writing emotion & expression

One of the hardest technical aspects of writing is (for me personally) the subtle interweaving of physical reactions (facial expressions, body language) with dialog and narrative.

The human face

Every face is the same in its major features, unless there has been some accident of birth or fate. Two eyes, two ears, a nose with two nostrils, a mouth, a chin, a forehead. At the same time, every face is distinct in a million small ways. Is the jaw weak, or strong? does the forehead slope? are the eyes wide or close set? There is a very wide range of muscular play that results in what we call, so inadequately, expression.

Paul Ekman, the psychologist who is best known for his research into the way the human face contorts itself, has found that there are seven basic emotions that are recognizable across cultures: enjoyment, fear, surprise, sadness, contempt, anger and disgust.  Human emotion and facial expression are linked and universal.

That is, surprise looks  the same on the face of a rural farmer in India as it does on the face of the Prime Minster of France or your cousin Sadie.  Thus, in theory, with enough study you would be able to read micro expressions that would tell you what a person was feeling: anger, fear, disgust, shame, based on subtle or not-so-subtle muscle movements of the face. Of course, it’s far more complicated than this for reasons having to do with everything from ethnicity and race to cultural training.

Pick up any novel and pull out ten facial expressions. Most of them will repeat themselves very quickly. She smiled, frowned, wrinkled her brow, pursed her mouth. The same is true of body language, on a bigger scale. He drummed his fingers, pulled at his ear, scratched his jaw, tapped his foot.

Most writers feel the need to pass along physical hints of what the character is feeling as she talks by means of facial expression (often from the POV of another character) and/or what she does with her hands and body. Sometimes this is part of the characterization, and sometimes it’s a way to break up dialog or make a scene more vivid, but whatever the intent, It’s actually very hard to do it well.

Take a minute, look at yourself in the mirror, and try to describe what your face does when you are happy.  Part of the problem is the linearity of language. In a split second five things might happen at once, but you have to describe those things one by one, or one after another.  obama expressionThere’s a (long cancelled) show that was on Fox called Lie to Me based on Ekman’s  work.  

The premise of the television program is that somebody who is really good at reading micro-expressions can provide an important function in interviews of all kinds, including criminal investigations. In an early episode a man who has planted a bomb is refusing to tell police where it is, when the main character (“Dr. Cal Lightman” based on Ekman and played by Tim Roth) comes in. The suspect says: I’m not going to talk to you, and Dr. Lightman says something like, that’s okay, I don’t trust words anyway. And within a minute he has figured out where the bomb is by watching the bomber’s face as he reacts to questions.

At one time there were clips on the Fox Network website, but they are no longer available. Some of the episodes are available on hulu.com and a few more, with Spanish subtitles, on youtube. The real goldmine is on Paul Ekman‘s own website. He does have books and he teaches workshops, but there is a wealth of free information as well, and descriptions of projects. For example:

Cultivating Emotional Balance (CEB) This project, combined some of Paul Ekman’s approaches to emotional skills with contemplative practice, was initiated at the request of the Dalai Lama. It is directed by Margaret Kemeny at the University of California, San Francisco. Paul Ekman assisted in the completion of the analyses and write up of findings on the impact of 50 hours of training on the physiology, self reported emotion, and expressions of school teachers. Completed in 2008.

The Grimace Project goes even farther by providing sliders so you can experiment with the way different emotions trigger muscle movement.


There are few writers out there who never have trouble with this issue, but most of us mortals will find ourselves struggling with expressing expression on occasion.



I’ve been talking about individual facial features up to this point, but of course you don’t have to restrict yourself to eyes or mouth or chin. It’s a mix and match kinda business, reading emotions from what the features do — or don’t do. To further complicate things, concrete details are often dabbed here and there among POV observations. Some examples:

“‘Eli-eh-eli,’ it was wheezing, its tiny, ugly baked apple of a face contorted by fear or frustration or hunger or something else that Skip couldn’t understand. “ Blessings: A Novel, Anna Quindlen

I couldn’t resist using this, because I do so like Anna Quindlen’s work and because this has got to be the best description of what a newborn baby looks like to a man who has no interest in it. Skip is repelled, but he’s also engaged enough to take note of the things he sees in that ugly little face, and to try and interpret the emotions there.

