Body Language: An Artistic Writing Tool

By Sharla Rae

Have you ever people-watched and tried to guess by facial expressions and body movements what people are feeling or thinking?

This non-verbal communication of emotion, state of mind or state of physical well-being is known as body language.

Body Language is one of the most artistic and useful tools in the writing craft.

The art:

Writers paint word visuals of a character’s movements in the reader’s mind and this art  is crucial in making our characters look and act like real people rather than stick characters moving around on the page.

The tools:

I demonstrated how to use body language as a tool to eliminate clunky saidisms in my blog, “Dialogue Tags: How To Kill Some Of The Little Buggers,– showing who’s speaking rather than telling.

Body language may also be used to set the tone or atmosphere in a scene. Example: A character tips his hat low, ducks his chin into his coat collar and cowers in the shadows. His body language suggests a tone/atmosphere of mystery.

Body language includes facial expressions. There are approximately 90 muscles in the face used to show emotion. The tilt of the head, eye contact or lack of it, the set of eyebrows, forehead lines and lips all tell a tale.

One of my fav TV series is Lie To Me. It’s a detective show based on the science of facial expression. It uses Paul Ekman’s research on micro-expressions and it’s fascinating. I’m told the series has been canceled but you can view episodes on Hulu.com/

The key to great body language is simple. Choose the “right” descriptive or action verbs. 

Joe walked/ran across the street. Shows a stick character moving from point A to point B

OR:  Joe’s eyes darted, paused then shifted again before he scurried across the street.

Scared spitless, she dropped her keys and tried several times before she finally unlocked the door. TELLING!

OR:  The keys jangled and she dropped them twice, before jiggling the right one into the lock.  SHOWS the woman’s anxiety

The same verb may show two entirely different emotions depending on the context of the scene.

Example: The teacher hoverednearby . . .  Was the teacher hovering because she thought a student might cheat? Or was she perhaps worried the class bully would try to harm another child?

Example:  . . . snapped a sharp salute. This could mean the exact opposite of what it appears on the surface.  Does it mean respect or is it a sarcastic nonverbal comeback? Either meaning works depending on the content.

Example:  . . . crossed his arms over his chest . . . This could mean waiting impatiently, anger held at bay, putting up a personal barrier or the person is content and relaxed. Again it would depend on the context.

A word of caution: Too much body language is as bad, if not worse than none at all. If arms, legs and heads are moving all over the place, it’s distracting and just plain silly.

Below, is a list of body language phrases.

I’ve included a very comprehensive list, organized by the type of body movement, hand and arm movements, facial expressions etc. In some cases, a phrase fits more than one heading, so it may appear twice. Possible emotions are given after each BL phrase unless the emotion is indicated within the phrase. (They are underlined for emphasis, not due to a hyperlink.)

Note: I’ve included a few body postures and body conditions as they are non-verbal testimony to the character’s physical condition.

Have fun and generate your own ideas. :-)

Eyes, Brows and Forehead 

arched a sly brow:  sly, haughty
blinked owlishly:  just waking, focusing, needs glasses
brows bumped together in a scowl:  worried, disapproving, irritated
brows knitted in a frown: worried, disapproval, thoughtful
bug-eyed:  surprised, fear, horror
cocky wink and confident smile:  over confidence, arrogant, good humor, sexy humor
eyes burned with hatred: besides hatred this might suggest maniacal feelings
eyes flashed: fury, defiance, lust, promise, seduction
eyes rolled skyward: disbelief, distrust, humor
forehead puckered:  thoughtful, worried, irritation
frustration crinkled her eyes
gaze dipped to her décolletage: sexual interest, attraction, lust
gimlet-eyed/narrowed eyes: irritation, thoughtful, mean, angry
gleam of deviltry:  humor, conniving, cunning
kept eye contact but her gaze became glazed: pretending interest where there is none/bordom
narrowed to crinkled slits:  angry, distrust
nystagmic eyes missed nothing (constantly shifting eyes):  Shifty
pupils dilated:  interested, attraction to opposite sex, fear
raked her with freezing contempt
slammed his eyes shut:  stunned, furious, pain
squinted in a furtive manner:  fearful, sneaky
stared with cow eyes:  surprised, disbelief, hopeful, lovestruck
subtle wink:  sexy, humor/sharing a joke, sarcasm
unrelenting stare: distrust, demanding, high interest, unyielding

