MYC: How and When to Write Emotion

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the importance of Pacing and Tension. This week, we’re looking at emotion.

I don’t know about you, but this topic brings out a lot of emotion because it is so closely tied to the phrase writers love to hate: show don’t tell. But, before we can show emotion, we need to discuss where it is needed.

Have you ever read a scene in a book that made you feel something – terrified, joyful, helpless – but the character didn’t show any emotion? How did that make you feel? Emotionless scenes leave me feeling empty. Cheated. They remind me I’m not really part of the story. I’m just a reader.

That doesn’t mean every scene needs heart-racing, sweaty hands, and lip-quivering. In fact, too much of that can make the story and characters seem unrealistic. What they do need are realistic responses to events.

When writing, look at each scene. Imagine you are the character (and by this I  mean all the characters. Even secondary players have feelings). Close your eyes if you want, dress the part if it helps. Put yourself in the specific event you are writing about. What are you feeling? How strong is it? If you felt something, your characters should too. After all, they are people just like us.

Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Now that we have a way to identify where emotion is needed, we can move to the more difficult part of writing: the dreaded show don’t tell. A good place to start is with the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book catalogues the physical responses, mental responses, and sensations associated with each of a broad list of emotions. While most people and characters exhibit specific habits when excited, frightened, or anxious, too many “my heart raced as she walked into the room” can be predictable and boring.  Instead of just telling us the character’s palms are sweaty, try showing the character wiping her hands on her skirt or shying away from shaking hands with someone, hiding those sweaty palms behind her back. Show her wiggling an eyebrow because she’s in a cold sweat that’s tickling her as it drips down her face. It’s OK to do some physical cues–face getting hot, skin prickling, electricity running up the back of her legs–but don’t only do that.

There are many ways to write emotion and all are acceptable, within reason. My suggestion is to mix it up.

Here is a great example of using multiple techniques to convey emotion in a single scene, from Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star.

“I knew it was a big mistake as soon as I said it. His whole face turned red–cheeks, nose, the tips of his ears–the whole thing. He was practically aglow. His eyes darted sideways to where his new friends were watching us like we were on TV.

Why don’t you get some friends of your own and stop following me around like a baby?” he said instead.

He should’ve just hit me.

He grabbed his bike out of the dirt and puffed himself up with so much angry air I thought he’d burst, and I’d have to tell Mom that her older and more perfect son exploded.

“My name is Charles,” he said to those boys, daring them to say another word. “Are you coming or what?” He didn’t wait for them, didn’t look back to see if they were coming.”

This is such a quick scene, but conveys so much information about the relationship between the main character and his older brother, and conveys character emotion in a gut-punching way.

State the emotion – Yoon names Charles’ anger, but in a fresh way–“puffed himself up with so much angry air.” Remember, the reader wants to feel the excitement, not be told about it.

Show through dialogue – Voicey dialog can make a character come to life, but make sure it’s not the only way you’re showing emotion, and that you’re not telling us (“I’m so excited!”) but showing us. Look at the way Yoon reinforces the anger in this scene with dialog. Charles calls his brother a baby, but also uses short, choppy bits of dialog at the end of the scene, which reinforces his anger–“Are you coming or what?”

Descriptive phrases – for example, similes and metaphors. Here, Yoon uses some great description of Charles’ face to describe his anger. He turns red, which could be cliche, but then she freshens it by adding the tips of his ears, and the phrase “he’s practically aglow.”  Later in the scene, as his anger escalates, he goes from “aglow” to downright explosive. So the imagery builds as the emotion of the scene does.

Hope your toolbox is now filled with more tips for writing emotion. Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at big picture fixes!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.


A photo of author Julie Artz
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.


MYC: Developing Supporting Characters

Master Your Craft

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll  discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we covered Developing Main Characters. This week, I’ll discuss Developing Supporting Characters.

The Supporting Characters’ Job

The purpose of a supporting character is to add depth to the protagonist by helping the reader understand how the main character interacts with others and reacts to situations. Also, supporting characters help move the plot forward.