“Jodie’s face fell apart, her jaw sagging, her eyes widening.” What Ever Happened to Janie? Caroline B. Cooney

First we’ve got the whole-face short-cut (her face fell); then the concrete details. The question is, do you need both? In this order? That depends on the context of the passage, but my first reaction is that less would be more, here.

“She had a happy, helpless expression on her face, which was flushed and hot.” Middlesex : A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides

Another example of giving us a whole-face short-cut (the POV character interprets what he sees in her face as happy and helpless) and then the concrete details: flushed, hot. Again this feels a little overdone to me.

“Calvin’s face lit up with hope, and his eyes, which had been somber, regained their usual sparkle.” A Wrinkle In Time Madeleine L’Engle

See? This is why you can’t use sparkle. Many years ago when L’Engle wrote this classic story, it wasn’t yet on the list of cliches to avoid. Almost as dangerous is the way Calvin’s face lights up. These are good concrete details, but they are so routine that they have ceased to evoke the image or emotions they are meant to

“Her face, matching her voice, was chilled and rigid.” Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett.

Here we have a good example of what a face isn’t doing; there’s no expression of the emotions you’d expect to see when someone important to you comes back after a long absence. Instead Marian has an iron grip on her emotions. Her facial expression (rather than individual features) is compared quite successfully to her voice .

“His expression was blank and without dimples, and his mouth occupied less of its line than was normal.” Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett.

Another example of details that establish a lack of emotion, or suppressed emotion.

The mouth

Mouths are by design extremely flexible. Lots of muscles are involved in moving the lips in the production of speech, in smiling and frowning, in pursing the mouth. There are dozens of possible smiles. If you think of the person you know best in the world, you can probably identify at least three distinct smiles. The full smile, when the person is unreservedly pleased or happy, the shy smile, the reluctant smile, the sneering smile, the almost smile. These are such basics of human interaction that it’s hard to describe them, and often authors don’t. She (he) smiled has to be one of the most common sentences in fiction, along with she (he) said. And that’s okay; there’s no need, most times, to belabor the point.

But mouths can give a lot away, both about the person who owns the mouth and the person observing the mouth. From A.S. Byatt’s Possession, this lovely phrasing:

…his mouth pursed, but pursed in American, more generous than English pursing, …

This POV character has got some issues about the cultural differences between Americans and Brits.

In this next example there’s Stephanie Plum’s POV in Evanovich’s Hot Six. Morelli is Stephanie’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, and she doesn’t like what she sees when his mouth twitches. We get that very directly, in her first person POV.

The corners of Morelli’s mouth twitched up ever so slightly. Jerk.

One of the best examples I could find of the use of a smile in a scene is from Frasier’s Cold Mountain:

Frasier combines authorial observation (he is the one telling us that there’s no irony or bravado in the condemned man’s smile) with actually showing us Prangle’s actions. The result is a very powerful, vivid and unsettling set of images.

Back to Jean, who is observing her older brother talk to Mrs. Kevorkian. Jean is very sensitive to Sam’s moods, so she watches him closely. Maybe because she is so dependent on him; maybe because she is afraid of him; maybe because she is protective of him. She may like the fact that Mrs. Kevorkian winds Sam up, or she may find it aggravating, or it may panic her for some reason. One of the ways she gauges Sam’s frame of mind is by looking at his face, most particularly (in this exercise) what he does with his mouth.

“Now another thing,” Mrs. Kevorkian said. “About that rodent you call a dog.”

Sam dropped his head, but not before Jean saw him suck in his upper lip, a sure sign that he was about to burst into laughter.

Of course, you could lose the last phrase if you’ve already established what it means when Sam sucks in his upper lip. You could ignore his mouth all together, and focus on what he does with his cheeks. 

The eyes

If you are trying to get your reader to see emotion in your character’s face (rather than telling them how the character feels), you’ll most likely find yourself trying to articulate the look in somebody’s eyes. Or at least, I’m just going to talk about eyes and eyebrows just now. Mouths, chins, all that will have to wait.

What do eyes do, anyway? It’s a fairly short list I’ve come up with. Eyes or eyelids squint; narrow; roll; sparkle; flicker; skitter; jump; dart; flutter; tic; close; wink; go round, moist, teary, dry, wide. Note that I’m not talking about describing the eyes themselves, but the movements they are capable of.

