MASTER LIST of Gestures and Body Language!

Describing body language in writing can help readers visualize a scene and get a feel for the characters. They can also set up lines of dialogue so you don’t have a string of he said, she said, he asked, etc., running down the page.

How to describe body language in writing may seem simple, but I find that when I’m in the middle of writing a scene, sometimes I draw a blank! It’s easy to wind up with characters who are nodding and shrugging all the time. Hopefully this list will help make writing body language easier.

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 my list of facial expressions, 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.

Let me know if you have additions to this list! And you might want to pin or bookmark this post for future reference!

 

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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 of body language and gestures appears in my book Master Lists for Writers: Thesauruses, Plots, Character Traits, Names, and More. Click on the cover to check it out!

 

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Thanks so much for reading, and happy writing!

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88 thoughts on “MASTER LIST of Gestures and Body Language!”

    1. Indrani Chowdhury

      i love this post. I didn’t know about many phrases about body expressions but it has helped me a lot.
      Thank You.

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  3. Kristina Johansson

    Thank you so much Bryn!! I used this – and the facial expressions list – as a “cheat sheet” EXTENSIVELY while writing a fanfiction this summer. It saved me so much time and effort!

    1. Oh, I am so, so glad! That’s exactly what I was hoping this would do — save people time. I would always have these times myself where I would get stuck and think, “Dang it, what does he do here?” 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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  7. This is a great list. Another resource I just got in December is The Emotion Thesauraus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s organized by emotions in alphabetical order and gives lists of different gestures, expressions, and feelings to go along with each. So helpful, especially when your characters tend to do the same sorts of things (raising eyebrows, shrugging, etc) a lot.

  8. Hey Bryn!
    I’m Dutch and I’m writing my first fantasy, which I hope will be the start of a great series.
    I learned English from school and mainly from music, movies and games.
    I have a clear perspective of the direction where my story is heading, but I lack much knowledge about helpful tools to build three dimensional characters.
    When I found your master lists for writers I immediately ordered it and can’t wait for it to arrive.
    So a big big thank you!!!

    1. Scarlett! Thanks so much for the kind words, and for getting the book! You clearly speak English very well. 🙂 I hope the lists about character traits, motivations, and quirks help you with your story!

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  12. Just like in real life gestures and any body language signs do not always have a particular meaning. That’s why including such phrases makes writing more real and sometimes helps to keep the intrigue of uncertainty. Thank you so much for your advices!

  13. Great compilation with one little semantic note: the only context in which I can imagine someone extending one’s middle finger, written as such, is satire. If you’re writing something in which such a gesture is going to be used, flip the ****wits off!

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  15. I’ve purchased your book, ‘Master List For Writing.’ It’s a wonderful help when I’m stuck or feel like I’m repeating the same gesture, though I have one small problem with it. I purchased it though iBook and the format is backwards (the chapters start at the end and I “turn” the pages from right to left.). Thought you’d want to know, since it’s a little confusing and may deter people from buying the book.

    1. Donna, thanks so much for getting the book and for the kind words. And whoa, that is so weird! The iBooks version looks normal on my Mac. Can I ask what device you’re using? I’d like to get it figured out. I’m so sorry you’re having that trouble!

      1. I’m viewing the book on my iPad, using the iBooks app.
        Even when I first viewed the sample pages it was backwards. I wanted to flip to your Table of Contents, and it took me a moment to realize I had to swipe from right to left for it to work. I’d hate for someone to pass up your book after trying the sample because of this glitch.
        I hope it’s an easy fix.

  16. You should be a part of a contest for one of the highest quality sites on the web.
    I will recommend this web site!

  17. Hey, thanks a gazillion for this website. Your work is making my story come to life. Not only will i bookmark it, I too will recommend it to my students. Mac Lao Shi, China.

  18. Using these lists with my performing arts classes in Camden, NJ. Thank you so much. Huge respurce for my students

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  22. i love writing but i have this problem of describing things and finding your site has helped a lot. your lists are a great help and i will be buying your book soon

    1. Hi, Misty! I’m so glad they’re helpful. Be sure to follow the blog, if you aren’t already (there’s a place on the lefthand side of the blog to sign up) — that way you won’t miss any writing posts! Thanks again for the kind words. I hope you have a great year of writing in 2018!

  23. My name is Anil Rele. I live in New Delhi. I am writing the first novel which is a fictional story. I am on this project for the last three years. I was truly excited to read your list. It has been of tremendous help. Well, no words can fully convey my gratitude. Please continue your good work.

    1. Hi, Anil! I am SO happy to hear this list is helpful. Be sure to follow the blog, if you haven’t already, so you don’t miss future lists…there’s a place to sign up right after the article. Good luck on the novel! I hope it goes great!

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  25. Hey, Bryn! I am Amber and I started my first book on Wattpad and your facial expressions along with this one is really helping me. I am so grateful you published these lists. Keep up the good work!! ;D

  26. I find your list very useful to me for conducting Artificial Intelligence research in the area of natural language understanding. In fact even the best mechanical translators today have done poorly with some of the expressions, which makes the list a great benchmark for evaluating the progress of such AI technologies. Thank you so much for make the list available!

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  35. Oh thank god. This was driving me crazy. I kept writing: She snapped her head toward the scream, then after that I had: Snapping her head around…Woah watch out for the flying head! xD Thank you, I finally have the right wording!

    ( She jerked her head in the direction of…) Ahhh. Each description doesn’t have to always be original. Especially if it saves my sanity.

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  40. Thank you very much! I am taking a writing class and this list of gestures and body language and also facial expressions help so much! My essays, creative writing, and stories would be close junk without all of these good resources.

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  42. Thank you for this! I’m not a native English speaker but I’m challenging myself to write a story completely in English so this is really helpful!

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  46. This is enlightening, but didn’t have what I needed. As a Deaf person, sounds is challenging for me to describe in my writing. Looking for sounds that comes from when a person “smacks” or “snaps” his tongue? Example, Looking distrustful, he teasingly snaps his tongue as a warning.

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