Writing Emotion: Does Your Hero Shrug, Smile & Frown Too Much?

Crutch gestures can sometimes get in the way of good writing.  They come in all shapes and sizes–maybe an eye roll, a clenched stomach, curled fists or shrugs–cues we writers tend to overuse while trying to convey what our character is feeling.


Always describing the eyes

Coming up with fresh emotional description is tough. Some writers rely heavily on the face to show feelings: smiles, eyes that narrow and widen, lips that pinch into a thin line. Others delve inside their hero to their heart rate, showing how it speeds up, slows down, skips, etc. And let’s not forget about breathing–hitched breaths, quick breaths, gasps and gulps.

Are these types of descriptors all bad? Certainly not. The fact is, each of these is a real way people express their emotion. It’s only when we rely on a clichéd rendition of showing these cues or we turn to them again and again throughout the story that they hurt our writing.


Way too many smiles

Writing fresh, compelling description to convey character emotion is one of the hardest jobs we face. It’s why Becca and I wrote The Emotion Thesaurus–we wanted a way to help writers get past that mind block that causes them to recycle the same tired gestures and instead strive to create something that fit their character’s emotional range perfectly.

To pull readers into the story, we have to provide an experience that grabs them in the gut and doesn’t let go. Writing emotion in a raw, real way triggers this, and an empathy bond forms, tying readers to our characters. Achieving this level of depth means showing, not telling, emotion and using everything in our arsenal including body language and actions, dialogue, thoughts and visceral sensations.

If you struggle with emotion, you aren’t alone.

TIP: Writing rich emotional scenes comes with practice. If you get stuck on how to express a feeling, don’t be afraid to put yourself into the writing. Think about when you experienced something similar to the character, and how it felt. How did your body react? What thoughts went through your mind? What decisions did you make? Choose a few details from real life that fits your character’s personality and put them on the page!

And, if you need some brainstorming help, check out The Emotion Thesaurus to see if it might be a good tool for you.

photo credit 1: Bergadder @ Pixabay
photo credit 2: Evil Erin via photopin cc


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Wound, Cliches, Description, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Uncategorized, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to Writing Emotion: Does Your Hero Shrug, Smile & Frown Too Much?

  1. Oh my…. the frowning, the head-nodding, the shrugging, the eye-narrowing… I have this so bad I’ve even given it a name – ‘Thunderbird Puppet Syndrome.’ However, I am at least aware of it, so hopefully that will enable me to flush the heck out of it in subsequent rewrites of my current w-i-p… before I do anything dumb like try to publish it in that state!

    I’d looked at both of your Emotion Thesaurus books and toyed with the idea of getting them, but I wasn’t entirely sure what their function was from the title (were you listing new emotions I’d never heard of before?) Now I know, I can see they’re a must-read for someone like me… get ready, Kindle, they’re comin’ at ya…

  2. Yep. Need to pay attention to this. I found I hate reading other writers who over use one or two expressions, or have all their characters do the same thing. I try to watch it in my writing but know I can always use help and new ideas, or new ways to find new ideas and descriptions… Great post. Thank you.

  3. Jacob Donley says:

    I find myself struggling to convey emotion, and all too often, I rely on the dismissive shrug or toothy smile repeatedly. I really enjoyed your insight, and I’ll be keeping your advice on my writing shelf. Thanks!

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  6. Susana Ellis says:

    I’m featuring your books on my post for the Blush and Tell blog on Wednesday. I’ve been using the Emotion Thesaurus for a year now, and am just getting into the other two. Thanks so much, Angela & Becca!

    • Thank you so much Susan! Very kind of you. And one of these days, email me or blog about how it’s going after a year with the book! I hope that it’s moving with you project to project!

  7. Penelope J says:

    I’m a nitpicker by nature but usually I pass on crutch gestures. He/she frowned/ smiled/laughed or even shrugged don’t bother me as long as they are not overdone. However, when characters raise their eyebrows or shrug too many times I get annoyed. Another that has become generic is a smile of his/her face. Where else would a smile be? This goes for any facial gesture.

