Saturday, July 16, 2011

Confessions of a torrid eye cheater!

As a writer, I used to be a total snob about cheating on eye descriptions. Part of it comes from having worked for some years with a very exacting writing mentor. A brilliant and highly trained English fellow (and really, the best teacher ever) who would very nearly mock any liberties I took with eyes.

I used to be so pure about eye
descriptions. Now, not so much.

I can picture him now, my offending pages clutched in his hands: “His eyes were sad? What does it mean that his eyes were sad? His eyeballs, do you mean? Tell me, how do eyeballs look sad? They don’t get sad. Eyeballs are inanimate! Were there tears glistening upon them? Then you say that. Or is it the skin around the eyebrows that changed shape, creating a sad effect? Was his brow furrowed? Certain kind of frown?”

This whole thing made me really sensitive to writers cheating with eyes. Even some of my favorite writers, those I consider towering in their brilliance, cheat a bit. Even major huge NYT best-selling writers cheat quite boldly. This isn’t a real line, but stuff like this: “There was a stormy look in his eyes, chased by sorrow, and then a dawning recognition of what had come to pass in that room, after which his eyes were shuttered with hate.”

I would sometimes be darkly impressed by a line like that, a total sleight of hand that’s a blatant form of telling disguised as showing. A writer pretending to describe outward appearance, but telling a state of mind. And nobody made her rewrite it! And here I would be slaving over tears and hardened facial planes squinching eyes.

I really kept to my purity around eye description for a long time. I don’t believe you will find any eyeball liberties whatsoever in Mind Games, where I tended to rely a lot on widened and narrowed eyes, as well as gleaming eyes, and sometimes sides of eyes with little wrinkles of happiness. 

I recall doing one or two eye cheats in Double Cross and being thrilled nobody stopped me, because it really is convenient to cheat like that when you have a lot going in a scene. I didn’t cheat horribly, stuff like “a surprised light in her eyes.”

I have drunk the eye-cheat  Kool-aid. It's quite delicious! 
Light was kind of my gateway cheat. In real life, people can have a light in their eyes, but adding surprised is the cheat part—I mean, if you showed a lineup of eye photos, you wouldn’t be able to tell a surprised light from an angry light without the context of the face or situation. There simply is no such thing as a surprised light.

Anyway, I’m doing edits on book #3, and I was just laughing the other day, because I have totally started eye-cheating! Here, a selection of my cheats:
I keep a frantic eye on the air overhead.
Packard turns to me, and there’s a lonely light in his eyes.
Otto sits up, brown eyes glittering darkly.
Packard's lonely light is the boldest one--basically, I'm telling the inward state of the man by pretending to show it in the eyes. Okay, glittering darkly is pretty bad—that’s really about something going on in Ottos's face that I didn’t feel like getting into. Even that frantic eye on the air overhead is pretty slippery. My narrator is frantic, but the eye isn't. All in all, total cheater ways of sneaking state of mind into a physical description. But oh so convenient.

My name is Carolyn Crane and I am an eye cheater! 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning writers who eye cheat. (Especially since I have started!)  I mean, you can walk into any museum and see a good portion of beloved paintings that aren’t realistic whatsoever, and nobody’s going around like, that’s not a even what a hand looks like!

There are books on my loftiest keeper shelf (penned by writers whose feet I would kiss in a second if that sort of thing wouldn’t make me persona non grata at conventions) that contain the phrase “eyes were shuttered…”  Different writers are up to different things, and have different goals, and if an eye cheat works, it works. 

I just think it’s funny, because, if you knew how pure I used to be around it, you would totally laugh about the lonely light in Packard’s eyes, too. But, what the heck! I am keeping that lonely light line, and I might write more just like it.    

Public domain images from wiki commons: Anton van Dyck self portrait, The Eye by Haley Davis, Charles V at Muhlberg, eye detail, by Titian, Gjord i Jagsjalv 


Janicu said...

Haha. Great post, but I love that you have a name for this. Eye cheating! Now I know.

Carolyn Crane said...

Hey, thanks Janicu! Well, that's just my name for it, but, what the heck.

Chris said...

Stranger! This post is so going to be part of Linkity on Friday. Although finding out that you're an eye cheater... *shakes head*

Jason said...

I love the eyes that follow someone around the room. :)


J.A. Saare / Aline Hunter said...

I'm an eye cheater too. I can't help myself. Welcome to the club. I'm just wondering about Packard and the lonely light in his eyes. *sniff*

Lesley D said...

Great post! I must confess that eye cheating is one of my biggest pet peeves if it's used too much. Now I finally have a name for it!

Carolyn Crane said...

Chris: Howdy stranger! Yes, an eye cheater. Bet you're glad I'm not on YOUR street any longer.

Jace: Oh, yes, that is a frightening thing indeed...rolling, bouncing along behind you.

JA: One only hopes that lonely light is transformed into eyes of joy.

Lesley: Ha! I was never sure if people noticed or reacted to it.

Roxanne Skelly said...

Ugh, my eyes want to claw my eyes out.

I just caught myself in an eye-cheat while revising.

I just want to cry and go out and buy some talent.

I'll just try again.


Tez Miller said...

Back when I was critiquing, I totally pointed out every eye-cheat to its authors. Don't just say, He looked concerned, because that's telling and not showing...

And this could explain why my characters had very expressive eyebrows - raising one to signal scepticism, raising both to signal surprise, etc...

Sullivan McPig said...

You're not just an eye cheater, you're a teaser as well!
Poor lonely eye Packard!
Now I will have to buy the ebook once it's released as I don't think I can wait till the print version.

