Human communication is mostly nonverbal, so it makes sense to use plenty of body language, gestures, and facial expressions in our writing. Showing your characters’ emotions through their body language is also a wonderful way to avoid telling (More about showing vs. telling here). Instead of saying she was nervous, you could show her fiddling with her keys, for example.
But if you use the same body language over and over again, readers will start to notice—and become bored.
I’ve read manuscripts in which the characters seemed to smile fifteen times on each page. Or they nodded so often that they came across like bobbleheads.
What descriptions of body language do writers overuse most often?
Every writer has their own go-to descriptors, but the ones I find most often in manuscripts are:
bit his/her lip
breathe/breath (e.g., held her/his breath, took a deep breath, breath hitched, blew out a breath, calming breath)
cleared her/his throat
clenched her/his fists
crossed her/his arms
eyes (e.g., rolled his/her eyes, narrowed his/her eyes, squinted, eyes widened, eyes twinkled, eyes lit up, etc.)
eyebrow/eyebrows (e.g., eyebrows arched, lifted, raised, waggled)
furrowed her/his brow
licked his/her lips
nodded/nod—I especially cringe every time I read nodded her/his head. What else would they nod? Their knees?
pressed her/his lips together
ran her/his hand through his/her hair
reached out (a hand)
shook her/his head
shrugged/shrug—shrugged her shoulders is especially cringeworthy. “Shrug” already implies that she’s moving her shoulders, so “her shoulders” is redundant.
sighed/sigh, especially “sigh of relief”
tilted his/her head
How do you avoid overusing certain gestures or facial expressions in your writing?
First of all, find out your go-to body language descriptors. Most writers have at least a couple of them that they overuse. Are your characters blinking every time you want to show that they are confused or clenching their fists whenever they are angry? The list above could be a good starting point. Add to it every time you find yourself overusing a certain gesture or facial expression. During the revision process, do a search for each phrase on your list.
Search for all forms of these words. For example, smile, smiling, smiled, etc.
If a piece of body language doesn’t add anything, take it out. That’s often the case with shook her/his head or nodded when the dialogue already makes it clear that the character agrees or disagrees.
Betty nodded. “Sure. I can do that.”
“Sure,” Betty said. “I can do that.”
Take a look at your dialogue. Is it interrupted too often by meaningless descriptions of body language that interrupt the flow of the conversation? If it is, take some of them out and convey the emotions through the dialogue itself.
Sometimes, you can replace an overused word with a synonym, but most of the time, that might not be the best solution. If you replace smiled with grinned, for example, you might trade one overused word for another.
Replace some of the overused body language with more original descriptions.
She raised her eyebrows.
She nailed him with a you’re-full-of-shit look.
Think about the emotion you are trying to convey. What other, less overused gestures or facial expressions could convey the same emotion?
Become a good observer. What do the people you meet in your everyday life do when they are angry, confused, surprised, sad, impatient, etc.? You might come up with a couple of fresh descriptions by people-watching. For example, a friend of mine scratches off the label of any nearby bottle whenever she’s nervous.
Do all of your characters use the same gestures and facial expressions? If one of them has a signature gesture, make sure the other characters express their emotions in a different way. For example, the protagonist in my current work-in-progress is shy, so she blushes a lot. During the revision process, I’ll make sure that none of the other characters blush more than once or twice in the book. I’ll have to find another way to describe them whenever they are embarrassed.
Punch up your prose! Sometimes, you can keep the word but make it more interesting by adding to the description.
Her glare could have turned bread to toast from fifty yards away.
Don’t overdo it. Sometimes, less is more. Our goal is not to avoid simple descriptions of body language such as she glared or she nodded entirely but to avoid overusing them, especially on the same page.
Every now and then, a prop (object) that characters interact with can help you convey their emotions.
She nervously bit her lip.
She coiled a loose string from her T-shirt around her finger, unraveled it, then did it again.
I have found The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi a helpful tool. Of course, there are some overused phrases in there too, but it might give you a good starting point to come up with your own, unique body language descriptions.
What body language and facial expressions do you typically overuse in your writing? Tell us in the comments!