    • I don’t notice crutch gestures as long as (like you’ve stated) they aren’t overdone. They become noticeable when writers overuse or only use them. A beautiful piece of emotional description that has a smile or frown included can be a wonderful thing to read.

      These gestures are really only crutches because we overuse them or write them without imagination. 😉

  8. I’m teaching a class on this at a conference next month! Like Jacquie above, Margie Lawson’s lessons helped me to tune into this, too. Now I use a Word Macro to cut and paste every sentence with a given term into a new document so I can read them all through. (I have the macro do this with all of the gesture crutches mentioned here and dozens more, using Find All Word Forms.) Going through the document is like scraping my eyeballs out of my head with a dull spoon, but it makes the book better 😉 .

  9. Susan Buchanan says:

    Great post and oh yes, as an editor, these crutches drive me nuts! As a writer I have my own – many of my characters are happy, so there is far too much smiling going on. Your book sounds very interesting and one I will suggest to my clients. Well done!

  10. Jesi Lea Ryan says:

    My YA series is about a psychic empath. As you may guess, all I do is write about emotion. Your Emotion Thesaurus has helped me so much, that I credited you in the acknowledgements. 🙂

  11. Tina Moss says:

    Angela, will the transcript of the event be available for purchase online if we cannot attend? Thank you for this series. Crutch gestures have been a particular problem in the latest WIP.

  12. I run across so many “raising of the eyebrow” and “smirking” which are two of my biggest pet peeves. I don’t mind the jaw clench, but only when it’s followed by dialogue that indicates the conflicting emotion. Example would be after the clench, something like, “Did he kiss you?” To me, that would show the reader in a more concrete way that the clenching of the jaw had a direct correlation to him wanting to know the answer to this question.

    Great post! Makes me want to flesh out my characters a bit more.

    • Smirking is one that drives me bonkers, too. Especially when the writer uses it more than once. I think you can get away with a single smirk in the entire novel, and IMO, it needs to be set up first what that’s character’s personality is like, so the smirk feels organic. But people who use it to characterize a jerk character? ACK.

  13. sjp says:

    Raw emotions are the best! How they grab your heart and throw it around!

  14. Wendy Clarke says:

    I’ve used all you examples (often)… Oh dear!

    • Wendy, we all have! LOL, trust me, you do not want to see some of my early novels, or even my first drafts now. I will use crutch gestures as placeholders in the first round, just so i stay in the flow of writing. Later i’ll be able to go back and think about how I really want to show that emotion, but first drafts, gestures work fine.

      the trick is being alert for what you overuse, and then challenging yourself to go back and rewrite those emotions. Let’s say you use find and replace and discover you have 40 smiles in your manuscript. Challenge yourself to cut 20 to start. This will help you review each scene and decide where smiles are really needed, and where something else can be done. Soon this type of practice will have you doing this automatically as you revise. 🙂

  15. Anna Labno says:

    I have been told I make readers feel. I don’t ever think of these fillers you have mentioned. I feel when I write, so I can’t write in any different way. MOOD creates everything. That means thoughs, very powerful.
    The best way to write feelings is to keep a journal. You can’t beat it. All emotions you experience should be jotted down. You’ll never be the same writer again.

    • Mood is very powerful. there are so many ways to bring emotion into the scene. Subtext, symbolism, the setting, weather…just a ton outside the body language/thoughts/actions/visceral sensations/dialogue grouping. 🙂 Glad you are finding great success through the techniques you use!

  16. Rosi says:

    Oh, yes. I have discovered my MC sighs with relief and his eyes fill with tears far too often. I’m working on it. At least I’ve learned to recognize it. That’s the first step to writing rehabilitation, right?

