Kids, we need to talk. You’ve just got to stop with the locking eyes.
They locked eyes.
Their eyes locked.
It’s cliché, it’s overdone, it’s so stinkin’ melodramatic it makes me want to throw a fit in the middle of your manuscript.
So I’m doing it here instead. A little Cranky Editor meltdown.
No, seriously. Even though I am a big proponent of simplicity in writing—and what could be simpler than two people locking eyes, right?—this phrase is running rampant in the fiction I’ve been working on lately. This and its awkward little variants like their gazes locked. (Ugh.)
You’ve heard me say this before: to be a good writer, you must be a good reader. Why? For the language. Vocabulary is built when you read great literature.
That last bit is key. You must read authors who are, frankly, better than you.
Find a book you wish you’d written. Study it. Then write.
But if your scene includes a highly charged moment in which your lovers or would-be lovers first see each other, just say no to locked eyes.
Here’s what I want you to do instead. Think creatively about what happens in the scene. Give us body language (or movement), sure, but don’t use the same old thing time after time. Open your thesaurus, yes, but remember that many of the words are not direct substitutes. (Aspect does not always work for face; it depends on the context.) Write a little bit too much; you can trim it up later when you know where you’re going.
Watch for rhythm too. Sometimes a simple he saw is perfect.
He saw her sigh.
He saw her look away.
He saw her eyes shining.
He saw the heart she wore on her sleeve.
He saw inside.
Other times you really need a fifty-dollar word to shake up the rhythm and make the moment last.
He scrutinized her face as if she were withholding key evidence in a crime of the heart.
(It’s a little over the top, but you get the idea.)
To help you think outside the lock box, I’ve collected some words that might stimulate your imagination.
look / gaze
admire, audit, behold, blink, consider, contemplate, decipher, discern, examine, eye, face (he faced her), flirt, focus, gander, gape, gawk, gaze, glance, glare, glimpse, glower, goggle, inspect, leer, look, make out, note, notice, observe, ogle, overlook, peek, peep, peer, perceive, pore, rate, recognize, regard, rubberneck, scan, scrutinize, see, sight, spot, squint, stare, study, survey, view, visualize, watch, wink, witness
hold / lock
appropriate, arrest, arrogate, bind, capture, check, claim, clench, cling (to), clutch, coerce, commandeer, compel, confine, confiscate, constrain, contain, control, convert, dominate, embrace, expropriate, force, grapple, grasp, grip, have, hijack, hold, impel, inhibit, keep, lock, make, obligate, occupy, possess, preserve, press, pressure, restrain, restrict, retain, rule, seize, sequester, stay, support, sustain, take, tame, usurp
You shouldn’t look to me for vocabulary instruction when there are lots of interesting websites about words and language out there. Here’s one: A.Word.A.Day. But what I really want you to do is read outside your favorite shelf in the library and challenge yourself to some literature. Over and over. Keep reading. It will make a difference.
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