Place To Place, Stationary Or Posture

ambled away:  relaxed, lazy
barged ahead:  rude, hurried
battled his way through the melee:  desperate, anger, alarm
cruised into the diner:  easy-going, feeling dapper, confident
dawdled alongside the road:  lazy, deliberate delay for motives, unhurried, relaxed
dragged his blanket in the dirt:   sadness/depressed, weary
edged closer to him:  sneaky, seeking comfort, seeking protection, seeking an audience
he stood straighter and straightened his tie:  sudden interest, sexual attraction
held his crotch and danced a frantic jig: demonstrates physical condition – he has to pee
hips rolled and undulated:  sexy walk, exaggerating for sex appeal
hovered over them with malice/like a threatening storm: here it’s malice, but one may hover for many reasons.
hunched over to look shorter:  appear inconspicuous, ashamed of actions, ashamed of height
leaped into action feet hammering the marbled floor:  eager, fear, joyous
long-legged strides:  hurried, impatient
lumbered across:  heavy steps of a big man in a hurry
minced her way up to him: timid, sneaky, insecure, dainty or pretense at dainty
paced/prowled the halls:  worried, worried impatience, impatient, diligently seeking pivoted on his heel and took off:  mistaken and changes direction, following orders, hurried, abrupt change of mind, angry retreat
plodded down the road:  unhurried, burdened, reluctant
practiced sensual stroll:  sexy, showing off
rammed her bare foot into her jeans: angry, rushed
rocked back and forth on his heels: thoughtful, impatiently waiting
sagged against the wall:  exhausted, disappointment
sallied forth:  confident, determined
sashayed her cute little fanny:  confident, determined, angered and determined
shrank into the angry crowd:  fear, insecure, seeking to elude
sketched a brief bow and assumed a regal pose: confident, mocking, snooty, arrogant skidded to an abrupt halt: change of heart, fear, surprise, shock
skulked on the edges of the crowd: sneaky, ashamed, timid
slithered through the door:  sneaky, evil, bad intentions
stormed toward her, pulling up short when: anger with a sudden surprise
swaggered into the class room:  over confident, proud, arrogant, conceited
tall erect posture:  confidence, military bearing
toe tapped a staccato rhythm:  impatience, irritation
tottered/staggered unsteadily then keeled over:  drunk, drugged, aged, ill
waltzed across the floor:  happy, blissful, exuberant, conceited, arrogant

Head Movement

cocked his head:  curiosity, smart-alecky, wondering, thoughtful
cocked his head left and rolled his eyes to right corner of the ceiling:  introspection
droop of his head: depressed, downcast, hiding true feelings
nodded vigorously: eager
tilted her head to one side while listening:  extreme interest, possibly sexual interest

Mouth And Jaw

a lackluster smile:  feigning cheerfulness
cigarette hung immobile in mouth: shock, lazy, uncaring, relaxed casualness
clinched his jaw at the sight:  angered, worried, surprised
curled her lips with icy contempt
expelled her breath in a whose:  relief, disappointment
gagged at the smell: disgust, distaste
gapped mouth stare:  surprised, shock, disbelief
gritted his teeth:  anger, irritation, holding back opinion
inhaled a sharp breath:  surprise, shock, fear, horror
licked her lips:  nervous, sexual attraction
lips primed: affronted, upset, insulted
lips pursed for a juicy kiss
lips pursed like she’d been chewing a lemon rind: dislike, angry, irritated, sarcasm
lips screwed into: irritation, anger, grimace, scorn
lips set in a grim line: sorrow, worried, fear of the worst
pursed her lips:  perturbed, waiting for a kiss
scarfed down the last biscuit:  physical hunger, greed
slack-mouthed:  total shock, disbelief
slow and sexy smile:  attraction, seductive, coy
smacked his lips: anticipation
smile congealed then melted into horror
smile dangled on the corner of his lips: cocky, sexy
smirked and tossed her hair over her shoulder:  conceit, sarcasm, over confident
sneered and flicked lint off his suit: sarcasm, conceit
spewed water and spit: shock
stuck out her tongue: humor, sarcasm, teasing, childish
toothy smile:  eagerness, hopeful
wary smile surfaced on her lips

Nose

nose wrinkled in distaste/at the aroma
nostrils flared:  anger, sexual attraction
nose in the air:  snooty, haughty

Face in General

crimson with fury
handed it over shame-faced
jutted his chin: confident, anger, forceful
managed a deadpan expression:  expressionless
muscles in her face tightened:  unsmiling, concealing emotions, anger, worried
rested his chin in his palm and looked thoughtful
rubbed a hand over his dark stubble:  thoughtful, ashamed of his appearance
screwed up her face:  anger, smiling, ready to cry, could almost be any emotion
sneered and flicked lint off his suit: conceit, derision, scorn

