how to write emotion header

How to Write Emotion: An Experimental Study

how to write emotionNot too many years ago, I thought an accurately portrayed scene naturally caused readers to experience the emotions that the characters would logically feel in such situations. Not true!

As Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi explain in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, we must take our innate skills of observation and transfer them to the page, by both verbal (dialogue) and nonverbal means (physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensations).

Award-winning author and writing coach C. S. Lakin later warned me of the failure to explicitly convey emotion:

You don’t want your protagonist to seem like an unfeeling robot. Readers will hate him if you do.

To avoid this, she suggested I buy a paperback thriller and highlight every explicit emotional sentence until I learned how emotion occupies nearly every page. I decided to make a bigger project out of it.

The Emotional Deep Dive: A By-the-Numbers Experiment

Angels and Demons Dan BrownOn the 477 pages of my favorite thriller, Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, I highlighted all 1,988 (by my count) sentences with explicit emotional content. That’s an average of over four per page! For each, I populated three spreadsheet columns:

1. The page number.

2. The emotion (from the seventy-five listed in The Emotion Thesaurus).

3. The sentence itself.

As much as I learned from doing this, the real lessons took place when I began sorting the entries in different ways.

Discovering the Emotional Story

Leaving the spreadsheet sorted by page number, I found I could follow the story by emotional content alone.

Plotting the number of emotional sentences per page showed the nice emotional pacing you’d expect from a bestselling author, with peaks near the plot points and pinch points.

Kristen Kieffer writes about such cadence in her post “How to Create Strong Pacing For Your Story“:

After dealing with the physical consequences of an instance of conflict, your character should address—or possibly repress—the emotional ramifications of the conflict, which can range from joy at a victory to intense grief, fear, or anxiety surrounding a loss.

And what was seen near the ninety-five percent mark around page 452? You guessed it—the maximum emotional sentences per page density of the novel’s climax.

Identifying the Emotion “Buckets”

The Emotion Thesaurus Cover SMALL WEBSorting the 1,988 rows by emotion (as listed in The Emotion Thesaurus) produced tightly grouped examples of how a master writer portrays each emotion.

Since the emotional labels themselves are subjective—the dividing lines between anger and rage or surprise and astonishment will differ for each reader–your and my emotional labels won’t always match.

Some unique scenes can evoke opposite reactions from different readers. After a short story reading during one of my writer’s group meetings, a Stephen King-inspired author had each of us feeling vastly differing emotions:

1. Amazement, at how such a scene could unfold.

2. Disgust, for the setting described.

3. Happiness, for the darkly humorous sequence of events.

The character’s emotions, however, should always be clear and truthful. As Martha Alderson points out in her post “Connecting with Audiences Through Character Emotions“:

Thoughts can lie. Dialogue can lie, too. However, emotions are universal, relatable and humanizing. Emotions always tell the truth.

Portraying Emotion

Sorting the entries by sentence provided perhaps the most interesting learning experience. It showed how much repetitive emotional content is directly told instead of shown (e.g., “Langdon was amazed” on pages 21 and 22).

In his 2017 post “How to Produce an Emotional Response in Readers,” Donald Maass calls this the “inner mode, the telling of emotions.”

It also works with repetitive actions (e.g., “The camerlengo smiled” on pages 304 and 305), what Maass calls the “outer mode, the showing of emotions.”

So why don’t these repetitions immediately distract readers from the story, as repetitive setting descriptions surely would? I believe that, similarly to why dialogue tags being more perceived than read, emotional content is more felt than read.

Sorting the emotional content this way also displayed identical snippets of dialogue that evoked drastically different emotions, due to their context. Two such sentences seem to convey annoyance and pride, respectively:

1. “Correct,” Kohler said, his voice edgy. (Page 59)

2. “Correct,” Langdon said, allowing himself a rare moment of pride in his work. (Page 165)

You've Got a Book in You Elizabeth SimsAs just one example, Elizabeth Sims, in her 2013 guide You’ve Got a Book in You, demonstrates how the word “Oh” is endlessly flexible:

1. “Oh,” he grunted.

2. “Oh!” Cassie couldn’t believe her luck. “Oh!”

3. All at once he understood. “Ohh.”


Despite the time this experiment took to complete, I recommend writers repeat this project with a copy of their own favorite novel. You may never see written emotional content the same way again!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! On what novel would you like to try this experiment? Do you think it would help you learn how to write emotion? Tell me in the comments!

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About Matt Gianni | @M_Gianni_Author

Matt Gianni is the author of Lever Templar, the first in his Castellum One series of dual timeline historical fiction/contemporary thriller novels. When not writing, he enjoys salsa dancing on Seattle's east side. Besides his website, you can connect with him on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.


  1. Lynn Dion says

    Good points. Try Ursula LeGuin’s “The Other Wind.” Masterful.

