Master List of Facial Expressions

This facial expressions list for writers is one of my all-time most popular posts. A lot of writers keep this page bookmarked! Writers need good facial expression descriptions in their writing 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. And sometimes in the middle of writing, when we’re trying to find the words to describe an angry expression or a sad expression, we draw a blank.


I created this list of words for facial expressions 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. 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.

Some of these aren’t exactly facial expressions, but useful for dialogue tags. In fact, I started this list in a notebook for myself as a reference so I would stop using “he said” and “she said” so often…and as any editor or writing coach will tell you, just using tons of synonyms for “said” does not solve this problem; it makes it worse! By using a facial expression as a dialogue tag, you can also convey the tone of voice.

Here’s the facial expressions list. You might want to pin it for future reference! WORDS TO DESCRIBE FACIAL EXPRESSIONS: A Master List for Writers! #Master Lists for Writers free pdf #Master Lists for Writers free ebook #facial expressions list #facial expression descriptions #list of facial expressions for writers #master lists for writers #ways to describe facial expressions #words for facial expressions

Ways to Describe Expressions Related to the Eyes and Eyebrows

his eyes widened

their 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

her 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

their 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 frowning, glaring man | FACIAL EXPRESSIONS LIST

her forehead creased

his forehead furrowed

her forehead puckered

a line appeared between their 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

Ways to Describe Expressions Related to the Nose

her nose crinkled

his nose wrinkled

she sneered

his nostrils flared

she stuck her nose in the air

he sniffed

she sniffled

Ways to Describe Expressions Related to the Mouth

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 woman's mouth quirked to the side | FACIAL EXPRESSIONS LIST #Master Lists for Writers free pdf #Master Lists for Writers free ebook #words to describe facial expressions

he plastered a smile on his face

she forced a smile

he faked a smile

their 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

Ways to Describe Reactions Related to the Skin

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

Ways to Describe Expressions Having to Do With the Whole Face

he screwed up his face

she scrunched up her face

they 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 


I hope you found this facial expressions list useful! I have many more lists like this in 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!

Master Lists for Writers by Bryn Donovan #master lists for writers free pdf #master lists for writers free ebook

If you don’t want to miss future free writing lists and other posts about writing, follow the blog — there’s a place to sign up at the lefthand side of the page. Happy writing! 

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182 thoughts on “Master List of Facial Expressions”

  1. Great post, Bryn. I’ve been using The Emotion Thesaurus, but this list gives me more fuel for those exasperating times when I need an action beat and can’t think of anything new to say.

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  3. Use the body language, too, as this says a lot. Frex, shoulders can droop, a body can go suddenly rigid, hands can shake, fists can clench, feet can kick at some inanimate object, chests can twitch with suppressed laughter, arms can flex to show strength, only don’t overuse the latter. I have just been lau…reading some of the reviews on that ill-written BDSM grey thing and there are enough overuses there for an ordinary reader to pick up effortlessly. Also curtail blushes, flushes for the same reasons.

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  6. Reblogged this on writewithkelly and commented:
    I was quietly reflecting this morning and just glancing at Pinterest (yeah, right!) and found this wonderful blog post. I found it so useful I wanted to share it with you my readers and encourage you to share it with other writers. Thanks Bryn! I’m sure a lot of us will find this useful!

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  9. Thank you so much for making this list I found it really helpful and interesting. I know for sure this will help me write. 🙂

    At the bottom of the page I noticed that you mentioned your writing a book coming out with more master lists. I would be really interested in buying a copy do you know when the book will be released and will it be available in the UK?

    Thank you again really love your posts.

    1. I’m so glad this was helpful, and I really appreciate the kind words! 🙂

      The book is coming out in October, and yes, it will be available in the UK! It’s coming out as an ebook for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Kobo. It will also be available in paperback on Amazon.

  10. I was stuck on disbelief for the hero’s expression, but it just wasn’t quite right. So, thank you so much. I’ll look out for your book. Fabulous that it will be in ebook as well.

