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Body language master list

By Maria Korolov

“Show, don’t tell” is the first lesson of Fiction Writing 101, and one of the easiest and quickest fixes is to replace the emotional adverbs and adjectives with some body language.

For example, instead of “He said, sadly,” you could write, “He said with tears welling in his eyes.” Or, for a deep point of view, skip the “he said” and just write “Tears welled in his eyes” instead of a dialogue tag.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when writing I get stumped. What body language goes, with, say, exasperation? So I Google it and spend half an hour going down a research rabbit hole. So I started assembling a cheat sheet I could refer to quickly, without getting distracted.

This is that cheat sheet.

Aggression

Shaking fist
Pointing finger
Stabbing with finger
Slamming fist on table
Face flushed
Veins throbbing in neck
Jutting chin
Clenched fist
Clenched jaw
Eyebrows lowered
Eyes squinted
Teeth bared
Wide stance
Tight-lipped smile
Invading personal space
Touching or rattling someone’s belongings or drink
Rapid breathing
Sweating
Unwanted touching or flicking
Moving one leg back into a fighting stance
Invading personal space
Flared nostrils
Puffed chest
Lowered, gravelly voice
Insulting gestures
Mock attacks
Sudden movements
Wide, exaggerated gestures
Pursed lips
Red face
Slamming or punching things

Anticipation

Rubbing hands together
Licking lips
Unable to sit still
Grinning

Amusement

Throwing head back
Slapping thighs
Clapping hands
Shaking with laughter
Shaking head with a grin

Anger

Shaking fist
Pointing finger
Stabbing with finger
Slamming fist on table
Face flushed
Veins throbbing in neck
Jutting chin
Clenched fist
Clenched jaw
Eyebrows lowered
Eyes squinted
Teeth bared
Wide stance
Tight lips
Flared nose

Annoyance

Lips pressed together
Eyes narrowed
Rolling eyes
Exasperated sigh

Anxiety

Fidgeting
Twisting a ring
Chewing on a pencil
Biting lip
Swallowing
Quickened breathing
Holding breath
Eyes darting
Sweating
Clammy hands
High-pitched laughter
Hunched posture
Pacing
Stuttering
Playing with hair

Attentiveness

Furrowed brow
Leaning forward
Sitting up
Taking notes
Mimicking body language

Awe

Jaw dropped
Frozen in place
Fixed gaze

Boredom

Yawning
Avoiding eye contact
Tapping feet
Twirling pen
Doodling
Fidgeting
Slouching

Confidence

Clasping arms behind body
Lifting head
Chest pushed out
Standing tall
Making firm and precise movements

Confusion

Head tilted
Narrowed eyes
Furrowed brow
Shrugging

Contempt

Lifted chin
Pursed lips
Sneering
Stretching
Turning away
Waving hand dismissively

Cynicism

Lips twisted
Half-smile
Shaking head
Lips pressed together into a slight frown
Rolling eyes

Deception

One-sided shoulder shrug
Looking down
Scratching nose, ear, or neck
Feet kicking out
Shuffling feet
Sudden change in demeanor
Hesitation in speech
Shifting eye contact
Long blinks
Shrugging
Inappropriate smiling or laughter
Shaking head “no” while saying “yes”
Licking lips
Covering or touching mouth

Defensiveness

Crossing arms or legs
Placing something in front of body
Hands in pockets
Holding hands palms up

Desire

Winking
Looking up through eyelashes
Glancing over shoulder
Making eye contact
Touching hair
Touching clothing
Straight back
Thumbs in belt loops or pockets
Dilated pupils
Arching
Stretching
Women crossing and uncrossing legs

Disbelief

Eyes open wide
Eyes narrowed
Twisted mouth
Crinkling nose
Creased brow

Disgust

Crinkling nose
Curled lip
Flinching
Turning away
Covering nose
Gagging
Eyes squinted shut

Displeasure

Fake smile
Pouting
Frowning
Crossing arms

Distress

Rubbing neck
Wide eyes
Rapid breathing
Hitting a wall
Huddling in a corner
Clasping hands over head
Rocking
Wringing hands
Running hands through hair
Adjusting cuffs
Men holding hands in front of crotch

Dominance

Chin up
Chest out
Shoulder back
Hard handshake
Leaning back with hands behind head and feet up
Steady eye contact
Hands on hips
Straddling chair

Eagerness

Leaning forward
Nodding
Wide eyes
Steady eye contact with raised eyebrows
Hand on heart
Double-handed handshake
Feet pointed inwards

Embarrassment

Blushing
Stammering
Covering face with hands
Bowing head
Looking away
Looking down
Blinking back tears

Fatigue

Rubbing eyes
Staring into space
Yawning
Stretching
Nodding off and jerking awake
Gritting teeth
Closing eyes
Moving slowly
Slouching

Delayed reactions

Fear

Sweating
Shaking
Eyebrows raised and pulled together
Wide eyes
Mouth slightly open

Grief

Curling into fetal position
Contorting face
Slumping
Covering face or head with hands, arms, or pillow
Staring
Shaking
Sobbing
Trembling
Turning away
Difficulty swallowing
Drooping eyelids

