Cara Langston


Body language & facial expression list


If you’ve read any writing tips, you’ve no doubt heard the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra. Why tell the reader your character is angry when you can show her hands balled up in fists and her eyebrows snapped together? It’s more descriptive and is more likely to draw the reader further into your narrative. Now, I personally think there are plenty of situations where you should do some telling, but that’s for another day and another blog post.

I struggle with writing body language. On the one hand, you’re told to keep descriptions succinct so that the reader stays immersed in the story–no purple prose, etc. On the other hand, if I kept it succinct all the time, you’d find “She smiled” and “He frowned” 2,000+ times in my manuscript. It’s definitely a balancing act. Plus, when I’m worried about describing body language, I’m not creative and thus can’t describe body language. It’s a vicious cycle.

So over the years, I’ve saved lists of body language and facial expressions in my Evernote app. Some are from novels I’ve read, some are from lists from other bloggers, some are of my own creation. This summer, I finally compiled them all into an Excel spreadsheet so I can do some filtering on body parts or positive/negative emotions. And because writers should help and support each other, I figured I’d share my work with anyone else who struggles with this.


Click to download XLSX file

There are 580 verbs/adjectives/descriptions, organized by:

  • Type: Breathing, Eyes, Face, Feet, Forehead, Hair, Hands, Head, Internal, Mouth, Movement, Neck/Throat, Movement, Posture, or Sound
  • Emotion: Positive, Negative, or Neutral or Both

Naturally, there’s some overlap–if you’re holding your head in your hands, does it fall into the Hands or Head category? And as far as emotion type, there are many that fall into the ‘Neutral or Both’ category; for example, a rising pulse can signal either fear (negative) or desire (positive).

It’s by no means complete. I’m sure I’ll be adding to this throughout my writing career, but hopefully it’s a good start for anyone looking for help in this area.