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  17. Wow, thanks for putting this together. That was probably no small task. I’m going to use this during editing when I catch myself being repetitive. It’ll be very helpful! Thanks so much 🙂

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  19. Such fun and yet so valuable finding this gem. I so frequently find myself struggling with new ways to say he smiled, etc. And I’ve published four books. See, you can teach an old dog new tricks. 🙂 I’ll echo what somebody else said, thank you for taking the time to put this valuable info out into cyberspace

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  21. Riley Alexandra McCabe

    I wasn’t sure how to properly contact you so I’m going this route 🙂
    I have to admit, you have literally saved me from writers’ block with your book, Master Lists for Writers, and I like your style – using LGBT friendly options in some lists is one of my favourite things. Since I’ve been having trouble with my current novel project, Master Lists has been very helpful in working out my character dynamics, dialogue and plotting devices.
    Thank you for saving me from writers’ block!
    ~ R.A. McCabe

    1. Add me as well to the list of people who are boggling over this riudculois change. I can barely type this message even know, as I struggle with the new layout.Who designed this this layout? What fool? I’d rather not unlearn 25 years of typing because someone put switching languages ahead of standard layout.

  22. Thanks for the added expressions. I’ve found the list very helpful and now with the update it will be even more useful.

  23. Hello Bryn, I have four finished manuscripts, the first is at the publishers. I am in the process of final re-writes, and have just stumbles across your blog. I have saved your lists of suggestions for dialogue, descriptive words etc. Do you have a printable version of these lists? Thanks for blog. Richard.

    1. Hi R.J.! So glad you found my blog 🙂
      Congratulations on four finished manuscripts, woo hoo! That is awesome!
      Sorry to say I don’t have a printable version of the lists,
      though they are in the Master Lists for Writers book along with a bunch more lists.
      Thanks so much for the kind words, and thanks for reading!

      1. Hello again Bryn, don’t be too taken by the four manuscripts. I wrote the first one thirty years ago and it has been languishing on a shelf gathering dust since then, except for the odd excursion to several publishers where it was rejected. I rescued number one and it is now with the publisher for the first edit.
        I take on board your answer regarding printable lists. As for your book, is it available in the UK?
        Thanks for your swift reply. Much appreciated. Richard.

        1. R.J., four manuscripts is impressive no matter what. That’s what I think, anyway!

          I actually tried to make a printable version of one of the lists, come to think of it, but it didn’t come out well and people complained! And yes, Master Lists for Writers is available in the UK, in print and for Kindle. 🙂

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  27. This is such an awesome post! I’ve come back to least at least a hundred times during my writing! Absolutely LOVE these descriptions… really helpful! Thank you!

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  31. Scott Hamilton

    Great list, I’ve seen others but this is more complete than most. Using some distinctions I picked up in Russian (which splits verbs into more complexity than English) I break my stage direction terms (as I call them) into verb, verb + adverb combos, nouns and adjectives, for the face, body, hands, and other parts. Here’s a slice showing how I organized things:
    Communicating/Reacting: squeezed/tightened/balled/clenched (+un) into fists, held up, open, closed around, wrap around, palmed, enclose, throw hands up, raise (as in classroom), behind ear(s) (can’t hear you/louder)
    Emotive/gesture: dismissive wave, wave hello/goodbye, shaking, grip, raise, gesture, gesticulate, shake (nerves), claw, rubbed together, brushed against, make a sign, spread, hug/hugging herself, clasped together, pressed, locked, frozen, covering eyes/nose/ears, pressed to cheeks, wave at, beckon, toying with something, open/close
    Location: on hip(s), in lap, on table, in pockets, in sleeves, around x’s neck, in someone else’s hand(s), in the air, grasping, holding a thing, beating on door/someone’s chest, in armpits, in pants, behind back, behind head, behind neck, holding elbows, holding belt/holster, hands on hips/holster/hilt/belt/belt buckle
    How they are/how they got there: shoved in, jammed in, laid on, fall, slid, hang (down, from, into), dangle, limp, tense, tight, tense, held out, offered, extended (to), extended (outward), trembling, shaking

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  33. You’re a life saver!!! This was really helpful!! Since english is not my mother language, I struggle trying to find the right expressions for my characters, but thanks to you it’s gonna be a lot more easier now 🙂

    1. Hi Cindy! Even for native English speakers, it can be hard to remember different ways to word things, and I can’t imagine how difficult it would be as a non-native speaker. So glad this is helpful!

