When I think of a scene, I often think of little hints or gestures, to express certain things or thought processes. For example a character breaking eye contact, but quickly looking back to not show subordinance.

I'm having a hard time putting these into words. Simply describing the actions, I feel like doesn't get across, what I want it to show and sometimes the interplay of gestures and facial features are (seemingly) too complex to describe fully, without it being too long.

Maybe I don't read enough, but I have not found a solution to convey complex emotions or reactions without a character or the narrator spelling them out.

  • As far as I know the closest you can come is something like "his face spoke volumes, saying..." which I think is the problem you like to get around if I'm reading you correctly, so I don't think that helps much, correct me if I'm wrong and I'll write up a proper answer for you.
    – Ash
    Jun 24, 2018 at 19:16

4 Answers 4


Watch much less TV and read far more books. TV/Movie storytelling is different from book storytelling. If you are thinking in terms of facial expressions, your storytelling apparatus is running in video mode, not prose mode.

Both prose and video are limited media. Prose has limited access to visual information; video has limited access to mental states. In both cases you have to tell your story using the things that your chosen media is good at and avoiding those things that it is bad at. Once you get it properly tuned in, you will do this naturally.

The problem for anyone writing prose today is that most of us actually spend more time watching TV and movies than we do reading. TV now provides most of our cultural touchstones. Chances are that conversations around the water cooler will be about the latest TV sensation, not about the book you just read. With few exceptions, we look to TV for shared interests and to books for individual interests. And that keeps us glued to TV even when we are interested in writing books.

Descriptions of facial expressions are rare in books (and only effective when exceptional). Book dialogue is not remotely like real speech. It moves far more of the context and emotion of the interaction into words than would ever be the case in real life. (Movies may do the opposite, putting less into words and more into actions, to give the actor more to do.) To be successful in writing prose dialogue, you have to figure out how to move the emotion into the words.

There are all kinds of ways to do this, many of which come down to shading and tone that really have to be learned by ear. But there is one general principle I think is sound, which is that all dialogue is conflict. Even between lovers, each person wants something from the other, and is negotiating to get that thing. They may not fully understand what they want, and the will usually not articulate it directly, but what they say is designed to subtly (or not so subtly) move the other person in that direction by appealing to sympathy, greed, the protective instinct, etc.

There is a core of wheedling, of desire, of hope, of expectation, of recrimination, of forlornness and despair in every dialogue. You have to ask yourself in every line you write, what does this person want from the other in this moment, why are they afraid to ask for it outright, and what, given who they are and what they fear, are they willing to say to try to get what they want. And, of course, every response they get is driven by all the same things. Conversation is chess, it is fencing, it is, sometimes, all-in wrestling. Find the conflict within and the conflict between and let it flow into words and you will have your dialogue.

That is only going to come naturally from tuning your storytelling apparatus to prose mode by attentive emersion in prose storytelling. Turn off the TV. Pick up a classic novel. (You need to read people who will do this better than you ever will.)

  • Movies do put into actions and face expressions more than would be realistic: actors are trained to be very expressive and dramatic with their face and their gestures, and they get all the necessary close-ups and mood-music. Jun 25, 2018 at 11:46
  • That's a good explanation, I feel like your advice at the end is what I am actually asking though. Do you have any advice on how I can actually move the emotions into words, other than me reading more?
    – Minix
    Jun 25, 2018 at 13:04
  • @Minix, edited accordingly.
    – user16226
    Jun 25, 2018 at 13:41
  • agree and don't agree... while is true that writing has the power to be introspective, it much depends on the type of narrator you are using. An omniscient narrator would be able to pick those traits, but an expectator of the story (1st, 2nd, and 3rd person narrators) will talk of what they see, what they think and what they feel. Also there are a lot of stories that focus more on the narrative and movement than in dialogs, where there are stories that are completely made out of dialogs too.
    – Mike
    Jul 10, 2018 at 15:39
  • 1
    @Minix There isn't a way around reading more. Reading is what gives you a library of techniques and ideas. Your question is about one of the key aspects of good writing - and what you are looking for in your question is, essentially, a technique for writing well. This isn't something that has a specific technique, and can be solved only by closer observation of people, by practice, and by reading. If I can recommend a good way to tackle this, it would be to take a writing class. It will provide you both guidance and feedback in all three.
    – Misha R
    Jul 11, 2018 at 21:26

One mistake early writers make, is writing to directly influence the reader. The minute I say this, the retort is Isn't that the whole point?

