to the reader (and possibly other characters in the scene)?

The answer is a TELL-- a subtle, bodily response that the character has little or no control over.

No matter how hard we try, our bodies are emotional mirrors, and can give our true feelings away.  We can force hands to unknot, fake nonchalance, smile when we don’t mean it and lie as needed. However, to the trained eye, Tells will leak through: a rushed voice. An off-pitch laugh. Hands that fiddle and smooth.  Self touching gestures to comfort.  Sweating.

For a story to have emotional range, our characters will naturally hide what they feel at some point, and when they do, the writer must be ready. Readers will be primed for an emotional response by the scene’s build up, and will be on the lookout for a character’s body language cues and tells.

Here is a list of possible TELLS which convey that more is going on than it seems:
  • A voice that breaks, drops or raises in pitch; a change in speech patterns
  • Micro hesitations (delayed speech, throat clearing, slow reaction time) showing a lack of commitment
  • A forced smile, laugh or verbally agreeing/disagreeing in a way that does not seem genuine
  • Cancelling gestures (smiling but stepping back; saying No but reaching out, etc.)
  • Hands that fiddle with items, clothing and jewellery
  • Stiff posture and movements; remaining TOO still and composed
  • Rushing (the flight instinct kicking in) or making excuses to leave or avoid a situation
  • A lack of eye contact; purposefully ignoring someone or something
  • Closed body posture (body shielding, arms crossing chest, using the hair to hide the face, etc.)
  • Sweating or trembling, a tautness in the muscles or jaw line
  • Smaller gestures of the emotion ‘leaking out’ (see The Emotion Thesaurus for ideas that match each emotion)
  • Growing inanimate and contributing less to conversation
  • Verbal responses that seem to have double meanings; sarcasm
  • Attempting to intimidate others into dropping a subject
    Overreacting  to something said or done in jest
  • Increasing one’s personal space ( withdrawing from a group, sitting alone, etc.)
  • Tightness around the eyes or mouth (belying the strain of keeping emotion under wraps)
  • Hiding one’s hands in some way
Sometimes a writer can let the character’s true thoughts leak out and this can help  show the reader what’s really being felt. But this only works if the character happens to be the Point Of View Character. The rest of the time, it comes down to micro body language and bodily tells that are hard if not impossible to control.

Have you used any of these tells to show the reader or other characters in the scene that something is wrong? What tells do you notice most in real life as you read the body language of those around you? (These real life interactions can be gold mines for fresh body language cues to apply to your characters!)

About Angela Ackerman:

Angela Ackerman is awesome!
Angela Ackerman is a Canadian who writes on the darker side of Middle Grade and Young Adult. A strong believer in writers helping writers, she blogs at the award winning resource, The Bookshelf Muse and is co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Angela is represented by Jill Corcoran of The Herman Agency.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is a writer’s best friend, helping to navigate the challenging terrain of showing character emotion. This brainstorming tool explores seventy-five emotions and provides a large selection of body language, internal sensations, actions and thoughts associated with each. Written in an easy-to-navigate list format, readers can draw inspiration from character cues that range in intensity to match any emotional moment.


  1. Fantastic advice! The Emotion Thesaurus is something every writer should have - it's a great tool!

  2. I have them do what I do when angry, sad, shocked, but more often than not I am not aware I'm portraying myself until someone points it out. I'm the chameleon type of dragon so I have different body language for one single emotion. I think it would be more helpful if I had an Emotion Thesaurus indeed. Sometimes I don't know why my characters are doing this or that and then someone tells me "you do that too and we have no idea why you do it."

  3. Aw, thanks Kyra!

    SP, Glad this helps!

    Richard, you are way too kind :)

    Dragon, this is an excellent way to make sure your character's emotion is authentic. No one knows what emotion looks and feels like more so than each one of us. Just remember to also filter their reaction through their personality, because depending on how they differ from you, that is one way their expressions might take a different path.

    Jeff, thanks so much for the invite and the awesome intro! I am flattered and extremely pleased to be included in your August line up. :)

    Hope everyone has a great & productive writing session today!


    1. You're quite welcome, Angela. Awesome people are easy to introduce and a joy to spotlight!

  4. Great post, great advice. Always makes me think and rethink, go deeper into character and not be afraid to do it! Thanks for the feature, Jeff--and thanks for the post Angela!

  5. Interesting information. I tried some of this in an old(er) book, and it just confused my writing group. They kept asking why the character was doing these things, wanted the emotions right there on the surface.

    I still incorporate "tells," but I try to get a little of the obvious emotion out there as well.


    1. Your point is quite valid, Lauren. Angela's reply to it is spot on as well. Balance is always key and frequently difficult to attain.

      I've experienced similar conundrums with adverbs. I simply refuse to use twenty words in place of "nearly" or "swiftly" unless doing so offers more benefit than merely eliminating an adverb. (And yes, I said "merely" decidedly defiantly. )

  6. Deb, thank you so much for visiting! I am so lucky to know you!

    Hi Lauren,

    I know it can be difficult to show readers something when you can't be blatant about it. I find too sometimes it can be a challenge to give the reader enough that they catch on, but not so much they feel beat over the head with it.

  7. Great post! I'm a big fan of the Emotion Thesaurus and refer to it all the time. I'd be lost without it!

  8. Excellent list! I'm bookmarking this.

  9. Jen, I am super happy we're able to help!

    Alex, glad you find the post useful.

    Jeff, thanks so much for having me here! :)


  10. I really need to try these on my co-protagonist.