How do you move beyond simple statements like “She was nervous” to create a vivid, believable depiction of anxiety?
Here is how to describe nervousness in writing:
Describe nervousness in writing by using vivid language and sensory details. Show physical symptoms like shaking hands or quick breathing. Use dialogue tags such as “stammered,” internal dialogue, and pacing to build tension. Use words like “jittery” or “heart pounding” to deepen emotional impact.
In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how to describe nervousness in writing.
23 Best Tips for Describing Nervousness in Writing
In this section, you’ll find 23 tips and techniques, complete with examples, that will guide you in portraying nervousness with nuance and depth.
Read all the way through and then pick the tips that speak to you the most.
1) Demonstrate, Don’t Describe
One of the cardinal rules of effective writing is to show rather than tell.
Instead of merely stating that a character is nervous, portray their anxiety through actions or implications.
This strategy draws the reader into the experience, making it more relatable and impactful.
Example: Instead of writing “John was nervous about the interview,” you could say, “John’s hands trembled as he straightened his tie one last time before stepping into the interview room.”
2) Use Body Language
Body language can be an incredible tool for conveying a character’s nervousness.
The slight tremble in the hands, fidgeting feet, or erratic movement can speak volumes.
In focusing on body language, you give your reader visual cues to better understand the character’s state of mind.
Example: Rather than simply stating “Emily was nervous before her speech,” describe how “Emily kept shifting from one foot to another, her fingers incessantly twirling a strand of hair.”
3) Incorporate Inner Monologue
A character’s inner thoughts offer an unfiltered glimpse into their emotional state.
For nervousness, consider incorporating internal monologue that captures the essence of the character’s fears or concerns.
This internal conversation can range from panicked thoughts to rationalizing statements.
Example: Instead of writing, “Sarah was nervous about the test,” you could write, “‘You can do this, you’ve prepared,’ Sarah thought, attempting to drown out the rising tide of panic that whispered, ‘But what if you fail?’”
4) Employ Facial Expressions
Facial expressions are highly expressive indicators of emotion.
A clenched jaw, furrowed brows, or widened eyes can all be signs of nervousness.
Including these details enriches the imagery and allows the reader to visualize the emotion vividly.
Example: Instead of saying, “Mark was nervous about the confrontation,” you could describe how “Mark’s eyes darted around the room, avoiding eye contact, his lips pinched in a tight line.”
5) Manipulate Pace and Sentence Structure
The pacing of your sentences can mirror the character’s emotional tempo.
Short, choppy sentences can create a feeling of urgency or disquiet, while long, winding sentences may denote an overwrought mind that’s spiraling out of control.
Example: Instead of “Lisa was anxious,” you might write, “Lisa’s thoughts tumbled over each other, a jumbled mess of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if-onlys,’ her heart pounding as if keeping time with her spiraling anxiety.”
6) Use Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors and similes can also be instrumental in conveying nervousness.
By comparing the emotion or associated bodily sensations to something else, you can evoke a particular feeling or image in the reader’s mind.
Example: You could write, “His nervousness was like a swarm of bees, buzzing uncontrollably in the pit of his stomach,” to imply a sense of chaotic energy and discomfort.
7) Utilize Dialogue and Tone
Dialogue can also be a potent tool for conveying nervousness.
The words a character chooses, their tone, or even the pauses and stutters in their speech can all reveal underlying anxiety.
Through dialogue, you can show a character’s struggle to articulate their thoughts, their tendency to ramble, or their use of filler words—all indicative of nervousness.
Example: Instead of writing, “Tina was nervous about the question,” you could show her hesitation in dialogue: “‘Well, you see, um, it’s a bit complicated, isn’t it?’ Tina’s voice wavered, each word tinged with a nervous lilt that betrayed her composure.”
8) Leverage Environmental Interaction
How a character interacts with their environment can be another window into their emotional state.
Someone who is nervous might fiddle with objects, look away into the distance, or keep glancing at the door.
These interactions serve as nonverbal cues to the reader, adding an extra layer of context to the emotional landscape of the story.
Example: Instead of saying, “Paul was nervous,” you could describe how he interacts with his surroundings: “Paul kept glancing at his watch, then at the door, his fingers drumming an impatient rhythm on the tabletop. Every creak of the floorboards made him start, his eyes darting towards the source of the sound.”
9) Use Sensory Descriptions
Incorporating sensory descriptions can deeply immerse your reader into the character’s emotional state.
Describe how nervousness feels, tastes, sounds, smells, or even looks from the character’s perspective.
Does their mouth go dry? Is there a pit in their stomach?
Sensory details add a tangible quality to emotions, making them feel real to the reader.
Example: Rather than saying, “Raj was anxious,” you could provide sensory details: “A sour taste filled Raj’s mouth, his tongue thick and clumsy as if coated in cotton. His skin tingled with the static of his nerves, every sound magnified to a grating roar.”