So now you’ve got a character, call him Sam, and he’s involved in a discussion with another character, Mrs. Kevorkian, and a third character, Sam’s little sister Jean is watching Mrs. Kevorkian lecture Sam on the right way to raise a little girl. So it’s Jean’s point of view. We’re hearing what Sam says, but it’s Jean who is interpreting his facial expressions. From her we’ll know if Sam is trying to be polite but is really angry, whether he’s secretly or not so secretly amused, confused, embarrassed, surprised, affronted, insulted, disgusted. All this (in this exercise, at least) from what he does with his eyes in conjunction with what he says.

“I know a thing or two about raising girls,” Mrs. Kevorkian said.
“Because you brought up six of them. Good girls, every one,” said Sam.

The things Jean notices about Sam’s eyes can do three things: give us some insight into Sam, make us understand the way Jean sees and relates to him, and provide some counterpoint and rhythm in the dialog.

“Because you brought up six of them,” Sam said, his gaze jumping between his watch and the door. “Good girls, every one.”

“Because you brought up six of them,” Sam said, his eyes glazing over. “Good girls, every one.”

“Because you brought up six of them,” Sam said, his left eyelid flickering. “Good girls, every one.”

“Because you brought up six of them,” Sam said, both eyes perfectly round and just a little too bright. “Good girls, every one.”

How to interpret each of these possible additions would depend, of course, on the greater context: what we already know about Sam and about Jean and Mrs. Kevorkian. But you do get a sense, even from this much, of Sam as impatient, bored, provoked, or mischievous.

Of course, Jean might not notice at all what Sam is doing with his eyes; instead she might take note of his mouth and jaw, or his forehead, or his posture, or what he’s doing with his hands. 

One more thing: this might be a place where the tag ‘said’ could be replaced by something else without being disruptive, as in: “Because you brought up six of them,” Sam supplied, his left eyelid flickering. “Good girls, every one.” This adds a little to the sense that Sam’s pretty fed up with Mrs. Kevorkian’s very predictable lectures.

The body

A good source of information on writing gesture is  the Non-Verbal Dictionary. There’s a particularly interesting section on the shoulder-shrug display. In 1872 (we are told) Charles Darwin identified an interrelated set of thirteen body motions, from the head to the toes, used worldwide to show helplessness, resignation, and uncertainty with secondary meanings depending on the nature of the interaction; in courtship a shoulder shrug often indicates friendly intent.

I suppose you might look at these bits of body language and facial expressions as the mortar that holds the dialog together. It’s sometimes possible to have a short run of pure conversation, but it’s very difficult to pull that off effectively. Elmore Leonard can do it, but otherwise it’s hard to find good examples.


Hands and fingers are far easier to write about than facial features. I spend a lot of time observing mechanical detail, when I’m reading; in fact, if I forget to pay attention to the mechanics, that’s the primary sign that the author has successfully seduced me into the story. Most especially I’m prone to notice what characters do with their hands while they’re talking. In fiction, as in real life, body language gives a lot away.

I’m not talking about describing hands in a general way. How the old man missing three fingers manages to tie his shoes may turn out to be an interesting and well done paragraph, sure. But what I’m talking about here is using hand motions as a layering technique in dialog/scene.

If you think about all the things hands can do, it seems pretty much impossible to make a list. I did a search through my own novels and came up with the things that I use (and sometimes, if I don’t watch myself, overuse):

  • “Not another war story! What a bellicose young nation you are. No dinner party seems complete without a discussion of one revolution or another.” Her hand made a long corkscrew in the air. “A most untidy business.”
  • She turned her hand over on the table and wiggled her fingers.
  • Elizabeth ran her knuckles over her brow.
  • With great deliberation she put down her fork and folded her hands in her lap.
  • … one hand raised in a peaceful gesture.
  • She came closer, one long bony finger poking at his chest …
  • Nathaniel rubbed a finger over the bridge of his nose.
  • He jerked a thumb toward Anna …
  • … his great splayed thumb packing down the tobacco …
  • She pressed her palms hard together
  • … she fluttered her hands at them all …

I’m always telling myself that I should take notes when I’m reading and I come across an interesting bit about the way a character moves his or her hands, but then I always forget, or I’m too lazy to get up and find sticky notes, or I do get up to find something to write on and then get waylaid. But if you can make yourself do it, it’s a good thing to have such lists to refer to; not that you need to use them, but they get you thinking along lines that may be unusual for you.