  2. I love the “Oh” example. YouTube has a Key & Peele sketch called “OK,” where a character only says “OK” in response to all of her friend’s complaints about her boyfriend. Except the character’s tone varies with each “OK” that she says, and it’s enough to make her friend perceive her as having “spouted wisdom all night tonight.”

    “OK …”
    “O! K!”

    Thanks for this post; you’ve reminded me to look into the “X thesaurus” series. I’ve been wanting to vary the facial expressions and gestures I have characters use with various emotions, e.g., furrowed brow, clenched jaw, etc. Your insight about the repetition of emotional displays is very reassuring; I’d been wondering about issues along those lines.

    • authormattgianni says

      Thanks, Jamie – I’m glad you liked it. Yes, The Emotional Thesaurus is a great resource.

  3. Marilyn Carvin says

    My first thought was “Outlander” or one of Gabaldon’s books. But “no way” am I going to spend that much time. I need to write, write, write. I will take a short peak, though . . . Thanks for the suggestions!

  4. Oops. . . “peek”. . . or maybe “peak” expresses the emotion?

    • authormattgianni says

      Aye, Sassanach – it is indeed time-consuming. Maybe you could try it on the first few chapters of Outlander? That was my intent with Angels & Demons until deciding to make such a big project out of it. An eBook would also make the copy/paste into a spreadsheet easier.

  5. Aaron Compton says

    I want to try this on “the Girl with All the Gifts.” I love that book, and I saw it today at a local oppshop/thrift shop for $3 🙂

    • authormattgianni says

      Sounds good, Aaron. Some commenters have mentioned copying and pasting from an eBook would be easier and take less time than highlighting and retyping from a physical copy.

  6. I would never have thought of doing this. I think it would be very instructive although time consuming. I know I’d just get side tracked with the novel and forget I’m supposed to be logging the emotions!

    • authormattgianni says

      Great point, Mel. But I’d read the book before, so I knew what was around every corner. Still, I had to remind myself “highlight emotion!” I still probably missed some.

  7. Love it; super intriguing post. This should be a series of posts, as one just barely skims the surface.

    • authormattgianni says

      Thanks so much Matt. Yes, I’m working on some other “experimental” projects that may reveal other writing insights from well-known authors. K.M. Weiland sounds receptive to more such posts in the future so, like a bad penny, I may be back.

  8. What a great post! I’ve heard of a similar highlighting exercise, only with dialogue – so the writer learns how much dialogue to use – has to be from a well-written book they love.

    Looking forward to hearing more from you, Matt!

  9. angelaackerman1 says

    What a very cool experiment, Matt. Interesting that so much is told (I bet this varies). It would be really interesting to graph out the percentages within the three act structure to see if the usage of emotions increased at turning points, etc. as it does at the climax. Good on you for thinking to do such a thing. 🙂

    • authormattgianni says

      Thanks, Angela. Yes, that would be very interesting – I can guess where the peak emotional densities should be. Thank you so much for writing The Emotion Thesaurus with Becca Puglisi – what a great resource!

  10. Thea Kelley says

    The main part of this that sticks with me is the idea that a certain amount of repetitive “he smiled” or “she frowned” might be okay, just the way “he said” can appear lots of times. Did I get that right?

    • authormattgianni says

      Hi Thea, For Dan Brown, that seems to be the case. When I read Angels & Demons for pleasure years ago I didn’t notice anything repeating – it was just like watching a movie inside my brain. But when I sorted the spreadsheet by sentence, I saw all these repeated “tells” of emotion. Maybe when we read “he smiled” all we remember is “he’s happy.”

  11. What do you mean by ‘repetitive emotional content? We’re forever being TOLD not to TELL. Show the emotion on the face, body language, etc. Is the TELL used more in certain genres? But “Langdon was amazed’ is a straight TELL. His eyes widened is SHOWING but doesn’t delineate the exact emotion. What sorts of instances on the page of are you including as EMOTIONS? Tell, show? Maass’s OTHER mode, seems to me, to suggest that elements such as scene, weather, gestures, etc are indicative of emotion.

    • authormattgianni says

      Hi Annette, Yes, there were a few other cases of the “Langdon was amazed.” sentence – I just mentioned the two that were on adjacent pages. When reading for pleasure, I never noticed – I just felt the emotion as I took in the scene. I only noticed the repetition of tells when I started highlighting for this project. I just sorted my spreadsheet by sentence again, and there are no fewer than eleven “Kohler looked X.” sentences, with X = angry, astonished, incredulous, nonplussed, ready, startled, stunned, surprised, thunderstruck, uneasy, and unsettled. To me, these are all tells, but again I never noticed until highlighting for this project. So for me, I must just be remembering the feel of the emotion, not the words describing it. I hope that makes sense.