10) Incorporate Thought-Action Sequences
When nervous, people often go through a rapid series of thoughts and actions.
Incorporating these thought-action sequences can add a realistic dimension to your depiction of nervousness.
Describe what the character thinks and then immediately show how that thought translates into action or inaction.
Example: Instead of saying, “Lisa felt nervous,” you could write: “‘I can’t mess this up,’ Lisa thought. Almost robotically, she reached for her notes, skimmed through them one last time, and adjusted the microphone. Her hands quivered just enough to remind her of her fragility.”
11) Use Repetitive Actions or Tics
People often exhibit repetitive behaviors or tics when they are nervous.
This could be tapping a foot, scratching an itch that isn’t there, or even humming a tune unconsciously.
These actions can become a character’s signature way of displaying nervousness, aiding in building a more rounded, believable individual.
Example: Instead of saying, “Nina was nervous,” you might write: “Nina kept pulling at the hem of her dress, stretching the fabric until it snapped back into place. It was a nervous tic she had developed as a child and it resurfaced now, a telltale sign of her inner turmoil.”
12) Play with Syntax and Grammar
Unconventional sentence structure can sometimes effectively convey a character’s nervous state.
Fragmented sentences, run-ons, or even abrupt syntactical breaks can make the reader feel the disjointedness or racing thoughts that come with nervousness.
Example: Instead of saying, “Harry was nervous,” you could experiment with sentence structure: “Harry couldn’t sit still. Couldn’t breathe normally. Everything a jumble. Thoughts. Emotions. A cacophony. He was unraveling.”
13) Utilize Flashbacks or Imagery
Sometimes the source of a character’s nervousness is a past event or a vivid imagination projecting worst-case scenarios.
You can employ flashbacks or internal imagery to convey this deeper layer of emotion.
It provides context and depth, making the emotion multidimensional.
Example: Rather than writing, “Martha was nervous,” you could incorporate a flashback: “As Martha waited for her name to be called, a vivid memory flashed before her eyes—the last time she had stood on a similar stage, forgetting all her lines. Her stomach knotted at the thought.”
14) Exaggerate for Effect (Hyperbole)
Sometimes a little exaggeration can drive the point home effectively.
Hyperbole allows you to amplify a character’s emotional state for greater impact.
While you should use this sparingly, an exaggerated description at the right moment can offer an intense snapshot of a character’s feelings.
Example: Instead of simply saying, “Clara was nervous,” you could exaggerate: “Clara felt like her heart was about to burst through her chest and make a run for it, leaving her behind to face the crowd.”
15) Punctuate with Silence
The absence of sound or action can be as powerful as its presence.
Moments of silence, hesitation, or stillness can accentuate a character’s nervousness and build tension.
Readers naturally fill silence with their own anticipation, adding to the emotional depth of a scene.
Example: Instead of saying, “Jim felt nervous,” you could write: “Jim opened his mouth to speak, but words escaped him. An uncomfortable silence filled the room, every tick of the clock amplifying his growing sense of dread.”
16) Use Dialogue Tags and Modifiers
While it’s generally better to show emotion through action and dialogue, sometimes a well-placed tag or modifier can be effective.
Words like “stammered,” “muttered,” or “whispered” can add nuance to speech, indicating a character’s emotional state.
Example: Instead of saying, “Maria was nervous,” consider: “‘I, uh, think we should talk,’ Maria stammered, her voice barely rising above a whisper.”
17) Add Color to Breathing and Voice
Breathing patterns and voice modulation can reveal a lot about someone’s emotional state.
Short, shallow breaths or a tremulous voice can indicate nervousness.
Describe these to allow readers to ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ the character’s nervousness.
Example: Instead of just stating, “Lucas was nervous,” describe his breathing and voice: “Lucas drew a shallow, shaky breath, his words coming out in hesitant fragments: ‘I, um, don’t know how to, uh, say this.'”
18) Describe the Passing of Time
How a character perceives the passing of time can indicate their emotional state.
Time might drag painfully slow or rush by in a disorienting blur when one is nervous.
Use this to build atmosphere and provide insight into the character’s inner world.
Example: Instead of stating, “Kelly felt nervous,” write: “Every second that ticked by felt like an eternity to Kelly, each moment stretching out as she waited for her name to be announced.”
19) Break It with Humor
Sometimes, breaking the tension with a moment of humor can accentuate the nervousness that preceded it.
This can make characters more relatable and endearing to the reader, showcasing their coping mechanisms.
Example: Rather than saying, “Tom was nervous,” you could write: “Tom fumbled with his keys, dropping them twice before finally unlocking the door. ‘Well,’ he chuckled nervously, ‘who needs a security system when you have butterfingers like mine?'”
20) Employ Foreshadowing
You can use foreshadowing to build anticipation and make the character’s nervousness more pronounced.
Plant clues early in the narrative that something significant, and potentially nerve-wracking, will happen later.