Carolyn Crane said...

Roxanne: Hey, we all eye cheat now and then.

Tez: Ah, the one brow lift!

Sully: Poor lonely Packard needs a pig!

Beth Woodward said...

In defense of the eye cheat, it's HARD to describe expression without resorting to "telling." Unless it's something really obvious (smiling, frowning, etc.), it can be impossible to describe an expression and not be ambigious. The eye cheat is a way around it. I always read it metaphorically; I know there's not a literal "light" in Packard's eyes, but I can see it in my head. Besides, eyes *are* very expressive. When we read peoople's faces, we can see their expressions in their eyes, but that kind of processing happens on such an intuitive level that it's hard to articulate without a bit of cheating.

Roxanne Skelly said...

So I'm guessing it's the things around the eyes that really should be described. Smile lines show up (shudder, I'm getting a few more of those now), foreheads wrinkle, veins pop up (ok, i get one of those when I'm pissed), eyelids close, and so on.

So the question eyes roll? Is that a cheat? I spend a lot of time rolling my eyes, so I hope I'm not cheating.

Carolyn Crane said...

Beth: I love your points. YOU are a rabblerouser! You're right, and I think that's why I'm softening on eye cheats, because, they capture some of the spirit. I do think it can be abused, but also, useful. I mean, it's not like I'm planning on changing Packard's lonely light in his eyes.

Roxanne: I hope I didn't give the wrong impression - the strictest way to go would be to never cheat and always just describe what's around the eyes, but my point is that, rules are made to be broken now and then. I really do think fudging some emotion telling into a physical description is useful.

However, rolling eyes, that is never a cheat. That is actually a thing eyeballs do - I stand corrected. People roll eyes all the time, and it is a visible and real thing that anybody would recognize (unlike my lonely light, which I am keeping!!)

Nicola O. said...

What a great post! Every now and then I'll read some line that says something like, "Emotion chased across her face -- anxiety and fear, hope and excitement, followed by an aching sort of nausea" as viewed by another character, and I think to myself, "Dang, this person is good at reading emotions! He must have a REALLY high Emotional IQ! Is this something I can learn how to do?"

But I think it's OK to have some cheats. Think of it as shorthand -- some of these things are conventions, or pacts between readers and writers.

Like, eyes don't change color with emotion. But romantic convention will tell you otherwise. Blue eyes go gray or stormy with anger, or violet with passion, or steely with resolve. Of course it's not literally true. But I don't really want to read a lengthy anatomical description of what facial muscles are contracting, either.

Sullivan McPig said...

@Carolyn: He does indeed! no one is lonely when they have a pig. Pigs are excellent creatures to have around.

Unknown said...

There is a fine line between taking the time to show emotions on the page and making it too opaque for the reader.

I Eye Cheat when it's the best solution.

Carolyn Crane said...

Nicola: yes, I like the idea of a pact. That's good. A lot of fiction writing is a pact, in a way.

Sully: LOL.

Carolyn: Yes, too true! Because it has to be about taking care of the reader in the end. What the reader needs for the story when, which can sometimes be handled by a cheat.

Anonymous said...

OK your mentor is awesome. Now every time I witness emoting eyeballs I will think of you! :)

MrsMixx said...

I loved this post and It really made me laugh.

I didn't have a name for this phenomenon but only last month I commented on a book I just read that way too much happened in their eyes.
The heroine would see 4 or 5 emotions in 1 look in 1 second just looking at the eyes, not the face mind you, the EYES! Ah! And it often had sentences like 'I looked at him. Gray eyes on Blue.' 'his green eyes flashing' ... I just can't help but roll my eyes gently at these. Still it was a good book so I can't complain. Just funny.

I look forward to seeing some of your eye cheating. ;)

Joanna Chambers said...


1. Now I know why I can never talk about gazes clashing or locking without you grousing; and

2. I totally disagree with your mentor! The eyes are the window to the freakin' soul, man! Can you read emotion there? You surely can! Is the man blind? Eyes glittering darkly and having a lonely light? That happens! Talking about squinched lid movements instead? It's like describing heartache as myalgia of the aorta.

I love your posts BTW

Carolyn Crane said...

Pam: Emoting eyeballs. That is an awesome term.

Patte: Oh, it happens in some of my fave books, so, I guess it's working in the end. But when there is a stream of different emotions, that can be hard for me to picture.

Jo: Hah! I'm busted! LOL. Now are you going to use it more just to taunt me? I will continue to grouse!

Anonymous said...

Oh, thank you. I have been trying for the past 40 or 50 years, ever since I started reading *real* books, to see those expressions in the eyes of people around me -- "dawning knowledge", “a stormy look in his eyes, chased by sorrow", "his eyes were shuttered with hate”. And I could never see it in the eyeballs. In the faces, yes, but not the eyeballs. Now I know that I have been the victim of bad writing. Sigh.

Jill Sorenson said...

I love it! I once wrote a blog post about another eye crime: overuse of the smolder.

Kaetrin said...

Great post Carolyn! :) I don't mind a bit of eye-cheating myself but sometimes it's so improbable that I get a bit distracted - like the example Nicola gave - gosh, you'd need ages to see all those things wouldn't you (if you even could) and then everyone would be looking at your like you're a loony or something - I keep waiting for that bit in a book. LOL!

Carolyn Crane said...

Kmkat: I think it's bad if abused, for sure!

Jill: Smoldering eyes? Smoldering glance? lol. Now that I've typed it a couple times, all I can think is moldering.

Kaetrin: LOL. You'd have to be staring at a person pretty hard and long. Yes, that never goes over well, does it?