Arm and Hand

a vicious yank
arm curled around her waist, tugging her next to him:  possessive, pride, protective
bit her lip and glanced away:  shy, ashamed, insecure
brandished his fist:  anger, threatening, ready to fight, confident, show of pride
clamped his fingers into tender flesh:  anger, protective, wants to inflict pain
clenched his dirty little fists: stubborn, angry
clapped her hands on her hips, arms crooked like sugar bowel handles:  anger, demanding, disbelief
constantly twirled her hair and tucked it behind her ear:  attracted to the opposite sex, shy crossed his arms over his chest: waiting, impatient, putting a barrier
crushed the paper in his fist:  anger, surrender, discard
dived into the food: hunger, eager, greedy
doffed his hat:  polite gesture, mocking, teasing
doodled on the phone pad and tapped the air with her foot:  bored, inattention, introspection
drummed her fingers on the desk:  impatient, frustrated, bored
fanned her heated face with her hands: physically hot, embarrassed, indicating attraction
fiddled with his keys: nervous, bored
firm, palm to palm hand shake:  confident, honest
flipped him the bird: sarcastic discard
forked his fingers through his hair for the third time:  disquiet/consternation, worry, thoughtful
handed it over shame-faced:  guilt, shame
held his crotch and danced a frantic jig:  physical need to relieve himself
limp hand shake:  lack of confidence, lack of enthusiasm
propped his elbow on his knee: relaxed, thoughtful
punched her pillow:  restless, can’t sleep, angry
rested his chin in his palm:  thoughful, worried
scratched his hairy belly and yawned:  indolent, bored, lazy, relaxed, just waking
shoulders lifted in a shrug:  doubtful, careless discard
slapped his face in front of God and country:  enraged, affronted/insulted
snapped a sharp salute:  respect, sarcastic gesture meaning the opposite of respect
snapped his fingers, expecting service:  arrogant, lack of respect, self-centered
sneered and flicked lint off his suit
spread her arms wide: welcoming,  joy, love
stabbed at the food: anger, hunger, determined
stood straighter and smoothed his tie:  sudden interest, possible sexual interest
stuffed his hands in his pockets: self-conscious, throwing up a barrier
sweaty handshake:  nervous, fearful
touched his arm several times while explaining:  sign of attraction, flattery, possessive
wide sweep of his arms:  welcoming, all inclusive gesture, horror

Sitting or Rising

collapsed in a stupor:  exhausted, drunk, drugged, disbelief
enthroned himself at the desk:  conceit, pronouncing or taking ownership
exploded out of the chair:  shock, eager, anger, supreme joy
roosted on the porch rail like a cock on a hen house roof:  claiming ownership, conceit, content
sat, squaring an ankle over one knee:  relaxed and open
slouched/wilted in a chair and paid languid attention to:  drowsy, lazy, depressed, disinterest, sad, totally relaxed, disrespectful
squirmed in his chair: ill at ease, nervous, needs the bathroom

Recline

flung himself into the bed: sad, depressed, exhausted, happy
prostrated himself: surrender, desperate, miserable, powerless, obsequious, fawning, flattering
punched her pillow:  can’t sleep, anger, frustrated
threw himself on the floor kicking and screaming: tantrum

Entire body and General

body stiffened at the remark:  offended, anger, alerted
body swayed to music:  dreamy, fond memories, enjoys the music
bounced in the car seat, pointing:  excitement, fear, eager
cowered behind his brother:  fear, shyness, coward, desperate
curled into a ball:  sorrow, fear, sleepy, defensive
heart galloping:  anxiety, joy, eager
held his crotch and danced a frantic jig
humped over his cane, each step shaking and careful: pain, aged
inhaled a deep breath and blew out slowly: buying time to find words/thoughtful, reconciled
quick and jerky like rusty cogs on a wheel:  unsure of actions, self-conscious, tense, edgy
rocked back and forth on his heels:  impatient, cocky, gleeful
manhandled the woman into a corner:  bully, anger
slumped shoulders: defeat, depressed, sad, surrender
stiff-backed:  priggish, haughty, affronted
stood straighter and straightened his tie:  sexual interest, wants to make an impression
stooped and bent: aged, arthritic, in pain
stretched extravagantly and yawned:  tired, bored, unconcerned
sweating uncontrollably: nervous, fear, guilt
tall erect posture:  confidence, military bearing
was panting now at:  afraid, exhausted, out of breath, sexual excitement

Helpful web links and books:

I didn’t have much luck with web sites on Body Language as most dwelled on the body language between men & women instead of the  entire spectrum of emotions. The books are more detailed and interesting.

  • Data Face: wonderful and very interesting site that explains facial expressions and how to read them.
  • Reading Facial Expressions: This site is mostly about the science and psychology of reading faces.
  • List of facial Expressions: Shows the facial expression and explains them
  • How to Read A Person Like A Book: This is a great book that explains body language better than most of the web sites I found.
  • The Naked Face: by Sydney Sheldon: Again this book is better than anything I found on the Internet.
  • Paul Ekman’s books (mentioned above) look extremely interesting. Check out his website and his books listed below.

What The Face Reveals
Emotions Revealed, Second Edition
Unmasking The Face: A Guide To Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions

If you know of a great web site on body language, please share! What body language gives you the most trouble in your writing?

