Writers need good descriptions of facial expressions in their stories to help the readers picture the characters, to convey emotions, and to set up lines of dialogue without having to write “said” or any of its synonyms. However, it’s easy for us to rely on the same descriptions over and over again.

I created this list to address that challenge. The expressions are broken down by the part of the face. Note that some of them work for more than one emotion—a person might narrow their eyes out of vindictiveness or skepticism, for instance, and their face might turn red out of anger or out of embarrassment.

Some of them require a little more explanation on your part. You’ll have to say what she’s glaring at, or if his face is contorting in rage, or grief, or what. And not all of these will work for every character—it depends on what they look like and how they generally react to things.

Some of these aren’t exactly facial expressions, but useful for dialogue tags. In many cases I’ve given several ways to describe the same thing. While I have included some longer phrases, they are not proprietary and it’s fine to use them.

I’m open to suggestions, and I hope you find it helpful!

Master List of Facial Expression Descriptions #Bryn Donovan #dialogue tags #ways to describe


his eyes widened
her eyes went round
her eyelids drooped
his eyes narrowed
his eyes lit up
his eyes darted
he squinted
she blinked
her eyes twinkled
his eyes gleamed
her eyes sparkled
his eyes flashed
his eyes glinted
his eyes burned with…
her eyes blazed with…
her eyes sparked with…
her eyes flickered with…
_____ glowed in his eyes
the corners of his eyes crinkled
she rolled her eyes
he looked heavenward
she glanced up to the ceiling
she winked
tears filled her eyes
his eyes welled up
her eyes swam with tears
his eyes flooded with tears
her eyes were wet
his eyes glistened
tears shimmered in her eyes
tears shone in his eyes
her eyes were glossy
he was fighting back tears
tears ran down her cheeks
his eyes closed
she squeezed her eyes shut
he shut his eyes
his lashes fluttered
she batted her lashes
his brows knitted
her forehead creased
his forehead furrowed
her forehead puckered
a line appeared between her brows
his brows drew together
her brows snapped together
his eyebrows rose
she raised a brow
he lifted an eyebrow
his eyebrows waggled
she gave him a once-over
he sized her up
her eyes bored into him
she took in the sight of…
he glared
she peered
he gazed
she glanced
he stared
she scrutinized
he studied
she gaped
he observed
she surveyed
he gawked
he leered
his pupils (were) dilated
her pupils were huge
his pupils flared


her nose crinkled
his nose wrinkled
she sneered
his nostrils flared
she stuck her nose in the air
he sniffed
she sniffled


she smiled
he smirked
she grinned
he simpered
she beamed
her mouth curved into a smile
the corners of his mouth turned up
the corner of her mouth quirked up
a corner of his mouth lifted
his mouth twitched
he gave a half-smile
she gave a lopsided grin
his mouth twisted
he plastered a smile on his face
she forced a smile
he faked a smile
her smile faded
his smile slipped
he pursed his lips
she pouted
his mouth snapped shut
her mouth set in a hard line
he pressed his lips together
she bit her lip
he drew his lower lip between his teeth
she nibbled on her bottom lip
he chewed on his bottom lip
his jaw set
her jaw clenched
his jaw tightened
a muscle in her jaw twitched
he ground his jaw
he snarled/his lips drew back in a snarl
her mouth fell open
his jaw dropped
her jaw went slack
he gritted his teeth
she gnashed her teeth
her lower lip trembled
his lower lip quivered


she paled
he blanched
she went white
the color drained out of his face
his face reddened
her cheeks turned pink
his face flushed
she blushed
he turned red
she turned scarlet
he turned crimson
a flush crept up her face


he screwed up his face
she scrunched up her face
he grimaced
she winced
she gave him a dirty look
he frowned
she scowled
he glowered
her whole face lit up
she brightened
his face went blank
her face contorted
his face twisted
her expression closed up
his expression dulled
her expression hardened
she went poker-faced
a vein popped out in his neck
awe transformed his face
fear crossed her face
sadness clouded his features
terror overtook his face
recognition dawned on her face


A slightly expanded version of this list, plus a Master List for Describing Emotions, are my book Master Lists for Writers: Thesauruses, Plots, Character Traits, Names, and More. I think it’s a great tool for making “show don’t tell” easier and for inspiration during every part of the writing process. Check it out if you’re interested!

Master Lists for Writers by Bryn Donovan

Happy writing!