The kiss as gesture, and Lady Chatterly

There are whole books written about kissing, but as far as I can tell, nobody has written about writing about the kiss. And it’s true that not all writers need to worry about this particular technical challenge. I’m sure that you could come up with a list of novels in which nobody ever kisses anybody, in friendship or affection, in love or passion.

But a lot of novels do touch on this particular gesture, which is as varied, nuanced, and hard to describe as a smile.

At the most basic level, fictional kisses fall into two categories: sexual and non-sexual in nature. Non-sexual kisses are easy enough, and nobody seems to go to much trouble to describe them. A mother may kiss a child without a lot of folderol, for example. But the kiss that is part and parcel of an established or burgeoning sexual relationship is far more difficult. You might have characters who are falling in love, or who hate each other and use sex as a way to inflict emotional pain. Kisses can be reluctant, or they can begin with reluctance and turn to enthusiasm. A kiss might be public or private, routine or a huge surprise.

Movie kisses used to be sterile, almost symbolic gestures even between characters who were supposed to be passionate about each other. Jimmy Stewart pressed his closed mouth to Donna Reed’s closed mouth. They stood like that for about two seconds and then separated. These days, of course, on screen passion is far more detailed.

The first novel that came to mind when I was thinking about this was Lady Chatterley‘s Lover, but probably not for the reasons that occur to you. The novel was published in 1928, at a time when its sex scenes were considered too extreme for general public consumption. And they are quite explicit, as a matter of fact. ((In case the details slip your mind, the story is about Lady Chatterley, a young woman married to a man who is in a wheelchair and uninterested in any kind of sexual relationship as a result. They are the upper class, with all that entailed in 1928. There is a large household staff and grounds staff, and one of the latter is Mellors, who is the gameskeeper. Mellors is a first class misanthrope, but Connie (Lady Chatterley) is drawn to him, and a relationship develops.

It’s a complex novel, one that I re-read on occasion just because after twenty years of doing that, I still have not worked out many of the complexities to my own satisfaction. I’m not going to get into the bigger questions (Mellors as a misogynist, a father figure, as a rebel; why Connie would be drawn to someone as dismissive of her emotional needs as he is; self-loathing in both of them; magical thinking as a plot device, and on and on). Instead here’s a little clip:

I could die for the touch of a woman like thee,’ he said in his throat. ‘If tha’ would stop another minute.’

She felt the sudden force of his wanting her again.

‘No, I must run,’ she said, a little wildly.

‘Ay,’ he replied, suddenly changed, letting her go.

She turned away, and on the instant she turned back to him saying: ‘Kiss me.’

He bent over her indistinguishable and kissed her on the left eye. She held her mouth and he softly kissed it, but at once drew away. He hated mouth kisses.

‘I’ll come tomorrow,’ she said, drawing away; ‘if I can,’ she added.

‘Ay! not so late,’ he replied out of the darkness. Already she could not see him at all.

There’s a lot in these few lines. The powerplay between them, how she responds to being pressured, how he responds to being thwarted. She is denying him what he wants, but she asks for a kiss anyway and he obliges, but in a way that is a denial in its own right.

Now here’s something odd. This is, like most novels of its time, written in third omniscient point of view. That means that the narrator, the unseen person telling the story, knows and understands all, has access to all the characters’ feelings and thoughts, even when they don’t understand themselves. We’ve just had this very loaded exchange, and the author inserts an observation that works like a siren: He hated mouth kisses.

What does it mean to say that he hated mouth kisses? Why draw attention to that? ((To really answer such questions you’d have to make a thorough study of the relevance and symbolism of kissing in this novel as well as the rest of Lawrence’s work, and that’s not what I’m aiming for.)) Maybe Lawrence was just uncomfortable writing about kissing, could that be it? It would seem odd, given the fact that he’s quite capable and willing of writing about far more explicit (but less intimate?) acts. More likely, Lawrence was using Mellors’ dislike of kissing to communicate something else, something quite complex.

Here’s my bottom line:   while showing rather than telling is a very good rule of thumb, sometimes it’s more important to leave things unseen — but understood.