What types of supporting characters do you need for your story? Well, that really depends on the goal that your main character must achieve.

Types of Supporting Characters

The Villian/Antagonist: Every story needs one! Often, the antagonist is a person (but it can be a disaster, technology, society, or even a main character) who fuels the conflict that the main character must solve to achieve her/his goal.

The Love Interest: This character adds tension and may be directly involved in the conflict. It also can serve some of the same functions as the antagonist and the BFF.

The Mentor: This character encourages the main character to develop the skills she/he needs to achieve her/his goal.

The BFF/Sidekick: This character may be needed to help the main character achieve her/his goal or may be around to help us understand the main character and her/his motivations.

Extras: Characters who would normally inhabit the main character’s world or who are needed to complete scenes. You may need many of these or none depending on your story.

Examples of Extras:

1) A child main character would normally have parents/a guardian.

2) In a classroom setting, there would normally be a teacher.

3) In a fight scene, there would normally be many fighters.

Often, these EXTRA characters only need minimal development and a minimal/no arc. But the other characters in your story need much development!

Next Step

After you’ve chosen what types of characters you need, you’ll need to interview the most important ones (the ones who must move the plot forward) using a process like the one in our previous post about Building Main Characters.

It’s often useful for your secondary characters have strengths related to your main character’s flaw.


1) Your main character may have a supportive family that they don’t appreciate. A supporting character who comes from a broken home can help the main character see the error in her/his thinking.

2) Your main character may be very popular, but has superficial friendships. A supporting character who is more introverted, but a true friend, can help the main character understand what’s missing in her/his life.

I highly recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus for fleshing out the relationships between characters. The front matter in both thesauri is extremely helpful for developing good characters that work together to make the story come alive.


Tips for creating good supporting characters:

  • Give each supporting character a defining characteristic. (Appearance, skill, quirk)
  • Make sure their voice is distinctive from other characters.
  • Don’t give characters similar names and avoid names starting with the same letter.
  • Main supporting characters should be layered and detailed, but do not take too much attention away from your main character.
  • Focus your writing about supporting characters on how their actions, traits, and what role she/he plays helps or hinders the main character from achieving her/his goal.
  • Limit your characters to those who are necessary to move the story forward.
  • Please give careful consideration to race/skin color when you write supporting characters. Stories with white main characters and darker-skinned support characters who do all the work (or even worse who are villians/bad guys) are not representative of the real world. Please consider every reader who might read your story and avoid stereotypes. (More on this in the post on Building a Main Character.)

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss using this character development to start working out plot!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

Spark a Story with the Setting Exercises in The Rural Setting Thesaurus

Book covers for The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus

Book covers for The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting ThesaurusAngela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi do it again! Introducing The Rural Setting Thesaurus!

Disclosure: I received a review copy of The Urban Setting Thesaurus in exchange for an honest review.

I also bought a copy of The Rural Setting Thesaurus because it has GOOD STUFF for #kidlit.

You know, SHINY settings, like Backyard, Basement, Birthday Party, Child’s Bedroom, Halloween Party, Outhouse, and *cough* Secret Passageway, Abandoned Mine, Ancient Ruins. Did I mention Secret Passageway? There’s also a WIDE variety of school settings.

You might think having a list to choose from would make everyone’s stories the same. But I’ve noticed that a list frees up my mind to play. 

The best thing about Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s books? They make writing more FUN!

And they make writing more productive. Their power writing tools help you write better, faster, stronger stories with less effort. What’s not to like?

Today I want to talk about the deceptively simple power tool called “Setting Exercises” that is in both Thesaurus books.

A few months ago, I went into a Korean grocery store before a writing meet-up. Just for fun, I filled in the Setting Exercise tool when I got to the café. I didn’t have high hopes. I was really just going through the motions to see how/if it would work. Here are my thoughts and my unexpected results.