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    1. Hi Sushant! I would if I could, but honestly, I have no idea how to help someone read faster! It’s okay if it takes some time, though… as long as you’re enjoying it!

    2. Hi, Sushant! I would help if I could, but honestly, I don’t know how a person can increase their reading speed. Hey, some people don’t read a book for years at a time, so you’re way ahead of them!

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  38. If there is one thing I can say, these lists have definitely helped expand my writing capabilities. I was a fairly good writer before, a slight cut above the rest, people always asking me to write to write some sort of story for them (usually a Fan-Fic type of thing) after reading my works. But the thing I always ended up struggling with– descriptions. I could give you a fairly good description of anything, but describing PEOPLE. Oh man, oh man. That was what got me. Now that I’m working on my first novel to actually publish on Amazon instead of letting everything be a free-to-read on different websites, I figured I should step up my game. I’ve bought your book (on Amazon) and let me just say that I definitely love it and I feel like it will help me get through the trial and errors of my own writing. I would be lying if I didn’t say that my first four characters were made almost entirely by looking through your lists and finding the words that accurately described what I saw in my head. Big thank you to you, Bryn, for making this!

    1. Hi, Emma! I am so glad this is helpful, and thank you so much for the kind words! I am in the exact same boat as you… I always found it easier to describe things than people. I started making these lists for my own benefit 🙂 and then I thought, Hey, I should share these. Thank you very much for buying my book, and I am so glad you like it!

  39. Hi Bryn, I just found your blog after looking for a decent resource to help me improve my descriptive writing. I’ve been writing off and on the last 15 years but have never finished a whole novel because I usually got stuck and then gave up and things never went anywhere. But I’ve recently seriously started working on a project which I’ve had in my mind for the last few years, which I believe has alot of potential. I also hope to turn it into a series . But during the last week I’ve been engrossed in a book I’m currently reading and have realised I need alot of work to improve in the area of descriptive writing. So a few nights ago while I was writing a scene in the book I’m working on I got stuck so I google how to describe facial exspression. I knew what I wanted to describe but had trouble thinking of words to use as I didn’t want it to sound cliched. And then I found your blog, which was amazingly helpful and I finally got what I needed to do. I still need alot of practice but this list has really put me in the right direction. I’ve even printed it out to add to my reference collection for future use.
    Thank you once again

  40. Unwitty Writer

    THANK JESUS FOR THIS!!! I’ve been googling about different kinds of expressions for months!! You’re my answered prayer! THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!!

  41. This is so helpful! I always end up making up the same expressions for all the carachters and well you know that is not so good..! I couldnt find anything about jestures and body language, I ended up at the same things I was already writing about! I can’t believe you put all these together! 🙂 Good work!

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  44. Thank you so, so much. I draw a blank when it comes to writing, especially with dialogue and mentioning features… and everything else. This really helped me!

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  47. I’m currently writing my first novel, I don’t really know how and where to start. This is so helpful! Thank you! ❤️

  48. Even with all these great ideas for language, I’m having trouble describing the way people slap a hand to their cheek when their mouth has dropped open after someone has said something shocking. This is too wordy!

  49. Your blog couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I have written and published several books, but after be struck with an illness, then the loss of my husband, I just stopped writing for several years. I am now writing again, but your blog has given me inspiration for new plots and for honing my own skills. Thank you very much. Sue Rich

  50. Thanks a bunch for this post!:) In sweden we say ”he hit down his gaze (eg at/on the table)” meaning he submissively looked down (at the table). Is there a similar frase in english?