Happiness

Smiling
Laughing
Humming
Crinkling eyes and nose
Swinging arms
Spinning
Dancing
Jumping
Hugging
Giggling

Hate

Shaking fists, hands twisted into claws
Bared teeth
Throbbing vein in neck
Sweating, red face, tightness in skin of face
Flared nostrils
Scathing tone
Shouting or screaming
Turning away or leaving when the other person arrives, changing plans to avoid them

Honesty

Maintaining eye contact
Smiling with whole face
Looking up
Palms up
Open arms

Impatience

Nodding quickly
Tapping fingers
Sighing
Checking the time
Tapping feet
Increasing voice pitch
Looking away

Jealousy

Tight lips
Sour expression
Narrow eyes
Crossed arms

Love

Physical closeness to someone, leaning against each other, sitting together so legs touch
Obsessively checking for messages, constant texting
Doodling love interest’s name with a heart
Improving appearance, dying hair, exercising more
Affectionate touches, playful shoving
Smiling at nothing, beaming, silly grid
Using pet names, terms of endearment
Listening to love songs

Overwhelmed

Palms to forehead
Splayed fingers over eyes
Staring into space with wide eyes
Gripping something

Passion

Leaning forward
Nodding
Wide eyes
Steady eye contact with raised eyebrows
Hand on heart
Double-handed handshake
Feet pointed inwards

Playfulness

Winking
Waggling eyebrows
Nudging
Smiling
Tickling

Pleasure

Head tilted back
Slightly parting lips
Eyes wide
Eyes closed
Slow, languorous movements
Stretching
Arching back
Flushing
Rapid breathing
Fast pulse

Possessiveness

Handshake with arm clasp
Hands around shoulders, neck, or waist
Placing hands on a wall around someone
Standing in their personal space angled towards them
Running a knuckle down someone’s cheek
Staring at people if they get too close

Pride

Chin up
Chest out
Shoulder back
Hard handshake
Leaning back with hands behind head and feet up
Steady eye contact
Hands on hips
Straddling chair

Relief

Shaky laughter
Letting out a huge breath
Looking up in silent prayer
Raising hand for a high five

More at Writers Helping Writers and even more here by Kathy Steinemann.

Reluctance

Arms crossed
Hands in fists
Dragging feet
Pinching nose
Hands over ears

Sadness

Droopy body
Bowed body
Wrapping arms around yourself
Hesitating movements
Button lip jutting out
Quivering lip
Crying
Sobbing
Shaking
Dragging feet

Secretiveness

Tight-lipped smile
Hands in pockets
Looking away
Covering face
Looking down

Shame

Slumped shoulders
Looking down and away
Buring face in hands
Bowed head
Straight mouth

Shock

Hands over mouth
Mouth open
Gasping
Freezing
Staring with wide eyes
Raised eyebrows
Smacking palm against forehead
Stepping back

Shyness

Blushing
Avoiding eye contact
Keeping distance from others
Backing away if others come too close
Arms folded
Head bent
Hugging the walls

Smugness

Slight close-lipped smile
One raised eyebrow
Slightly tucked chin
Enigmatic smile
Raised eyebrows
Steepled fingers

Surprise

Wide eyes
Wrinkled forehead
Slack or open jaw

Suspicion

Narrow eyes
Glancing sideways
Raised eyebrow
Rubbing eyes
Shaking head
Blowing out cheeks
Frowning
Tightening lips

Thoughtfulness

Steepled fingers
Pinching nose
Closed eyes
Tugging on ear
Stroking beard
Stroking chin
Furrowing brow
Narrow eyes
Tilted head
Lips pressed together
Chin resting on hand
Leaning back and looking up

Threatening

Shaking fist
Pointing finger
Stabbing with finger
Slamming fist on table
Face flushed
Veins throbbing in neck
Jutting chin
Clenched fist
Clenched jaw
Eyebrows lowered
Eyes squinted
Teeth bared
Wide stance
Tight-lipped smile
Invading personal space
Rapid breathing
Sweating
Unwanted touching or flicking
Moving one leg back into a fighting stance
Invading personal space
Flared nostrils
Puffed chest
Touching or rattling someone’s belongings or drink

Triumph

Holding hands together above head
Tilting back head and yelling
Pumping fist in air
Jumping
Roaring
Whooping

Other Resources

A couple of years ago, I bought a copy of a book titled The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, part of the Writers Helping Writers series.

For a while, I forgot I had it. It was in e-book format, rather than print. I just rediscovered it though on my Kindle bookshelf and have begun using it several times a week. It’s currently my most-used reference book.

I would still prefer a print version, though, to keep it on my physical bookshelf for easier and faster access.

Another book that covers some of the same ground is The Writer’s Lexicon: Descriptions, Overused Words, and Taboos by Kathy Steinemann.

Do you have any other suggestions for how to convey emotion through action or body language? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the list!

And if you want more writing advice, I do a weekly round-up of the best writing advice articles from all around the web. Check it out!

Edited by Charles Hand

MetaStellar publisher and news editor Maria Korolov is a science fiction novelist who covers artificial intelligence, extended reality and cybersecurity at her day job. See her Amazon author page here and follow her on Twitter here. Email her at [email protected].