Feeling brave? Try out this new Setting Exercise tool. We can do it side-by-side. Hey, it’s Friday–what have you got to lose? I’ll share my results here. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

[Note: the actual tool has more tips than my shortened version here.]

Choose a place and list two sensory details for each of the five senses.

SIGHT: electric lights, colorful packaging, orange/white/red. Long cases, cash registers, lines, colors of veggies: green leaves, purple eggplant, peppers

SMELL: soap, fish, rice bags? green leaves–basil? mint? lemongrass?

SOUND: Ding of register scanner, hum of refrigerators. Korean? Voices. Words I don’t understand.

TEXTURE: crinkly packages. Hard frozen fish, tofu in buckets of water, shrink-wrapped octopus?

TASTE: toasted sesame

This was more interesting than I thought. I don’t do well with lists for character. But will it get me a story? How’d you do?

Write a paragraph through the eyes of a character who has never visited this place before. Weave in quality of light, time of day, season and use at least 3 of the 5 senses from your list. Try to show us who the character is and what he or she feels.

A little boy named Chi-won asks for something at the butcher counter. Ignored because too small, using the wrong word. Wilful lack of respect: I am stronger than you so I can do what I want and no one will stop me. Big knives and muscles in arms slamming knife through fish. Put more fish in on purpose so it will be more expensive. Sloppy packing up shows no respect for food or for child. Chi-won thinks: Too embarrassing to ask for some to be put back. Counts money. Not enough. Oh no! Chi-won sneaks out of store without paying.

Huh. Well that isn’t a paragraph of a story, but it sure looks like a hero and an antagonist. This might work even though I didn’t follow directions. Only took five minutes. What did you get?

Rewrite, using foreshadowing. Something bad is going to happen. Concentrate on building subtle mood of unease or hone in on a detail that does not fit.

Now what? When Chi-won got home, he had to give the change to his sick grandmother. If he gives all the money back, he’ll have to confess that he stole the fish. Sneaks into room and takes money out of piggy bank for the “change.”

The handy list of details I made for this setting will make this easy to do when I’m actually drafting. If I run out, there are buckets more in The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus.

Time to ramp up the tension. Rewrite to show character interact with setting as he flees, fights or hides.

Grandmother needs something else from the butcher and sends him back again. Oh no! Can’t go in there again! Goes to dirty-looking butcher shop six streets away. Buys fish there even though it smells funny in there. They cheat on the change and the fish smells. Has to keep grandmother from sending him shopping any more. Tells her he’s sick. Grandmother cooks him toasted sesame and special food but he feels guiltier. Friend at school invites for playdate. So excited until he finds out it’s the son of the first store owner. Oh no!

This story is developing right under my eyes! I’m definitely trying this tool again. I added it to my Novel Spare Parts file and put my “results” in my Setting ideas folder. I really liked the way this exercise focuses on emotions and gives me fresh ways to reveal them.

Did this tool spark a story for you? If not, try another. The Rural Setting Thesaurus includes a Setting Planner. The Urban Setting Thesaurus includes an Emotional Value and Triggers Tool. Both books include the Setting Exercise above.

Angela Ackerman gave us generous permission to share them here. You can also find them at Tools for Writers:


Tool_Emotional-Value_and_Triggers is a bit more complicated, according to Angela Ackerman. There’s a filled-out sample in the Appendix of The Urban Setting Thesaurus.

Warning: If you’re a tool person like me, I recommend limiting yourself. Don’t fall into Writers’ Home Depot and forget to come home to your manuscript.

Challenge: If you’re not a tool person, I encourage you to give one of these a try. Don’t force it. But how great would it be if you found a new way to spark your imagination?

You can find The Rural Settings Thesaurus on:


Barnes and Noble

More for you on The Winged Pen: We went a little nuts about The Emotion Thesaurus, The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus and the magical Reverse Backstory Tool in earlier posts on the Winged Pen. And Rebecca J. Allen has a new post on The Urban Setting Thesaurus here.