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44 Responses to Body Language: An Artistic Writing Tool

  1. Melinda says:

    I’ve been looking for exactly this information! Thanks for sharing. :-)

  2. Jan Romes says:

    This was an excellent post! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge on the subject :-)

  3. Laura Drake says:

    Oh wow, Char – my toolbox is getting updated today! Great reminder – I use SO many “looks” and hacknied facial expressions – this list is really going to help me. The links look amazing too.

    Thanks for sharing your coveted lists with us.

  4. Stacy Green says:

    WOW! Love this list! Body language is so important, but it’s so easy to fall into the trap of using the same few expressions over and over. This is going to be a huge help. Thank you for taking the time to share!

  5. Sharla, I agree with Stacy. It’s easier to just be lazy and use the same tired expressions; to be so boring I don’t want to read my own work! Thank you for sharing a wonderful list and book titles relating to body language.

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Stacy and Cara, When I started writing, my crit partners pointed that I tended to skip descriptions, including body language. I’m a hands on learner and since highschool, when I fell short, I studied the problem and made lists. I did the same while learning the writing craft. After a while, including descriptions and body language became second nature.

  6. Your lists are great. Thanks reminding us that with a little effort we can get our characters out of the same ‘ol, same ‘ol rut. Boy, do I have some work to do! :)

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Ha, Marsha, at least we won’t have characters that run around looking like they’re made of popcicle sticks. :)

  7. Terry Wright says:

    copy/paste – Thanks for the insights on body language and show don’t tell.

  8. Char,

    Well done! Great information I’ll share with clients.

    Melanie Mulhall

  9. Hey, Sharla, thanks so much for this. I loved Lie to Me and am sooo bummed that it was taken off the air. But, I didn’t know about Ekman’s book. THANKS.
    Patti

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Patricia,
      I didn’t know about Ekman either until I went to the Lie To Me website. I plan to buy at least one of his books. Another TV show where they touch on body language is The Mentalist, but Lie To Me got into the nitty gritty science which I loved.

  10. Sheri de Grom says:

    One of the best lists I’ve seen – definitely a keeper. Great job and thanks for sharing.

  11. timlobrien says:

    I really struggle with this. Thank you for this wealth of information. It will really help.

    • Sharla Rae says:

      We all struggle to remember this kind of stuff. After all, we know exactly what our characters are feeling, right?

  12. Sharla, wow!! This is a fantastic resource — thank you for putting it all together. I love it ;). I just read What Every Body is Saying by ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro and it’s also a good book on body language.

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Marilyn, thanks for sharing. I’ll check out the book. What can I say — some people are computer geeks and some like me are word and phrase geeks. :)

  13. Karen Lin says:

    Enjoyed your post. Thanks for the great list! Karen clapped, not only celebrating the thrill, but trying to kill the pesky fly that continued to buzz near the keyboard. Karen

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Thanks for commenting Karen. Charla sat in the dark room, tapping on the computer keys and watching clock. It was almost time to go Christmas shopping!

  14. This post is one dang fine reference tool. *Nods head approvingly.*

  15. Jenny Hansen says:

    Sharla,

    No one writes better Craft posts than you. I stand in awe! This thing ROCKS!!!

  16. Craig Ham says:

    Thanks Jenny. I’ve been working on just this aspect of my writing. I appreciate the post.

  17. Fabio Bueno says:

    This is a treasure! I’ve been looking for this type of resource. Thank you, Sharla! *big smile*

  18. Carrie says:

    great list. It will come in handy when you need another way to say how they moved that isn’t a repeat :)

  19. Thank you so much for your blog. It is really helpful.

  20. This is awesome & such a handy reference – body language doesn’t enter into our fiction writing as often as it could or should. Thanks for posting!

    Matthew Wright
    http:.//mjwrightnz.wordpress.com
    http://www.matthewwright.net

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Thanks Matthew. I agree with you that body language isn’t discussed enough. It’s such a handy tool!

  21. Thanks for a great post and fantastic list! It’s going into my toolbox too.

  22. Pingback: Body Language: An Artistic Writing Tool | Write Fiction Right | Scoop.it

  23. texasdruids says:

    Shar,
    You know I love your lists. You’ve taught me more about body language than any class or workshop ever could. You REALLY need to gather up all your lists and publish them in book form on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and everywhere possible. I truly believe such a book would sell like the proverbial hotcakes. There are thousands of authors who would find lists like this one a great help.

    Lyn

  24. Connie Flynn says:

    I love your lists, Shar, and really appreciate this information. LIE TO ME was one of my favorite shows. Never mind how annoying the hero was, the idea behind it was amazing and the lead-in each week was really educational. Thanks for the wonderful blog.

  25. Pingback: Links about Writing | Juliana Haygert

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