Describing Eyes In Writing

How many times have you seen authors describing eyes in writing? Think about all the glances  being shot on the pages of most novels: sarcastic ones, annoyed ones, angry ones…characters always seem to have meaningful looks and glances for each other.

describing eyes in writing, writing body language
Glances are always being shot here, there, and everywhere, with all kinds of qualifiers attached. Try to reach for fresher descriptions when you’re writing body language.

Check Your Writing Tics

A go-to way of describing eyes in writing is often a tic for writers. What do I mean by “tic”? Something you do in your writing that you’re not aware of. Something you usually do a lot. Some writers have favorite words, other writers have pet descriptions, and yet others have go-to actions and gestures for their characters.

Cinematic Constructs In Prose

Why do I think so many writers rely on “She shot him a glance” or “He gave her a look” when they’re describing eyes in writing? Because it’s a cinematic construct that we’re used to in movies and on TV. When a real life person or a movie character shoots a glance, we can read their body language, see the expression on their face, and interpret meaning from their eyes.

Right away, we can get the flavor of the look or glance and what it is meant to communicate to the target character and to us, the viewer. Loaded looks are pretty much the staple of soap operas and sitcoms. A lot goes without being said in words in these visual mediums.

But that’s just the problem. Writing body language is a different ballgame. In prose, we don’t have the added benefits of seeing the character’s facial expressions or reading their looks as they give another character a meaningful glance. And if we can’t see the look…it loses a lot of its meaning. The glance becomes vague instead of specific, as it can be on the screen. And vague writing is the death of good prose.

Reach For Fresher Imagery When Describing Eyes in Writing

What’s the solution? When you’re describing eyes in writing, try to wean yourself off of glances. Sure, you can use a well-placed glance or look if you have enough context to make it count. And you can always qualify the glance, ie: “She shot him a murderous glance” or “He fired daggers at her with his eyes,” but these are so overused that they’ve verged into cliche territory. It may be easier to just face it — a loaded look in prose will never carry the same weight as it does in visual mediums — and more on to finding a fresher way for writing body language, something that reads better on the page.

When you hire my novel editing services, I’ll help you improve all aspects of your work — including freshening up stale imagery and descriptions.

31 Replies to “Describing Eyes In Writing”

  1. Nice post:) My characters glance at each other all the time.
    But you know, I actually like coming across glances in other writers’ work. As the reader, I get to fill that glance with whatever I want. I agree that a too vague glance will leave me frustrated with what to do with it, but when and author has done a good job of setting up the relationship previous to the glance, I think it works.
    You’re right, it’s probably because I do watch TV and movies that I can get a clear image of a glance when it appears in prose. And yes, the rest of the context has to be clear.
    I guess I’m saying that I’m all for the occasional shooting look as long as the rest of the pieces are in place:)

  2. The words “look” and “felt” are overused in general.

    As for me, I’m tired of “said brightly” and “said flatly.”

  3. As a translator (English into French), I stare at a lot of prose and I’ve noticed all those glances. You don’t necessarily feel them as you read, but when you’re working on the book/manuscript, they jump out. They’re not all meaningful either. A lot of them are just there to break up dialogue, remind readers of which characters are in the scene and where they are situated in relation to each other. Pretty much like on screen indeed. The funny thing is, you lose an awful lot of those in French, because FRench isn’t very tolerant of repetitions and words like ‘regarder’ are not as discreet as ‘look’.

  4. This is me shooting you a murderous glance for moving to New York. And a sheepish glance cuz you know I do this tic. And a wistful glance because I wish you were going to SCBWI-LA this weekend.

  5. I used to do this allllllll the time. My characters would look at each other 2-3 times per page. When I finally discovered I was doing it I was aghast. How could I have not noticed?

    I agree that it is an effort to get the emotion of the scene across that leads to all these shooting looks. I’ve found beefing up the character’s (their tics, backstory, quirks, peeves, etc) I can round out what’s going on and how they are feeling with other clues and cues. And of course, dialogue helps too.

  6. Ooh, guilty. Add that to my list of things to check for while revising…

    I was at the German Film Museum yesterday, and the first thing they had was an entire room devoted to EYES and glances. In film, that’s where half of the story is. Books play like movies in my head, so I will have to be very careful on this.

    Thanks, Mary!

  7. What a great post! I am completely guilty of having everyone in my novel “looking” at each other. In revision, I will definitely have to go through and find more creative ways to convey feeling. This is a tough one, and my friend/reader flagged it for me. So thank you for confirming my suspicion that it just doesn’t work!

  8. Mine glance, gaze, eye, stare, glare and roll their eyes. A lot. It’s the first thing I mercilessly beat down on when I edit.

  9. I find the easiest way to handle a glance or a saw is to get rid of the words and let the writing speak for itself. If you ‘glance over to the tub and see the water running all over the floor’ you can change that to ‘the water ran all over the floor’ and let the reader intuitively deduce that you were glancing over that way.

  10. I wonder if you’re not taking it a bit too far. Eyes are our most expressive nonverbal communicators. And eyes are very confrontational. That’s why it’s so much easier to look down at the ground during an unpleasant confrontation.

    Perhaps we just need some fresh ways of describing eye-to-eye interaction.

  11. Ha, ha. Last week my critique group found about a dozen (maybe not quit that much, but it felt like it while under the gun) “swirled” in one chapter. I also have a problem with laughed, roared and yes, glanced. Yet, another thing to look for during my next revision.

  12. Thank you so much for this post. I know I rely too heavily on eyes, and it’s something I’m working on. After I read your comments, I searched my current MS for “shot”. I’m happy to report I only found one, and she was shooting arrows, not a glance. =)

  13. Ah, one more thing to check for during edits! I did a check and I have several glances and gazes and looks. I’ll have to poke my character’s eyes out so they’ll stop doing those things! 😉

  14. Great timing– my crit buddy and I were just talking about action beats vs interiority. It’s kinda hard to get it right!

    I have to add to Anonymouse’s question– I’d like to see some authors that you think do a good job of “finding a fresher way for characters to communicate”–because you’re right, action beats and shooting glances seem to be the norm in lots of books I’ve read lately.

    Thanks, as always, for your awesome insight.

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