Writing emotion

His Adam’s apple bobbed.

She wrapped her arms around her middle.

He cocked his eyebrow.

Her eyes narrowed.

He towered over her.

She stepped back.

All these gestures help us understand what a character is feeling. They’re clues that human animals learn to interpret as we grow and develop, but they can be different in different cultures. Take this one: “She looked him in the eyes.” Is it a sign of believing oneself equal, or a sign of immodesty? A sign of rebellion, or a sign of honesty?

In romance, there are definitely some that are overused, usually enough movements in and around the eyes to make it feel like you’re reading about an optometry exam. And it can be difficult to find new ways of expressing the somewhat-limited range of emotions a person can experience.

So here’s a fun tool: The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues from Adam’s-Apple-Jump to Zygomatic Smile by the Center for Nonverbal Studies. (Side note: how great would it be to have a hero or heroine work for the Center for Nonverbal Studies? Just imagine what a pain in the ass they’d be as they tried to interpret their partner’s every move.)

The dictionary has loads of fun facts – like that Dan Quayle’s Adam’s apple jumped during the VP debates when Lloyd Bentsen said to him, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy!”

Just goes to show – you can be polished and prepared but your body can still give you away.

What are your favorite entries in the dictionary? Or are there any gestures that really bug you in novels?

By Kat

Kat Latham writes sexy contemporary romance, including the London Legends rugby series. With degrees in English lit and human rights, she loves stories that reflect the depth, humor and emotion of real life. She's a California girl living in the Netherlands with her baby girl and British husband.


  1. Great post, Katrina! This is invaluable info. Just wished I had an anatomy background to fully understand it. But I still learned a lot. Thanks for posting.

    1. It’s a really cool resource, isn’t it Kaki? And since romance has so much to do with anatomy, the dictionary’s a great way of learning more about the signals we (and our characters) give off.

      Now, I’m off to interpret my husband.

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