Hey there! Lots of writers liked my list of facial expressions, so I thought I would do a companion post about gestures and body language. Describing these can help readers visualize a scene and get a feel for the characters, and again, they can set up lines of dialogue so you don’t have a string of he said, she said, he asked, she exclaimed, etc., running down the page.

You might want to consider which gestures or what body language is typical for each of your characters. For instance, one of my characters in the novel I just finished tends to hug herself when she’s nervous, while another has a habit of rubbing at his shoulder when he’s uncomfortable. They only do it a few times each throughout the book, but I think details like that make characters feel more solid.

For a great guide to what body language means, I recommend What Every BODY Is Saying, by former FBI counterintelligence offer Joe Navarro and body language expert Marvin Karlins.

Some of the things in my list are not exactly body language or gestures, but are useful for dialogue tags. As with the last list, I’ve included some different ways to say the same thing. There are some longer phrases and sentences, which you can obviously rewrite and adjust as you like, although you don’t have to. Nothing here is proprietary.

Let me know if you have additions to this list!
Body Language for Writers

he lowered his head
she hung her head
he ducked
she bowed her head
he covered his eyes with a hand
she pressed her hands to her cheeks

she raised her chin
he lifted his chin

her hands squeezed into fists
his hands tightened into fists
she clenched her fists
she balled her fists
he unclenched his fists
her arms remained at her sides

he shrugged
she gave a half shrug
he lifted his shoulder in a half shrug
she gave a dismissive wave of her hand

she raised a hand in greeting
he waved

she held up her hands
he lifted his hands
she held up her palms
he threw his hands in the air
she brushed her palms together
he rubbed his hands together
she made a steeple of her fingers
he spread his hands
she gesticulated
he waved his hands
she clapped her hands
he snapped his fingers
she held up a finger
he pointed
she gestured with a thumb
he jerked his thumb toward…
she extended her middle finger toward him
he gave her the finger
she gave him the thumbs up

she put her hands on her hips
she shoved her hands in her pockets
he jammed his hands in his front pockets
she rested a hand on her hip
she jutted out her hip

she folded her arms
he crossed his arms over his chest
she hugged herself
he wrapped his arms around himself
she rocked back and forth

she spread her arms wide
he held out his arms
she held out her hand
he extended a hand

he shook his head
she nodded
he bobbed his head
she tilted her head
he cocked his head
she inclined her head
he jerked her head in the direction of…
she turned her face away
he looked away

his breaths quickened
she panted
she was breathing hard
his chest rose and fell with rapid breaths
she took in a deep breath
he drew in a long breath
she took in a sharp breath
he gasped
she held her breath
he let out a harsh breath
she exhaled
he blew out his cheeks
she huffed
he sighed
she snorted

she laughed
he giggled
she guffawed
he chuckled
she gave a bitter laugh
he gave mirthless laugh
she tittered
he cackled

she rubbed her shoulder
he kneaded his shoulder
he rolled his shoulders
she tensed her shoulders
he massaged the back of his neck
she rubbed her temples
she rubbed her hands on her thighs

she ran her hand through her hair
he threaded a hand through his hair
he raked his fingers through his hair
he shoved his hair back away from his face
she toyed with a lock of hair
she played with her hair
she twirled her hair
she wrapped a curl around her finger
she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear
she undid her ponytail and shook out her hair
she tossed her hair
he buried his hands in his hair
he stroked his beard
he scratched his beard

she tugged at her earlobe
he bit a nail
she chewed on a cuticle
she picked at her nails
she inspected her fingernails
he plucked at the cuff of his shirt
she picked a piece of lint from her sleeve
he adjusted the lapels of his jacket
she fiddled with her earring / bracelet
he twisted the wedding ring on his finger
she played with her cell phone
he tugged at his shirt collar
he adjusted his tie
she smoothed down her skirt

she scratched her nose
he scratched his head
he rubbed his forehead
she rubbed her eyes
she pinched the bridge of her nose
he held his nose

she slapped her forehead
he smacked his forehead
he facepalmed
he slapped a hand over her mouth
she covered her mouth with her hand
she pressed her fingers to her lips
he held his finger up to his lips
he rubbed his chin

she pressed a hand to her throat
he clutched his chest
he leaned against the wall
she bounced on her toes
she jumped up and down
he tapped his foot
she stomped her foot

she folded her hands in her lap
she drummed her fingers on the table
he tapped his fingers on the table
he slammed his hand on the table
she pounded her fist on the table
she set her palms down flat on the table
he rested his hands on the table
she set her hands on the table, palms up
he leaned back in his chair
she hooked her feet around the chair legs
he gripped the arm of the chair
she put her hands behind her head
he put his feet on the desk
he fidgeted
she jiggled her foot
he swung his leg
she crossed her legs
he uncrossed his legs
she crossed her ankles in front of her
she stretched out her legs in front of her
he sprawled out
he put his feet on the desk

she cringed
he shuddered
she flinched
he shivered
she trembled
his body shook
she cowered
he shrank from…
she huddled in the corner

he pulled away
she jerked away
he turned away
she jolted upright
he stiffened
she straightened
he tensed
he jumped
she jumped to her feet
he stood up
she rose from her seat

she relaxed
he hunched
she slouched
her shoulders sagged
his shoulders slumped
she wilted
he went limp
he rolled his shoulders
she squared her shoulders

she clasped her hands behind her back
he puffed out his chest
she thrust out her chest

he propped his chin on his hand
she rested her chin on her palm
he yawned
she stretched

he turned around
she whirled around
he pivoted
she reeled

she stepped away
she drew nearer
he leaned closer
she inched forward
he loomed closer
he paced
she shifted from one foot to the other
he swayed on his feet
she dragged her feet

she pumped a fist
he thrust his fists in the air
she punched the air


A slightly expanded version of this list, plus a Master List for Describing Emotions, appears in my book Master Lists for Writers: Thesauruses, Plots, Character Traits, Names, and More. Click on the cover to check it out!

Master Lists for Writers by Bryn Donovan

Happy writing!