Monday, August 1, 2016

Writing Without Eyes

I'm seeing a lot of "eyes" these days in the works I've been editing. Understandable, since they're both for vision and for expression. Problem is, we rely on the use of the word "eyes" far too much, and we also tend to rely on the sense of sight too much. Of course, there are times when we simply can't avoid discussing eyes--they're the first thing people notice about other people, they're the windows to the soul and central to gleaning information into a person's character, and they're far more expressive than ears.
So we can't cut reference to them out completely, but we can cut them down. Top two ways to do that is to (1) cut out the FBPs involving eyes and (2) find a good thesaurus. The third way--which requires the author to get more imaginative--is to figure out how to express something, usually an emotion, more creatively.
Floating body parts--eyes doing things without the benefit of the rest of the body. Usually, fixing this is as simple as using a synonym for "look."
His eyes are on her retreating figure = He watches her retreating figure
All eyes turn to me = Everyone shifts their attention to me
He fixes his eyes on the problem = he focuses on the problem
His eyes scanned the horizon = He scanned the horizon
Then, you have the physical manifestations of emotions that can be altered:
My eyes water = I get teary
His eyes narrow = he glowers/glares/scowls
A headache kicked up behind his eyes = His temples throbbed
His eyes become cold = His expression hardens
Get it?
Granted, I have yet to find a great substitute for the eye-roll, because that one action speaks volumes. If you come up with something, let me know. Meanwhile, the best thing to do is to not use it often.
Don't be afraid of the word "look." There's nothing wrong with it or any of its synonyms. Don't be afraid to find alternative ways to illustrate emotion, either. Remember the line in the Eagles' classic, "you can't hide your lyin' eyes"? When my brother was young, the best way to tell he was lying was to watch his ears turn red. Get creative in your depictions.
Some people lower their eyes when they're thinking, avoiding eye-contact, or whatever it is you, the author, want to express by that action. So, instead of "lowered his eyes," he can "study his shoes." Instead of raising his eyes, he can meet your gaze. He can shift his focus from one thing to another. Instead of his eyes glazing over while he's engaged in some thought, he can disappear into his thoughts.
He can scan, survey, scour, look, glance, stare, glare, glower, leer, regard, notice, squint, scrutinize, glimpse, peek, gape, gawk--pick it, but let him be the one to do it, not his eyes. Keep his eyes in his head.
A quick word about "gaze": a gaze is "a long, fixed stare" not a short sweep of all things visible. We (and I definitely include myself in this group) tend to use this word incorrectly. It may be a good idea to watch our use of gaze. Keep an eye on it, so to speak. Try to use it more closely to its meaning.
Anyway, the moral to the story is that the "eyes" shouldn't always have it. Find alternatives.
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  1. Great article and challenging. Sight is always the easy 'go-to' for writers.

    1. It is the easiest to go to. I have to take my own advice about this many times!

  2. More great tips. I try to avoid floating body parts, but they sneak in, mostly in the first draft. Another issue to add to my editing list, eyes..... Thanks, Linda.

    1. FBPs can be fun, particularly when dealing with eyes. I remember seeing a write-up poking fun at FBPs in which the author talked about "darting eyes"--Oops! Here comes another one! Catch it! :D

  3. This is good to know. I see myself using descriptions of eyes way too much in my first draft and knew it was overkill. It's hard for me to avoid though,because so much of a main character's description includes,in my mind,the unique colors and unusual characteristics of the person's eyes and how that relates to the strange world they are from. A lot of information hinted at by those descriptions leads to specific behaviors and identification of a character's unique role later in the story. I recognize the redundancy and overuse of these descriptions in my WIP and it hasn't been sitting well with me. I knew I would have to find some other way to express these things, but it's still a bit of a bummer.

    1. You don't have to eliminate every single reference to eyes or sight, but where you can, do. It'll help cut down the repetitiveness.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. I hate to reveal my naiveté, but what is an FBP?

    1. FBPs are "floating body parts"--usually when something goes off without benefit of the rest of the body. Eyes darting around sometimes have to be caught and placed back in the sockets. Hands trailing banisters up the stairs would probably freak out the guests.

      In other words, something that seem artistic and original can be seriously strange when read literally!

  5. Good article. "Eye" see this a lot when editing, especially with new authors. Believe me, I will share this with my Word Magic students. Thanks.