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  53. Hey! Thanks alot for such an amazing vocab.It describes facial expressions perfectly and anybody can fell the pain or happiness when they come across these words.Your efforts are worth of praise .

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  55. Hello Bryan! Thank you so much, this is very helpful. I can’t help but to smile while reading your list. Those words, it really caught my attention.

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  60. This is absolutely wonderful and I thank you so much for making this! The perfectionist in me wants it sorted by general emotion, though…X’D

    1. Hey, thank you! And I know what you mean. I tried to organize them like that at first, but then it bothered me because there was a lot of overlap (some expressions work for more than one emotion.) I’m glad you liked the post!

  61. I just saw a very stupid “list of things you shouldn’t do in fiction writing” video and one of them was “Thou shalt not describe your characters’ eyes, expressions or eye movements.” Very weird. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. Thank you for sharing this.

  62. Thanks a lot Bryn !😊, I’ve been planning to write a fantasy novel since school, and ” show don’t tell” was giving me nightmares , especially since English is foreign language for me, this helped a lot!! .lots of love.

  63. I loved it. thank you so much. I’m trying to be a writer but I struggle for their emotions. This helps me a lot.

  64. The whispering of the harsh wind tore my mind. Hard, moss green eyes with thick eyelashes stared from the pale shadows. Heavy eyelashes gleaned camouflage from their meager surroundings. Veiled skin wreathed in dark colours. Sculpted face. Hawk-like nose. Fine platinum hair wisping out behind. Taut body fragile with frost. Elegant hands tremble. She seemed barely old, yet her eyes tell stories of years gone by.
    Dark trees hush the wind.
    Slowly, she steps forth. She is young, I realize. Young. Too young.
    My blood curls, warmth frozen until I am as cold as her still corpse.
    She is one of us.
    One of the dangerous ones.
    I turn and run.
    The wind starts again, dragging me to her shadowy embrace.
    Dragging me to death.
    My crazed expression must look strange.
    Then she strikes. And I scream.
    My world ends.

    Thanks. Your suggestions really helped me write this prologue. (I think prologues help to explain why a three-year-old can talk to cats…)
    Please don’t copy/draw from/ talk about/ comment about this prologue.

  65. This is really wonderful, but it would be awesome if you also divided them up by emotion rather than portion of the face :DD

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    1. One has to wonder what was the point of this comment. If it really was Meh, there would be no reason for you to say so. Just walk away.
      Unless the comment was meant to affect the writer, in which case, a more lengthy discourse on what they didn’t do that would have been more helpful for you.
      Plus, should you have indicated what could have been done better to help you, it would have been added to the discourse for those of us who read the comments, and might also have found the extra information helpful to us as well.
      (AND, I am aware that this post is marked Anonymous.)

  67. Wow, I just love all of these! There are so many good ones it blows my mind trying to think which one I should use, sometimes I just want to use them all! Thanks so much, Ms. Donovan, for sharing this with writers like me who need some help with the description. It is very helpful, especially because it’s free and not everyone can afford books. 🙂 If I ever write a book, for me, it wouldn’t be weird but add you in the dedications. LOL. Thanks!

  68. As a first-time writer and not writing in my native language, your book has really helped me nail down my characters’ emotions. I would recommend anyone who is starting as a writer to get a copy of your book.

  69. Hello Bryn,

    I am in the process of writing a science fiction novel. I have been working on it off and on since 2008. It’s big! and I have written a thousand pages. My daughter, who is also an aspiring writer, said I should make it a trilogy. But how to break it down and put in the best information. I certainly want it to be great!

    Anyway, your list of expressions has helped me very much, so I have decided to purchase your Master Lists for Writers book. I purchased it in both formats — hard copy and Kindle. Thank you for this post about facial expressions.

    1. Hi Thea! How exciting that you’re writing a scifi epic! If it’s over 120,000 words, which it sound like it is, then yes, you might want to split it up. You’ll want to make sure that the ending of each book really feels like a satisfying ending–like something big is resolved–even if the story continues. I’m so glad the Master Lists for Writers book is helpful! Thanks for the kind words!

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