Yes, but influencing the reader is not the kind of thing you should do directly; you do that indirectly through your characters. So the point in this instance is, your character's interpretation of the facial expression, and how that makes them feel or think, is all that is important.

Your reader feels through your character. You do not need or want the narrator to describe the physicality of the facial expression to the point that the reader can understand that without any further help; that is boring and their understanding would be clinical, not visceral. There is no punch to understanding after analysis. Aha, wrinkled nose, curled lip, open mouth and gag reflex, lowered head and brow: Therefore Mary is disgusted.

All that description is trying to make the reader see or mimic the expression for themselves. But even scripts do not do that or control actor expressions. They just say things like "Mary shows extreme disgust, almost vomits but doesn't. The actor (and sometimes director), in the context of the story, interprets that instruction for the camera.

Instead in prose, you mix small details that are clues to expression with metaphor and simile and reactions and let the reader imagine the expressions. Our expressions are a reflection of our feelings; when we see them in film they cue those feelings. But vice versa holds: If the reader understands the feelings, they will see the expressions that for them, reflects that feeling. Focus on the reactions you can most easily describe from both the feeling and its expression. In broad terms we understand wince, frown, amusement, fear, etc.

An example, hopefully you have an impression of their expressions:

Ralph sniffs deeply and winces, he tells Mary, "Brace yourself."
He struggles with the tight lid and throws it back on its hinges, sucking a wave of odor from the bin. Rotting flesh. Mary thought she was ready, but the thick odor hits her hard, staggering her. She turns away gagging, straining to not vomit. Ralph flinches but instantly steels his expression, leaning to peer into the bin with narrowed eyes; breathing in tiny measured breaths through his mouth alone.
Mary returns to his side. He glances at her. she is pale. Contrite.
"No shame, buddy," Ralph said. "Don't hurl on the evidence."
She shook her head. "I'm good." She looked into the bin; her stomach lurched again but with willpower, she suppressed, forcing herself to be analytic. She surveyed the woman. No cuts, no bullet holes, no obviously broken bones. Fully clothed, forty, an outfit Mary thought would cost a week's pay, hair to match it. Two rings but unmarried, necklace, earrings. No other objects or weapons. No shoes. What does that mean?
Ralph said, "Tell me what you see."


I have this same issue Minix, I find myself defaulting to overused descriptions because what I want to get across seems far too complex.

One thing that helped me was to watch LIE TO ME. It's a TV series about a specialist who aids the police by reading micro-expressions, tiny facial tics that betray what we're thinking, combined with speech patterns and actions. The show is based on clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman, an expert lie detector for the Secret Service and DOD.

The character has to analyse NVC in very quick time, forcing him to describe actions succinctly, and it helped me find (less cliched) ways of doing the same.

As an example, a somewhat cliched way of showing a character is lying is to break eye contact, perhaps blush or sweat. But a practiced liar sometimes does the opposite, maintaining eye contact and being very forceful in their claims. They spell things out in full but use distancing language to detach themselves from guilt. I found things like this very interesting when describing character actions. And while I agree with Mark Baker that you should read as much as possible, I sometimes find it helps to see things at work.

I try to focus on just one tic and use that rather than overload the reader. Leave them to infer the rest.

Good luck!

Note: Edited for clarification.


There are plenty of ways to do it, and that's called "style", the way the writer transmits the ideas, feelings and actions is "their style" , you can be subtle, you can be obvious, you can make things fall into ambiguity. you can do all of them when you want.

Do you want the reader to interpret it? just describe the motion without interpretation

you want the reader to understand the character? you can just omit the description and go directly to the interpretation

you want to make it really important? add small details, stop focusing on the main part, and focus on the other things like :

was she doing something with her hands?
did he rolled his ring around his finger?
did he touched his chest or check while he said it?

but remember there has to be a reason for everything you are adding, and that has to bring something to the story. because the reader is going to wonder "why is that important?" until you unveil the mystery behind those small details.

i would say "Write more" but only something that's relevant.

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