Friday, February 8

Describing Character Reactions And Emotions: She Smiled, He Frowned

Describing Character Reactions And Emotions: She Smiled, He Frowned

If you're anything like me, you've had the experience of trying to find another way of writing "she smiled" or "he frowned". It can be maddening!

Which is why I was thrilled to discover Janice Hardy wrote a blog post about alternate ways of describing character reactions/emotions. (By the way, if you haven't read Janice's blog, The Other Side Of The Story, I highly recommend it.)

Janice Hardy's article is well worth the read, but here are a few of her tips:

Other Ways Of Expressing A Character's Emotions/Reactions

1. If this is a first draft just write "She smiled"

If you're writing a first draft just write "she smiled" or "he frowned" and move on. You can tidy things up on the second draft. Chances are, a lot is going to change from the first to the second draft, just concentrate on laying the foundation of your story.

2. Express the reaction through synonyms

For instance, instead of writing "She smiled" you could write "She grinned" or "She beamed" or "She laughed". All of those communicate pleasure/happiness.

3. Express the reaction through internalization

Ask yourself: Why is the character smiling? If she realizes a cute guy likes her you might do something like: Sue tried to look at Rob without being obvious. He is kind of cute, she thought.

4. Express the reaction through dialogue

Mary nudged Sue, "Hey! I think the cute guy in the corner was staring at you."

5. Express the reaction  through movement

Janice Hardy suggests, "Her lip twitched," or "her eyes sparkled," rather than "she smiled".

8. Express the emotion through subtext

Here is an example from The Italian Job. John is on the phone with his daughter.

John: I'm sending you something.
Stella: Does it smell nice?
John: No. But it's sparkly.
Stella: Does it come with a receipt?

In other words: Is it stolen?

Janice Hardy has a lot more to say on this topic, and you can read it here: Alternative Ways to Describe Character Reactions

Useful Links: How To Write Emotion

I like to do background reading when I write a blog post and, today, I came upon a few articles I didn't use but they're great so I want to share them with you.

How To Describe Emotions - Gives great pointers.
Emotion Thesaurus: Relief - 15 ways to express relief.
List of Human Emotions - What the title says!
"She smiled," is a tricky one. Characters smile a lot so this phrase is easy to overuse. What alternatives have you come up with?

Other articles you might like:

- Tags, Traits And Tells (Podcast)
- Podcasting
- Good Writing: Using The Senses

Photo credit: "The Hidden Beauty!" by VinothChandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Thanks Janice! And thanks for, as always, writing a terrific article. :-)

  2. Good post. I'm about to start on edits and I know I'll have to trim some smiles - among other things! This post gives some great suggestions.

  3. Good article. Can you do one about its counterpart, She frowned?

    1. I had this problem recently and found it was useful to first understand what the character was frowning about. Sometimes it's confusion, sadness, frustration, worry, perplexity - once you know how they feel, you can try other substitutions, or take it out completely.

      EX: Her face fell; her brow furrowed; she lost her smile; she bit her lip; she couldn't help but worry; she sat up straighter; she clenched her fist, etc.

      Or you can have another character react to the action to change things up a bit.

      EX: "What are you frowning about?"; "You look better when you smile."; "Stop sulking and come help me."; "Pouting won't make me change my mind.", etc


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