Examples from published fiction

It’s always useful to look at what authors  accomplish through a combination of concrete descriptive details and short-cuts. 

 The scholar touched his glasses. “What did you do before the war?”A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin
 “I don’t know,” Alessandro said, waving his arms in the air as if to indicate confusion. “It just came to me.” 
 Nicholas embraced his knees with one hand and waved the other. “Well, tell him!” Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett
 A slight movement of the fat man’s shoulders appeared to constitute a bow. “Then continue, Madame Katelina, with your lively history,” said the vicomte. 
He smiled at me with slightly raised eyebrows.To the Nines, Janet Evanovich
She winced when I pinched his toe with a hemostat.While I was Gone, Sue Miller
Milton’s brow was still furrowed with concentration…Middlesex: A Novel, Jeffrey Eugenides
Rochester looked at me broodingly, his eyebrows furrowed and a look of anger rising across his features.The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde
Sammy shrugged, nodding, mouth pursed.The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
…hair most exquisitely and severely cut, his half-glasses gold-rimmed, his mouth pursed, but pursed in American, more generous than English pursing, ready …Possession, A.S. Byatt
I phrased it just a general question — but Jimmy Cross looked up in surprise. “You writer types,” he said, “you’ve got long memories.”The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
Paul D scratched the hair under his jaw.Beloved, Toni Morrison
She raised her chin. I noticed that her hands were trembling.All He Ever Wanted, Anita Shreve

Short Cuts

So, if you are studying the way emotions are telegraphed in fictional terms, you’ll have noticed that either you get concrete descriptions or (what I’m calling) short-cuts.


his mouth drooped at the corner
a double groove appeared between her brows
Sam’s eyelid twitched convulsively
Maria’s nose wrinkled

Some concrete descriptions are so spot-on right that they have ended up as cliches. “His eyes sparkled” is a sentence I would strike from any work I was beta reading, because it makes me cringe. Do eyes sparkle? I think they do, when somebody is really happy or very mischievious. But sparking eyes have outstayed their welcome in the novels of the world, and you just can’t use the phrase (at least, not unless you’re going for a particular kind of comedic effect. And then, good luck.) I once had a student in creative writing who handed in a short scene riddled with cliche. In response to my pointed commentary he said “But I’m experimenting with cliche!”

The answer to that is: no. Maybe Toni Morrison can experiment with cliche and make it work, maybe Alice Munro could pull it off, but the average college student? Nope. So concrete detail works, if it’s finely observed without being overwrought or cliched. And note, I haven’t yet got to the point where metaphor or simile are added to the mix.

Sometimes the concrete is joined by an observation (either yours, or another character’s); that is, you start with show and then you tell):

Maria’s nose wrinkled in disgust.
George’s lower lip curled disdainfully.
Mr. Brown’s cheeks puffed out in surprise.
Dr. Langacre’s chin shivered with suppressed delight.

So what if you can’t come up with an interesting, effective, yet simple detail to make Minerva’s smile jump off the page and make your reader say Yes! I know that kind of smile, I can see it!? Because the plain truth is, mostly you won’t be able to come up with something unique. Pretty much everything has been done; the most you can hope for is that once in a while, if you work hard and have an ear for the language, you’ll come up with exactly the right combination of phrase and characterization and your reader will be overcome with the power of your vivid prose.

But mostly you’ll be more concerned with getting past Minerva’s smile to the dialog (which is where everything really important happens, after all; forget all that stuff about epiphany), because this is the bit where Minerva tells Susan, oops, I forgot I was supposed to feed your cat this past week while you were in Oslo, but he was really kinda portly anyway, wasn’t he? So you’ll take a shortcut in describing the emotion on Minerva’s face, that odd, eerie, edgy smile that means she’s got something difficult to say. Shortcuts look like this:

A look of surprise (anger, confusion, disgust) came over her (his) face.

Basically, a short cut is telling rather than showing. You won’t have to look very far to come up with lots of examples of emotional short-cuts. Everybody uses them, simply because it would be overkill to attempt to describe every physical cue your characters might toss your way. You’d be exhausted, and your readers would soon run and hide. The trick is to learn how to balance the occasional concrete detail and fine observation with the short-cuts. Or at least, that’s one of the tricks.