To judge by frequency of use in many neophyte writers’ manuscripts, “look” and “stare” are the two most common words in the English language. This usage is especially marked during dialogue passages. In some novels, the ability to speak seems inextricably intertwined with the gift of sight. “Get out!” he said, staring at Eileen. “I wish I could,” she said, looking up at Igor. Couplings of this form occur so often that I have wondered if there is a muscle connecting the mouth and the eyes that science has not yet discovered.
The primacy of eyesight among the five senses cannot be doubted. Characters do look away, look down, look through. An angry person does stare down an opposite party. Yet the other senses are unfairly neglected—chief among them, the sense of smell. As an editor I regularly cut three-quarters of all eye-related material, because I know that “look” or “stare” is an easy choice grabbed for in the heat of writing a first draft. Everybody can look and stare, though; what is your main character doing that makes her stand out?
Your first option shouldn’t even be physical business of any type. You should develop the reflex to ask: What is my point-of-view character thinking? In a revision you should always probe for the emotion being felt inside. In the same way that reading is a mental exercise first, a physical one second, writing needs to convey mental causes first, physical effects second. The wonderful advantage of writing in thoughts lies in how much wider your scope for creating fresh material becomes. We have so many thoughts just in the course of a single day that we could fill up a book with ease. That’s a key element of good writing: continually surprising the reader with a new trick up your sleeve.
Your lead character is not a human camera. That is the experience of the writer trying to imagine what a scene looks like. Go beyond the lens, to the thinker behind the glass. That’s where you’ll find your true character.
Exercise: Enter the word “look” in a global search of your manuscript. Each time you find one, check to see how far away it is from the last “look.” If you used it only five lines up, ask yourself: Could either one be replaced by a thought? Could it be replaced by another piece of physical business? What is that smell coming from the couch cushion?
“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”
Copyright @ 2016, John Paine