Eye bookisms

Posted on December 29, 2010 by

I have been thinking about an excellent post by Jeanne Cavelos of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop on a common beginner trap in writing:

Many authors overuse words involving looking and eyes. They describe their characters looking, glancing, gazing, staring, studying, seeing, surveying, scanning, peeking, leering, ogling, noticing, watching, blinking, glaring, and just generally eyeballing everything. Characters’ eyes flash, burn, linger, darken or brighten, and even change color. Characters’ eyes drop to the floor (ouch!); they roam around the room (eeek!). Or characters may raise the ever-popular eyebrow.

The original link is gone, but the above is its heart, and over time I’ve started referring to the eyeball phenomenon as “Eye Bookisms.” This is, of course, a reference to “said bookisms”, a term I first encountered in the Turkey City Lexicon when I was preparing to go to Clarion West in 1995.

Look words were popping out at me this December as I worked through a number of student manuscripts. As a result, it occurred to me that with the said bookisms, writers are essentially trying to squeeze in variety while adding a tone to their characters’ utterances: “He snarled, she wept, they ejaculated.”

But we use eye bookisms to imperfectly do a number of different things… so when you go to write them out of your drafts, it’s useful to identify your intentions:

There’s the Description Ahead! sign:

She looked down the road. Wrecked cars were crushed into each other on the ice. The continuous stream of mashed metal ran all the way down the hill and onto the frozen lake.

Sometimes, it is undeniably handy to grab the reader’s head and align it with your POV character’s, and that’s what this is, a way of shouting “Look downhill with me!” Handy or not, I see this kind of cushioning being overused a lot, especially by writers who aren’t confident in their point of view (POV) or their ability to keep things clear for the reader. In many cases, you can cut it entirely:

The view downhill revealed… OR: Wrecked cars were crushed into each other…

A second variation of the eye bookism is Mindreading. You’ve done it, I’ve done it. We’ve all done it, at least in draft:

She looked lonely / She had a look of loneliness / Her look was lonely.

Here, we’re filtering our POV character’s impressions of a second person. Unless they’re a telepath, they can’t know she’s lonely… but the point is the writer wants you to know, and so the POV gets that flash of insight. Again, there’s no great crime in this. We have empathy, after all; we can sometimes look at someone and have a mighty clear idea of what they’re feeling. And sometimes that perception of an emotion leads to some interesting reactions, or good imagery, and it all flows beautifully.

Other times, though, the mindreading verges on just telling, rather than showing. This may be a perfectly good phrase to stick in a draft:

She looked like she was going to fall apart.

But there are about a billion types of falling apart, aren’t there? So on the next go-round, give us the details:

Mary jittered as she walked, laughing loudly though nobody had spoken, and nothing about this situation was funny. From time to time she lunged at the edge of the boulevard, as if she meant to throw herself into the busy traffic on First Avenue.

Next, there’s the Empty Utterance:

Look comes up in an entirely other context in this one, and if I hadn’t been reading a big and varied pile of writers’ work this fall, I might not have gotten sensitized to it. But newer writers’ dialog can tend to be festooned by words and phrases we use all the time when we’re talking:

“Look, I don’t care about pro hockey.”
“Well, basically, hockey isn’t important to me.”
“Listen, I want to tell you something. Here it comes. Seriously, like, hockey sucks.”

The reason these utterances sound stale in dialog, even though they can accurately capture a certain aspect of the way we speak, is that in conversation their meaning is largely non-textual. They’re sounds that draw the other party’s attention and signal the speaker’s mood, attitude, and intentions. If I say “Listen,” in a soft, calming voice, it may be that I’m trying to soothe; if I bite the word off, my meaning may be more on the lines of “Snap to it here!”

One could as easily say “Oi!” And sometimes, of course, we do.

Try cutting ’em, folks. If the speeches then seem too abrupt–too directly to the point–it may be that you do need a preamble. But before you put the filler back in, look for words that create the breathing space you’re looking for, the sound of someone gearing up to something important, while saying something specific and appropriate to the character.

Finally, we get to Stage Directions:

Here is where we really get into an overlap between Said Bookisms and Eye Bookisms. The process goes like this. First we’re taught, as learning writers, not to remark, bellow, hiss, mutter, and sob all over our dialog. But then we find a “he said” and a “she said” at the end of every line, and of course that’s clunky. It’s easy to move from there to directing traffic with your characters’ eyeballs. If she looks at him, obviously she’s the one speaking. If he rolls his eyes in response, the sarcastic utterance that follows is obviously his.

The answer? Mix it up! Spice lightly using all the available options, including a bit of he said, she said. Here are just a few of the possibilities:

–Give readers two clear “Chris said,” “Pat said” utterances and then follow them with a couple unattributed lines. If it’s clear that Chris is in favor of eating Mexican, while Pat wants to go for sushi, we can follow the thread for a little while without too much trouble.

–Think about the rest of the body, and the world it’s in. If they’re in a car, there are seat belts and glove boxes and maps and GPS gadgets to fiddle with. People rarely talk in an actionless vacuum, and writing in some of that action also helps readers imagine your scene…

–There’s probably some conflict going on here, right? Is it clear? Do we understand it? If so, and using the food example above, sushi advocacy can become a perfectly good stand-in for “Pat said.”

–Got POV? A little interior monologue goes a long way. I’m going to die if I don’t get some salsa, Chris thought. “I have been dreaming about this dinner all day.”

–Fictional characters address each other by name more often than they do in real life: “Chris, there’s an awesome sushi place across from Burrito Heaven. Can’t we split the difference?”

Now of course I am hoping the salsa vs. wasabi battle has some subtext going on in it, but that’s a whole other blog entry, isn’t it? The point of the above list is that it is mechanical, but if you take an overly eyeballed passage and cycle through the above possibilities, you’ll cover a lot of conversational ground without a lot of awkward repetition of either ‘said’ or ‘look’. Once that’s done, you can focus on adding depth and making it sound pretty.

Response to Eye bookisms

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