Describing Facial Expressions

cover image
Describe this face in three words.

One of the most difficult problems plaguing writers is how to describe facial expressions.  The problem arises if the writer does not describe facial expressions at all or if they provide cliche or overused descriptions when writing a narrative.

The solution is easier than you might expect.

The solution to this is two-fold:

  1. Descriptions must be realistic.
  2. Descriptions must be specific.

In order to achieve this, there are several resources on the web for writers to use for free.  One of the best resources is the MacMillan Dictionary which contains a huge list of words that could be used to describe specific facial expressions.  The other is a book by Bryn Donovan that includes not just facial expression lists but also character traits, plots and names.  Daily Writing Tips provides a list of 100 facial expressions with detailed descriptions.

The point here is that writers need to use more descriptive ways to record the facial expressions of their characters, which in turn will make for a more lively and interesting read for the reader.  I don’t know about you, but stylistic things bother me.  I once put a Hugo Award winning novel down after chapter 3 because the author kept using “he said” “she said” for every line of dialogue.

And that writer won the Hugo?!

As always, writing is indeed hard work, but some writers out there want to take the easy way out and use descriptions that are blasé  or unoriginal.  Variety is the spice of life, to use an idiom, and the writing that is more creative in description is more than likely better than the writing that is not.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

7 thoughts on “Describing Facial Expressions

  1. I am a new writer, using Fan fiction to practice writing. May I ask what is wrong with he said, she said? Most writing resources I have studies said that most readers don’t even see those words, invisible even. What do you suggest for a replacement?

    1. Hello, Josh! Thanks for replying to the blog post. I think with time I’ve discovered that “he said/ she said” is not that bad, but when we overuse it without making effort to describe action within the dialogue we run the risk of people actually “seeing” those words. The point is, don’t make them so obvious. Good luck to you on your project, and God bless!

  2. You inadvertently stumbled onto another tip here, Roger: taking pictures (or using them, at least). For many people, taking a picture of their own face making the expression they are wanting to include in writing, then writing from the picture, helps. It allows you to take out the somatic piece and think externally about the details a bit. What do you SEE? If you’re not a particularly expressive person, you can always find Web images by searching emotional keywords until you see someone who seems to be expressing what you envision. Then use that picture as a catalyst for writing your description.

    As with any writing technique, no one thing works for everyone. But it’s another tool for some people to consider.

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