LAUREL DEphoto of Laurel DecherCHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

Wait, there’s MORE! Rebecca J. Allen has more about The Urban Setting Thesaurus here on the Winged Pen. Over to Rebecca:

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

































Using Setting to Create a Three-Dimensional World for Your Story: THE URBAN SETTING THESAURUS

We received a free copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Urban Settings Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces in exchange for an honest review. Since we’re fans of their Emotion Thesaurus as well as their thesauri of positive and negative character trains, we were excited to dive in. (See our review of the other books here.)

The Urban Setting Thesaurus is a wonderful resource for a fiction writer! The bulk of this book and its sister craft book, The Rural Settings Thesaurus, is comprised of two-page entries describing dozens of settings that could pop up in any fiction genre — from a police car to an emergency room, the stands of a sporting event to an art gallery. Each entry provides a wealth of sensory words describing the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and even tastes that characterize that setting.

In the recording studio entry, you find sights like vocalists warming up, cords running from instruments to outlets and recording equipment, and the “recording” light to let you know to keep quiet. You hear humming or instruments being played, smell takeout Chinese food or coffee, and feel the snug fit of headphones over your ears. If your scene takes place in a setting you’ve never been to, this thesaurus can help you craft the experience your characters will encounter in a way that will make your story feel more real to your reader.

Not sure where a scene should take place? A flip through entries listed in the table of contents could help you brainstorm. Perhaps your protagonist is mulling over whether to confront her antagonist…she could do that anywhere. But what she sees, hears and touches as she weighs her decision could more vividly show her mood and emotions. What backdrop would carry the most emotional impact? Would highlight her fears and the challenges she’ll need to face?

In addition to the setting entries, there is a wealth of information in the first chapters of The Urban Setting Thesaurus on how to use setting to convey your story with the most impact. These chapters discuss how to use setting to create a mood, to characterize a room full of primary and secondary characters, and to heighten tension. They also illustrate using all the senses to pull the reader into your scene.

I’m sure I’ll turn to this helpful resource again and again.

You can find The Urban Settings Thesaurus on:

Barnes and Noble

For more on using The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus, see Laurel’s post here!

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.



photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.


The Setting Thesaurus Books Are Here: Help Becca And Angela Celebrate!

Today we’re excited to host a guest post by Angela Ackerman!

There’s nothing better than becoming lost within the story world within minutes of starting a book. And as writers, this is what we’re striving to do: pull the reader in, pull them down deep into the words, make them feel like they are experiencing the story right alongside the hero or heroine.

A big part of achieving this is showing the character’s surroundings in a way that is textured and rich, delivering this description through a filter of emotion and mood. It means we have to be careful with each word we choose, and describe the setting in such a way that each sight, sound, taste, texture, and smell comes alive for readers. This is no easy task, especially since it is so easy to overdo it—killing the pace, slowing the action, and worst of all, boring the reader. So how can we create a true unique experience for readers and make them feel part of the action while avoiding descriptive missteps that will hurt the story?

writershelpingwriters_logo_300x300px_finalWell, there’s some good news on this front. Two new books have released this week that may change the description game for writers. The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces and The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Spaces look at the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds that a character might experience within 225 different contemporary settings. And this is only the start of what these books offer writers.

In fact, swing by and check out this hidden entry from the Urban Setting Thesaurus: Antiques Shop.

And there’s one more thing you might want to know more about….

Rock_The_Vault_WHW1Becca and Angela, authors of The Emotion Thesaurus, are celebrating their double release with a fun event going on from June 13-20th called ROCK THE VAULT. At the heart of Writers Helping Writers is a tremendous vault, and these two ladies have been hoarding prizes of epic writerly proportions.

A safe full of prizes, ripe for the taking…if the writing community can work together to unlock it, of course.

Ready to do your part? Stop by Writers Helping Writers to find out more!

Find out how Winged Pen members use Angela’s and Becca’s other excellent Thesauri here.