This is something I've pondered before. I asked about one gesture on yahoo answers long ago. All I got was a guy saying that even he didn't know the term for it (it was the gesture where someone holds something in front of them towards someone else to indicate that they want the person to take it).

But the one I'm thinking about now is describing a posture people assume when they're nervous (the kind of nervous where say someone is in a place that scares them for whatever reason). They cross their arms and place their hands on their upper arms. I think they also put their legs together (at least, girls do). I can't really think of an efficient way to express this.

Its kind of annoying we don't have simple words for these gestures like we do for some facial expressions. We have words for to smile, to frown, to scowl, etc... but we don't have a word for showing an anxious expression.

Has anyone made a list of efficient ways to describe gestures and facial expressions? It would be quite handy.

  • 3
    One thing I've tried with occasional luck is to look for google images of the emotion/expression I'm dealing with (I looked up 'grim' this morning) and from those images identify something not previously in mind. 'Grim' faces have lines around both the mouth and eyes. I was able to work with that. Try googling (in images) your emotion/expression - you might see a few tips.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 19, 2018 at 19:31
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    Just for fun: Watching the TV series Lie To Me is fun for a writer. It's about the things we betray while we're talking. Tim Roth plays an expert who's studied body language and microexpressions that tell him a person is thinking one thing while saying something else.
    – GGx
    Feb 20, 2018 at 6:56
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    Lie to me changed my way of writing. I'm taking care of the expressions and reactions carefully. You can drop hints like that and almost no one gets it
    – Pawana
    Feb 20, 2018 at 8:27
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    As a side note, I'd describe that first gesture as "proffering something."
    – IchabodE
    Feb 1, 2019 at 22:07

3 Answers 3


One of the things you discover pretty quickly as a writer is that there are all kinds of things that we do not have words for. Worse, even if there were words of them, most people would not recognize what they meant. (How many people know what it means to say that someone stands with arms akimbo?)

The truth is that most readers have pretty limited use vocabularies -- words they recognized easily -- and that if you use words they don't recognize you will lose them pretty quickly.

This is why good writers handle these situations by telling micro-stories that appeal to the readers memory. So you might say something like:

Tom stood like a man awaiting the sentence of a grim-faced judge.

All description works through an appeal to memory. After all, all we have is words. We can't actually show anything. All we can do is use words or stories that evoke images from the reader's memory. And with so few words available for general use, stories have to carry most of the burden of evoking memory. Fortunately, this is something that stories are very good at.

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    +1 another great answer. Uninflected descriptions are a wasted opportunity. :) Feb 19, 2018 at 20:41

Most of the time you don't want to find the one word that describes this - because if it's so hard for you to come up with this one word, chances are it's hard for your audience to understand the word.

Of course there are many times more words in our passive vocabulary than in our active vocabulary, at least for most people, and your readers might still recognize the word. But you should be careful about trying to always find the one word. Often it's better to use descriptions of the gestures that show exactly what your character is doing. Even if there was a word for the position you mean, and there probably is a word for it, you want to make sure that your audience knows what is currently happening in your story.

There are some authors who created lists that might help you a bit. For example look at MASTER LIST of Gestures and Body Language! from Bry Donovan, who also made similar lists like MASTER LIST of Facial Expressions for Writers! on her blog. Here are some examples from the linked blog post:

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

These are five different descriptions for similar movements and you want to make sure that your reader knows exactly whether your character crosses his arms in fear of what might await him after the next corner or is currently wrapping his arms around himself to warm himself.

What you can find are medical terms for a lot of, mostly bad, postures if that is what you are interested in. Wikipedia is a good example to find out that an excessive curvature of the spine is called Kyphosis. But that depends on your audience and your style. Many people would not know what you mean when you said that he displayed Kyphosis. But describing how his back was hunched from the work of past decades is quite easy to understand.


To add to the already excellent answer, you do not need to describe body language every time, you can clearly state the subtext directly as the narrator.

He leaned in and lowered his voice, all his body screaming hatred towards her.

All of our body language is unconscious, you don’t realise you’re doing it or reading it so even if you describe it perfectly, people may not get it anyway.

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