Example: Instead of saying, “Sandy was anxious,” employ foreshadowing: “Sandy couldn’t shake off the ominous feeling as she read the anonymous letter again. ‘See you soon,’ it ended, and every time she read those words, her stomach churned with a nervous dread she couldn’t place.”
21) Bring it Full Circle (Callback)
Sometimes calling back to an earlier moment of nervousness can demonstrate growth or a lack thereof in a character.
This can add depth to your character and make the emotion feel earned.
Example: Instead of saying, “Amy was no longer nervous,” you could use a callback: “Amy looked at the stage, remembering how she’d frozen up last year. But this time, her feet were steady. She smiled, her nerves giving way to newfound confidence.”
22) Layered Emotions
Often, nervousness isn’t a standalone emotion; it comes layered with anticipation, excitement, or even dread.
Describing these mixed feelings can offer a more nuanced and relatable portrayal of nervousness.
Example: Instead of saying, “Dan was nervous,” you could layer emotions: “Dan felt a strange cocktail of emotions—nervousness peppered with a dash of excitement and a hint of dread. It was his first day at a new job, after all.”
23) Blend Multiple Techniques
The most compelling portrayals often use a blend of multiple techniques.
By combining different elements like inner monologue, dialogue, body language, and pacing, you can craft a rich, multi-layered portrayal of nervousness that resonates with readers.
Example: “Jane’s fingers tapped an erratic rhythm on her desk. ‘You’ve got this,’ she silently assured herself, her stomach churning like a washing machine on spin cycle. Her breaths came in quick, shallow gasps, failing to clear the fog of unease that clouded her thoughts.”
When describing nervousness, it’s good to first understand it:
30 Words to Describe Nervousness in Writing
When it comes to describing nervousness, the right vocabulary can make all the difference.
Selecting precise words can make your prose more vivid and transport your reader into the emotional landscape of your characters.
Here are 30 words you can use to describe nervousness:
30 Phrases to Describe Nervousness in Writing
Sometimes a single word won’t suffice and a phrase can provide a more nuanced description of a character’s emotional state.
The following phrases can add complexity and detail when describing nervousness:
- On edge
- Heart pounding like a drum
- A bundle of nerves
- Sweating bullets
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Walking on eggshells
- Twisting one’s hands
- Gnawing at the insides
- Mind racing a mile a minute
- Pins and needles
- Shaking like a leaf
- Biting one’s nails
- Stomach in knots
- Breathing quick and shallow
- Fumbling over words
- Ears burning with embarrassment
- Vein throbbing in the temple
- Holding one’s breath
- Suffering a nervous breakdown
- Nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof
- Feeling cornered
- Jumping at shadows
- Second-guessing oneself
- Trembling from head to toe
- Heart skipping a beat
- Palms clammy with sweat
- Restless leg syndrome
- Voice tinged with apprehension
- Pulse racing uncontrollably
- Lost in a fog of nervousness
3 Full Descriptions of Nervousness in Different Genres
Here are three full descriptions of how to describe nervousness in writing.
You’ll read about nervous characters in:
- Science Fiction
John walked into the dimly lit room, its shadows casting eerie patterns on the walls.
His heart pounded in his chest as if a drumroll were announcing his entry. The smell of old books mixed with the musk of mildew, creating an ambiance of foreboding that gnawed at his insides.
He felt like he was walking on eggshells, each step a potential trigger for something he couldn’t quite articulate.
The room seemed to close in on him, and he found himself gripping the edge of the table, his knuckles turning white. His breaths were shallow, each inhalation a laborious task, as he felt the weight of eyes upon him—even though he was alone.
Emma looked across the candle-lit table, her eyes meeting Michael’s.
Her stomach was a swirl of butterflies, fluttering wildly as if trying to escape. Her hands felt clammy, and she discreetly wiped them on her napkin.
As he smiled, she found herself lost in a fog of nervousness, a tingling sensation crawling up her spine.
The thought of what might happen after dinner filled her with a heady mixture of excitement and dread.
Each time their eyes met, her heart skipped a beat, making her wonder if this was love or just a new level of emotional chaos she had yet to understand.
As Captain Williams stood before the interstellar council, his legs trembled beneath his space uniform, almost as if they were about to give way.
His heart felt like it was racing at warp speed, and he was acutely aware of the hundreds of extraterrestrial eyes focused on him.
Each species had its own way of scrutinizing, yet they all seemed to pierce right through him.
This is it, the first contact, don’t mess it up, he thought, his mind racing a mile a minute.
The gravity of the moment bore down on him, heavier than Jupiter’s pull, and he swallowed hard, trying to find his voice amid the lump of apprehension lodged in his throat.
Final Thoughts: How to Describe Nervousness in Writing
Nervousness is a critical element in tension and, therefore, every story.
If you’re looking for more guides on describing emotions and actions in writing, we have many great articles for on this site.