    • Once we become aware of our crutch gestures, it gets so much easier! Two biggies for me are frowning and shrugging. Now I permit myself one or two frowns a novel. At first it was SO HARD, but now it’s pretty easy. I see ‘frown” and I immediately question whether I can do something better! 🙂 Good luck!

  17. :Donna Marie says:

    Angela, I’m so glad I found you and your blog 😀 😀 😀

  18. Definitely something I need to research my manuscripts for!! I know it’s so easy to slip into these and it’s nice to get the reminder.

    • The more we remind ourselves to be on the watch for lazy writing, the less we do it! Half the battle is knowing we do it, and discovering what our weaker crutches tend to be. Then find and replace lets us target these and write something so much stronger. 🙂

  19. I’m just taking a Margie Lawson course right now on this very subject, perfect timing. She had us go through and do a find of facial gestures, smile(ing, ed),grin, frown, smirk, scowl, brow, grimace, eyebrows and lips.
    I was shocked by how many smiles I had, 84, lol
    Guess I like my characters to be happy 🙂

  20. Yolanda says:

    I’ve learned so much from Writers Helping Writers. Thanks for the time, effort, and information you ladies put into this blog. I would like to take the webinar, are there any course materials included with the webinar?

    • Hi, Yolanda! Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you’re getting some use out of our ramblings ;). As for the webinar, there aren’t any materials or requirements. It’s a presentation style format with a Q&A at the end. On your end, you just need to show up with some way to take notes, and you’ll be golden. If you have trouble registering, message me at becca.puglisi@yahoo.com and I’ll walk you through it.

  21. Beth says:

    This is one of my biggest writing crutches. It was actually painful to read your post! Thanks for the timely reminder.

  22. CC Riley says:

    I love all of your advice on not using crutches. Nothing will slow down a story more for me than obsessing over the fact that the writer has used the word gargantuan four times in three chapters. Thank you!

  23. What does one do when s/he is so close to their story that they can’t, or just don’t have experience with, seeing these crutches? What would you recommend?

    • Well, I know that I never noticed my characters smiling too much until I noticed Angela’s characters repeatedly doing something (can’t remember what it was). Noticing it in her writing made me realize that my characters were being repetitive, too. This is why critique partners, and critiquing other people’s work, is so important. It makes you see things that you didn’t before, and kind of opens your eyes to problems in your own writing. A good place to start is maybe with the Crutch Words list on our Tools page. Do a search in your doc for some of those commonly overused cue words (smile, hand, face, etc.). If you see that you’ve got a bunch of smiles every chapter, you know you need to rework some of those.

  24. Cindy Huff says:

    Helpful post. I do have one question. How is this different from a character mannerism. For example a clinched jaw or fisted hands to indicate suppressed anger. And is that cliche’ to repart those mannerism in various scenes?

    • A mannerism is a person’s particular way of talking or moving. So by that definition, the clenched fist or jaw can be considered a mannerism——something that your character does under certain circumstances. Unfortunately, those things are also done by tons of other people under the same exact circumstances. Because of this, they don’t really tell the reader anything about your character’s personality. It’s my belief that you want your mannerisms to be meaningful, to reveal something about the character. You also want them to be unique, to show individuality. This is why I’m not a fan of the clenched fist or jaw—-because they’re done by so many characters during times of frustration or anger. Instead, why not have a character who does something unexpected when she’s approaching anger? Maybe her voice gets really soft and quiet. Or maybe she backs away, seeming to capitulate but is really seething on the inside, internalizing the anger. There are so many ways a character could respond based on her personality. Dig deep and figure this out, and you’ll have a unique character with interesting responses who makes sense to readers. I hope this helps 🙂

  25. jeffo says:

    Yeah, I feel like on my first drafts at least there’s way too much of that smile/frown/shrug thing going on. Sometimes it’s hard to know when it’s too much.

    • First drafts are fine for crutches–I use them there too. I find that if I have to slow down and think up the exact fresh way to express an emotion, it pulls me out of the writing flow. So I will use these as placeholders and fix them in later drafts. 🙂

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