Describing the faces that people are making during a conversation can be difficult. He nodded, she pursed her lips -- those are easy, but I'm talking about the more subtle expressions.

In the case of what I'm writing now, I'm trying to convey that pouty, pulled down corner-of-the-mouth expression that a person will get when they are expressing that they are surprised, but impressed. In the interest of 'showing, not telling', I don't want to say, "an expression that said, ‘Not bad’".

More generally, is there any collected 'Dictionary of Facial Expressions' or other resource, online or in print? I feel that it would be very useful, since I run into this problem all the time, and I don't think I'm alone.

4 Answers 4


If you read with attention you will realize that there is very little of this in fiction. Actors can display all kinds of things with facial expression, which is why a script has to leave the actor room to work. But prose does not work that way. If you want a reader to know how a character is reacting to something they hear, you have basically three ways of doing it:

  • Tell the reader directly. There is a long and honorable tradition of this in literature ancient and modern. It is the author's privilege to know these things and to report them directly if this is the best way to move the story forward.

  • Express their feelings through their dialogue. Dialogue is not speech. Much is said in dialogue that is expressed in other ways in natural speech. Fictional dialog carries the burden that is carried by speech and action together in life or on the screen.

  • Set things up so that the reader will automatically know how the character is going to react as soon as they hear the words spoken to them. As in life, an engaged reader anticipates how someone will react to things and gets there at the same time they do, if not before. Much of the effect of fiction is achieved through the right setup.

Detailed descriptions of facial expressions are not going to work for most readers. They have to spend too much effort to reconstruct the emotion being hinted at by the expression. Prose and screen are fundamentally different media and they achieve their effects in fundamentally different ways.

  • 2
    Thank you for the advice. I certainly didn't want to describe each lift of the eyebrow and subtle movement of nostril, but I was hoping there was a concise way of describing the basic facial response to a given emotion. We do commonly describe larger motion groups, such as "the child stomped his feet and slammed the door" instead of "the child angrilly went to his room". That's why I'm surprised this isn't done, but I suppose faces are just more complicated.
    – IchabodE
    Feb 16, 2017 at 23:56

Yes, there are many resources that name facial expressions. A quick Google search will help you. Here is some recent research.

But most readers will not know what you mean when you write that your character made, for example, an "awed" face. Do you? I don't. Because they will not be familiar with that naming system.

We do not use names for facial expressions in everyday life, therefore you should avoid them in your writing.

The better option is to do exactly what you have done in your question: describe the most distinctive features of the facial expression and name the emotion that it expresses. This is perfectly fine:

Lucy looked at me with that pouty, pulled down corner-of-the-mouth expression that a person will get when they are expressing that they are surprised, but impressed. An expression that said, ‘Not bad.’

  • Thank you for your response. I should have mentioned, but I did the google search before posting the question, and none of the links were what I'm describing. I do know what an 'awed' face is, but that is still just describing the emotion, not the expression. It's like saying a 'sad' face, instead of saying a frown. That said, if there isn't some agreed upon way of describing these expressions, I'll just follow my gut. Thanks again.
    – IchabodE
    Feb 16, 2017 at 23:51
  • 1
    @IchabodE People perceive emotions. That is, they see the facial expressions caused by emotions and understand these expressions to signify those emotions. That is the reason why there are no names for facial expressions themselves, but only for the facial expressions of emotions. Renowned and controversial psychologist Paul Ekman developed a taxonomic system for facial expressions, the Facial Action Coding System, but no other expert in the field of emotion has been able to verify this system. [contd.]
    – user5645
    Feb 17, 2017 at 8:52
  • 1
    [contd.] The consensus among psychologists today is that there are certain universally recognized basic emotions. Other, more complex emotions, must be recognized with the help of context cues and cannot be inferred from facial expressions alone, because every person makes a different face when they feel awed! Therefore a detailed description of such a facial expression would be meaningless.
    – user5645
    Feb 17, 2017 at 8:53

Okay, I have no talent at writing, so take the following advice while sucking on a large grain of salt...

Read more fanfiction. Especially terrible ones. Now, analyze why it is bad. I know, it will hurt, but it will do you good in the end. Did you just read five pages describing eyebrows cocking (always one eyebrow), eyes widening and such? Keep reading till the blood pours out of your eyes...

Good. Your rehab from excess facial expressions is now hopefully done. No-one gives a flying f-- about those anyway.

Make them breathe, snort, chuckle, sigh, flush, slump, sit bolt upright, fidget with their earrings, bolt out the door to fetch the [plot device] they're super excited about showing... In other words, make them do stuff. Use voice tones.

Character slaps fist in open palm and grins. "Damn right!"

Think stage play, how do glances move around, people standing up, skirting around/behind someone sitting on a chair, what happens in people's back, what they hear, what they don't see, etc.

Have other characters tell the reader, or have them do stuff that people would do when the character experiences the emotion you want.

Or you can go all out:

She poured the contents of her handbag over the coffee table, not even minding the lipsticks and tampons rolling away and falling onto her sidekicks' feet. It had to be there still! She sifted feverishly through faded receipts and [other crap that tells us about her character] and finally let out a victorious squeak as she picked up the plot device with trembling hands. It had been there all along! Yes, they were back on track.

Variant: It had been there all along. They had walked and suffered all the way to Mordor and back with the quest item already in her bag.

"Hey, isn't that thingie Bill picked up back in the Shire?"

She knew it. As usual. "Bill, it's your fault again!"

In other words, make them do stuff, and bow to the power of the verb...


I've long since written the story I was asking this question for, so I'm not going to change what I've marked as the answer, but I had an editor recommend a book. It was completely unrelated to this question, but it was exactly what I was looking for.

Here's the link on Amazon. The book is called The Emotion Thesaurus.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.