How to Write a Smile


I am a developing writer with a long learning curve ahead. I don’t anticipate ever giving other newbie writers like me lectures on how to improve their craft. That would be a severe case of “blind leading the blind.” I take classes, listen to webinars, and read my share of self-help books on all things writerly.

But I do know a bunch of scientific stuff – microbiology, blood chemistry, histology, etc. etc. etc. So, I like to read any scientific facts behind the writing skills I hope to develop.

Today’s question is: How to write a smile? How to describe to your reader just what your protagonist’s smile really means. There’s more to it than the “say cheese”, “put on a happy face”, “smile, darn ya, smile” routine. We go through our days smiling because it’s the thing to do to show we are social beings. And the act of smiling can make us feel better. But why?

Here are the down and dirty facts about smiles:

  • Smiles are like Morse code. Their dots and dashes send a distinct, nuanced message from smiler to receiver. We humans take what we see and convert it into physiological responses: cortisol levels (a stress level marker) in our saliva and the rate our heart beats.
  • Turns out there are only three categories of smiles:
  1. Reward: as in “Do that again – I like it.”

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  2. Affiliation as in “I really want to get along with you.”

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  3. Dominance as in “I’m cool! I’m number one around these parts.”

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  • What do you see with each of these smiles?
  1. A reward smile shows upturned lips exposing a row of sparkling teeth and eyes with crinkles.
  2. An affiliation smile shows raised eyebrows, pursed lips, and obvious whites of the eyes.
  3. The dominance smile shows a lopsided grin, with both eyes smashed shut or winking, and closed, resigned, smirk-lips.
  • Here’s a surprise: People who have variable heart beat rates are gifted with what researchers call “mind reading.” Hmmm – they excel at interpreting the smiler’s mental states in their facial expressions. They are more easily stressed out with dominance smiles but more comforted by affiliative smiles.
  • If our facial expressions display our emotions, as a writer, one needs to use that body language to liven up your scenes. Describe your protagonist in concrete terms that will freeze that person’s face before your reader’s minds eye. Then let the poker games begin.

8 thoughts on “How to Write a Smile

  1. What a fun post and the examples are right on! Well done, Judith! Yes, I’m smiling…the kind of smile that says you nailed, it, girl! Tipped head, ivory showing. Oh, and a nod or two.

  2. Wow, little did I know. I can just see Carmen Peone by her description. I have a really hard time smiling- my mouth and cheeks don’t cooperate. People think I’m sour, and I’m really a happy person. I envy these models’ bright smiles. Thank you for the enlightenment.

  3. This is great insight, Judith! Thanks to you, I can now write the right kind of smile for my characters. I’m smiling and my pearly whites are showing 🙂

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