The Eyes Don't Have It

Since starting the critique service, I've been through dozens of submissions from a wide variety of writers spread along all levels of a bell curve from the ready-to-publish to the "you need to read more" neos.

But the point of this post is a difference I've noticed between the neos and the ones who are almost there.

Neos are obsessed with EYES.

This is usually to do with dramatic scenes where characters are reacting to something or the protag is watching other characters. That's when we're told there is lots of "eye contact."

The prose is full of eyes looking at this or that, characters looking at the eyes of other characters, and then there's the usual eyes rolling, darting, and following people about. The latter descriptive is not only anatomically impossible, but always brings up a mental image of Bob Clampett cartoons where 'Toon eyeballs float about like tiny balloons to great comic effect. (Not to mention characters who "throw up their hands" -- yikes.)

Do pro writers do this? Yes, all the time. There's one bestselling writer whose work I used to like until she started phoning it in. She became obsessed with eyes rolling. Her protags roll their eyes every few pages, sometimes twice a page, in reaction to whatever is going on. I don't know how the characters can walk, they're rolling their eyes so much there's no way they can see where they're going.

The writer put it in as a substitute for a real reaction. Her characters turned into caricatures and are no longer funny, having become crude parodies of what they once were. Teens in real life roll their eyes (yeah, I wanna nose-bop 'em for that, too), but adults, not so much. We know how irritating it is.

A more experienced and aware writer may mention eyes, but goes past the surface description and get into what the protag is thinking/feeling. They take it up a level.

One is an observer, the other a participant. You may not have been aware of this before in your pleasure reading, now you are and will be noticing it in the future.

I understand how it has come about and so do you: blame TV.

When a really good actor with a fantastic script cuts loose with his or her craft it's all in their EYES. An actor can sell a whole show with one look and we feel what their character is feeling--which is pretty awesome when you think about it.

The neo writer, working hard to find his voice, focuses on the dramatic facial expression and what a character's eyes look like.

But the more experienced writer is inside the character's head, letting us know what the character is feeling. She is thinking about her words, not settling for simple visual description of eyes staring/glaring.

I hope this makes sense. I'll readily admit that I did the Eye Thing starting out. In the movie I ran in my head, the characters acted out a scene, and I'm sure much of my early stuff includes lots of staring eyes. I've dialed that back.

Another point I want to cover to hopefully impart one good writer tip here, which is please eliminate stuff where characters "turned-and-looked-and-saw (something)."

Get rid of "He watched-and-saw / he looked-and-saw / he looked-and-watched / he-watched-as" phrasing.

Please, just describe what's there! No need to put in stage directions. This "X watched as..." stuff distances the reader from the character. You want readers inside that character's skin and feeling the sweat. Don't thrust them outside to be observers. I know, you've seen this in plenty of published books by bestselling writers. But as I cover in another link, bestselling doesn't always equal good writing. You be better than that bestselling writer.

If you use that device, then put it to expert use to pull off an effect, don't just drop it into the narrative without thinking. You fall into lazy writing habits like that writer did. I don't bother getting her books any more. There are plenty of other writers who don't phone it in and I'll read them instead.

Do a global search of your work in progress for words like "eyes, watch(ed), look(ed), stare, glare, rolled" and see if there is some other way to get that drama across to a reader. Don't fuss that it's too much work. Having your software doing the search is better than sifting through hard copy pages the way we did back in dinosaur times.

Besides, this is your CRAFT. No matter how much work it is, you do it because you care about your craft. Maybe no one else will notice it, buy you know it's there. That's a good feeling.