Physical Attributes: Shoulders

photo credit: flyzipper via photopin cc
Physical description of a character can be difficult to convey—too much will slow the pace or feel 'list-like', while too little will not allow readers to form a clear mental image. If a reader cannot imagine what your character looks like, they may have trouble connecting with them on a personal level, or caring about their plight. 

One way to balance the showing and telling of physical description is to showcase a few details that really help 'tell the story' about who your character is and what they've been through up to this point. Think about what makes them different and interesting. Can a unique feature, clothing choice or way they carry themselves help to hint at their personality? Also, consider how they move their body. Using movement will naturally show a character's physical characteristics, keep the pace flowing and help to convey their emotions.


Descriptors: muscled, broad, narrow, thin, willowy, thick, freckled, tanned, sunburned, veined, bulky, rounded, tattooed, strong, roped with muscle, bony, sloped, iron, pale, pimpled, solid, lean, big boned, raw boned, brawny, muscular, solid, rippled, stocky, well built, ripped, coltish; soft, smooth, compact, slight, wispy, burly, wide set, swimmer's build, chiseled, firm, limber, taut, bulky, shapely, stooped, graceful, bowed, straight, hairy, dimpled, peeling

Things Shoulders Do
  • lift: raise, curl, hoist, heave, boost
  • tense: tighten, harden, strain, bulge, ripple, twinge
  • push: nudge, jam, shove, knock, thrust, prod, poke, jostle
  • drop: sag, lower, cave, plummet, bow

Key Emotions and Related Shoulder Gestures: 
  • Disappointment or Resignation: shoulders tend to drop or cave in a moment of defeat, or pull forward and as body posture loosens, curl over one's chest
  • Indifference or Confusion:  When a person conveys they don't care or they don't know the answer to something, a common response is a one or two shoulder shrug, often paired with broken eye contact.
  • Wariness or Anger: In moments of high stress, the shoulder stiffen and muscles grow taut. This is the physical manifestation of fight or flight, as the body prepares to battle or run.
Simile and Metaphor Help:                           
  • The ropey, firm rises of his shoulders provided a map for my fingers to explore.
  • Anna ducked out of the change room in her borrowed swimsuit, her chalky, sun screened shoulders as pale as twin moons.
Clichés to Avoid:

Shrugging one's shoulders is often overused when a character is being non responsive during a dialogue exchange. It's not a gesture to avoid, but one to take care in not overusing.

HINT: When describing any part of the body, try to use cues that show the reader more than just a physical description. Make your descriptions do double duty. Example: 

Andrew's tight t shirt pulled off like a second skin, revealing broad, sun-browned shoulders that my fingers ached to touch. The hard life of a ranch hand certainly agreed with this cowboy.

BONUS TIP: The Colors, Textures & Shapes Thesaurus in our sidebar might help you find a fresh take on some of the descriptors listed above! 


Traci Kenworth said...

I like how you take the time to go beyond the cliche and help us (the writer)dig deeper as well.

Becca Puglisi said...

Another great entry, Ange. I tend to notice shoulders, so I appreciate this one :)

Tracy Campbell said...

Hi Angela,
It always amazes me how you come up with so many great descriptions. :-)

Theresa Milstein said...

I remember in the book Holes, Stanley Yelnats often responded by shrugging one shoulder. It was unique, and that probably contributed to his nickname, "Caveman."

Martha Ramirez said...

What a great post. You guys always come up with good ones. Thanks Ange and Becca!

Misha Gericke said...

Excellent post as always. I usually have to go back and replace shrugs with other actions. :-D

Heather said...

This makes me want to describe shoulders better. And I happen to be working on a scene where I can do just that. Thank you!

Lisa Gail Green said...

I love the idea of describing unusual characteristics like shoulders instead of the usual. Can't help this though. "rippled shoulders" *snort* te he he. I'm so mature!!

Carrie Butler said...

Oo, I love this one! :)

Misha Gericke said...

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Kelly Polark said...

Another great post!
Shoulders above the rest! (okay, I couldn't resist... ;)

Karen Lange said...

Good post, thank you! You guys are so good at this, you should write a book! :)

M Pax said...

My editor recently pointed out that you don't need to say shoulders shrug. That the body part need only be named if it's not shoulders.

Great tips on using shoulders.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

Love the list of synonyms. Aren't we lucky to have so many words that we can choose just the right one we need to create the image we want.

Thanks, Angela

Leslie S. Rose said...

Never thought of shoulders as an entity like this. I must go do a search for "shrugs."


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