Show Me How to Show!

Approximate read time: 4-5 minutes

The tl;dr version of this post: READ THE EMOTION THESAURUS BY ANGELA ACKERMAN. There is not a single writing book I have gotten more out of. 

I remember being thirteen years old, sitting cross-legged on my bed, smoothing and re-smoothing the purple and green quilt I’d saved up for 3 weeks to buy. I pressed the phone against my ear and held my breath, anxious for my dad to finish skimming the four pages of writing I had emailed him earlier in the day.

“Do you like it?” I squeaked into the phone.


Early-teen me loved that room.

There was a beat of silence. My father was always vocal. He didn’t hold much back. I could tell he was carefully considering what he should say, and that made my stomach twist and turn. “I…do?” he started. “You can definitely spin a story. But you’ve got to learn how to show, not tell.”

For an eighth-grader with hardly any real experience sharing stories, this didn’t make much sense to me. I remember pausing for a moment, confusion reducing my thoughts to static, before our conversation shifted into the viability of the arts as a career choice (a wholly different beast of a conversation). As I grew up, though, it became an incredibly common refrain. In my English classes: “Show me why you want me to side with you. Don’t tell me!” From the editor of the school paper: “Show me what it was like at that event.”During my senior project revisions with my mentor. “Can we figure out a better way to show the plot being driven forward instead of just telling the story?”

I always wanted to reply, “I am a writer, not a painter! If I wanted to SHOW you, I’d pick a visual art!”


But even my visual art has text!

Over time, my skills improved. I didn’t really grasp why, but they did. It was like riding a bike. The longer I put energy into my writing, the more comfortable I got in my element. But then, the Christmas after I graduated high school, there was a small box under the tree. It was wrapped in silky green paper, tied with three strands of curling ribbon. It took me ten minutes to fight through the ribbon and unearth the Amazon box inside. Only one person wrapped with ribbon that well: Grandma.

“They suggested it when I went to the bookstore for your birthday, but they were out of stock,” my grandmother told me. “I thought it might help with your stories.”

Soon, all the other presents were pushed aside. I hardly spoke to my grandparents or my uncle until we all packed up for Christmas supper across town. I was too busy reading. Frankly, my mother barely managed to get my attention by commanding all three dogs inside to wipe their muddy paws on my pajamas.  The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression had grabbed me by the throat and swallowed me whole.

The introduction explained the nuances of emotions better than anyone else had ever explained to me. The language made clear what years of writing classes and hours and hours of practice hadn’t quite managed to sink into me. But that wasn’t even the best part.

Inside, every emotion has a two-page spread of detailed descriptions. They’re split into subcategories that show both internal and external signs a character may show. It’s in list format (which, as I’ve mentioned before, I absolutely love) which makes it very easy to skim over if you’re looking for just that one perfect word.

For those of you who, like me, prefer to write in first person limited perspective, it can be a struggle to make emotional responses be felt by readers. We write from the interior of our narrator’s head. If they don’t have a certain kind of intuition about others, we have to find other ways to make emotional responses be felt. This book helped me learn how to describe the visible physical responses in a way that would click for readers, but not rely absolutely on the perception of the narrator.

Another absolutely spectacular feature this book offers is similar emotions. Each spread includes a mention of other emotions similar to the one it’s focused on, but just a little bit different. I found this very useful when I used it to try to nail down Zoey’s reaction to severe grief. Was it anger? Rage? Anguish? All of these emotions are tangled together and, sometimes, difficult to tell apart if the situation calls for it. The descriptions and references helped me mold all of my characters’ feelings until they were exactly as I wanted them.

Would I suggest this book? No question about it. YES. It’s one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received.


Did you like this post? Do you want to read more? Consider stopping by Amazon and picking up a copy of Nightfall, the first book of the Starwalkers Series by Christy Harkins. 

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. 

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