  12. Casandra Merritt says

    Yes, actually I do have Structuring Your Novel. It’s very useful and I would recommend it to anyone.

  13. Don Clarke says

    This is a literary hand-grenade! A veritable revolution in thought! We’re always told ‘show don’t tell’, but really the masters should be teaching we acolyte authors ‘show don’t tell setting, but tell don’t show emotions’.

    • authormattgianni says

      Hi Don, Looking through my spreadsheet again, I see over half of the emotional content is actually shown (i.e. Langdon lay wide-eyed on the pile of books.), but there sure is a lot of telling also (i.e. Langdon was stunned). In retrospect, it would have been nice to use one more column to label as either “shown” or “told” so I’d know the exact percentages.

  14. Christy Moceri says

    I love the idea of doing this research and thank you for this insightful exercise. But I would be careful to note whether Dan Brown specifically has a prose style any writer really wants to emulate. Dan Brown is known for masterful plotting, not works of gut-wrenching emotional gravitas. I’m worried people are going to walk away from this believing that redundant writing, clumsy dialog attributions and repetitive actions are the key to writing emotion. What you at studying here is bad writing.

    Probably the best piece of writing advice I’ve read is from Stephen King, who admits to his own literary sins by explaining “I do it for the same reason any other writer does… Because I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t. I’m convinced that fear [of being misunderstood] is at the root of most bad writing.”

    When you see a writer both telling and showing a character’s emotion, they are living in that fear. It’s totally possible to write compelling characters without relying on these verbal crutches. We learn this by studying the true masters of emotion, the ones who can tear you apart with a single line of dialog or (in the case of my favorite author, Ray Bradbury) a single description of a green trolley. I’d urge us all to dig deeper on this one. What book did you read that absolutely wrecked you? Study that one.

    • authormattgianni says

      Thanks, Christy. Critics have said a lot about how Dan Brown’s writing could be improved, but he’s still one of my favorites. My intent here was to describe the experimental method, what it revealed in the case of this one book, and recommend others repeat the process with a copy of their own favorite novel, thus revealing how its author presents emotion on the page. Thanks for the Stephen King advice also – is that from his book ON WRITING? I’ve read it but don’t remember that bit. But I understand that fear he describes – in the first few pages of THE SHINING, I see the sentence “Jack felt a slow, hot grin.” Telling instead of showing. Perhaps we can get away with a few cases of telling, rather than showing, emotional content more easily than we can with the telling of other aspects of our writing.

  15. Excellent! I read a book last fall, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” that was emotional at every turn. I would be highlighting often…author Delia Owens is a master of emotion.

    Your post encourages me to delve deeper into writing emotions that the readers feel. Thank you!

    • authormattgianni says

      Thanks, Mary J. You could repeat the process for a few chapters of WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING. The real interesting thing is sorting the columns first by page number, then by emotion name, then by the actual sentence – and even a small sample will probably show you things about how Delia Owens treats emotional writing.

  16. Rick Tollefson says

    I think everyone is into conveying emotion effectively I always write for ’emotional effect.’ An analog is when people tell jokes. Do they know how to get a laugh!! The concept of selecting words statistically that convey different aspects of narrative, telling, showing, etc. goes back to the Pulp Fiction era, and before. Pulp Era Writing Tips, this is not a link, in Amazon, contains one article reprint that expands on the underlining technique. The first Tip from Elvis Joberg, who is a female, Is to take four pencils with different colored leads and underline: action, description, narration, and conversation. Some words are underlined twice…!!! This is just one of her ‘tips.’ And the book contains too many more gems to mention….

    • authormattgianni says

      Thanks for that Rick – that sounds like a good resource! I’m not as familiar with the Pulp Fiction Era as I should be.

  17. Matt, this is endlessly fascinating! Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles was the first book to make me weep in a good, long while—which I think would make it a prime subject for this experiment. Now to find the time…

    Also, a big thank you for pulling a quote from my Well-Storied article on pacing. That was a lovely surprise!

    • authormattgianni says

      Thanks, Kristen. Yes, this experiment does take time, but some have suggested copying and pasting from eBooks to speed up the process. Those Well-Storied articles are great – thanks for posting them!

  18. I think it is important not to tell the very emotions of non-POV characters. An edgy voice – external evidence – is fine, but being amazed – looking into one’s head – is only OP for a POV character.

    • authormattgianni says

      Thanks, Biep – I agree 100% I don’t remember Dan Brown being guilty of that during this experiment. All cases of “Langdon was amazed” and similar were in his POV. For telling, rather than showing, or other character’s emotions, it was always “Kohler looked X” or “Vitoria seemed Y.”

  19. authormattgianni says

    Thank you Kerry and The Author Chronicles.

  20. authormattgianni says

    Thank you Loleta Abi and Five Links.


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