Thursday, December 27, 2007

Responses to Comments: Gaze and Look

I hope those of you who celebrated the holiday had a wonderful time. Mine was -- well, let’s just say I won’t be cooking again any time soon. Formal dinner for 12 one night, and a buffet supper for 45 the next, with homemade sticky buns for breakfast on Christmas morning. I’m sick of my kitchen and I’m still exhausted!

So to save my poor exhausted brain from having to think too hard, I’m going to take this opportunity to respond to some blog comments and questions. We’ll keep this going for the next few days as I ease back into an upright position.

Good Looking Verbs

This question is from Bethany Michaels, who writes beautifully and doesn’t have to worry so much about these things. (Hmm. Maybe she writes beautifully because she worries about these things?)

One of my problems is that I end up with too many 'gazes'. The only alternatives I can think of are 'stared', 'glared' and plain old 'looked'. Can you suggest some other good 'looking' verbs?

Bethany, some of the other commenters shared your concern about gaze/look/similar verbs, and I know Alicia responded, but I want to take a swing here, too. This is a common problem in manuscripts from writers of all experience levels. There are really two solutions: the easy one and the hard one.

The easy solution is to use a thesaurus and/or dictionary. I know that sounds like a non-answer, but the simple truth is that a thesaurus is an essential tool in the editing/revision process. As is the dictionary. I keep Roget’s at my right elbow and Merriam Webster’s online site open on my desktop while doing any editing. I use more than just these two -- the Oxford thesaurus, for example, is good for quick look-ups because it uses a dictionary format rather than Roget’s word-cluster approach. But Roget’s and M-W are key tools when you’re trying to find better words to punch up your prose.

If you’ve already tried that and still feel you’re overwhelmed with looks and gazes, try substituting other kinds of actions in place of those looks and gazes. Yes, this is the harder solution because it requires rethinking your prose a bit. If you’ve got something like,

She looked at him in exasperation.

Try, instead, using a physical gesture which conveys the same emotion.

Her shoulders tightened as she huffed out a breath.
Or the always popular, near cliche,
She shoved a hand through her hair.

This substitution trick works best when the looking action is not important to the plot. That is, if the look is part of the chain of causation -- she looks out the window and sees the villain skulking in the neighbor’s shrubs -- then you need to keep prose that indicates actual looking.

But even there, you can often edit out the look/gaze verbs if you are deep enough in the character’s point of view. (And if you aren’t deep enough to do this, why aren’t you?)

She twitched aside the curtain. What was that shadow across the street? There, in Mrs. Smith’s roses? A tall man. A hitch in his shoulder. And yes, there it was, that tattered Wildcats jersey. Her assailant had returned.

Because here’s the thing. We’re often not conscious of the fact that we’re looking at people or objects. Usually, we’re only conscious of the people or objects themselves. If you listen closely to your own interior monologue -- the silent soundtrack in your mind -- you’ll realize that you rarely think actual thoughts such as, “I looked out the window.” Your mind is thinking about curtains and shadows and tattered jerseys, but not so much about the fact of looking or gazing.

By my reckoning, I have around five other questions awaiting answers. You’re on deck, folks. I’ll be getting to you in the next few posts. Thanks for asking the questions, by the way, because it sure is making post topics easier during this “off” week.



Natasha Moore said...

Great suggestions, Theresa. I "tend to" over-use gaze, look, etc. too.

Hugs on all the cooking you had to do for the holidays - I ended up with a clogged kitchen sink Christmas Eve! Ugh!

Anonymous said...

I love my thesaurus, too! But I think you have to be careful not to use so odd a word that it stops the reader in her tracks. I like Stephen King's comments on the subject in his book, 'On Writing':

Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you'll never use 'emolumnet' when you mean 'tip' and you'll never say, 'John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion' when you mean 'John stopped long enough to take a ...'

Well, you get the picture :)


Anonymous said...

I need to finagle an invitation to your house for the holidays! I don't know anyone who puts out a spread like that these days! Bravo!

Edittorrent said...

Natasha, A clogged sink? On Christmas Eve? ::shudder:: Our power went out for about ten minutes, but I'd take that over plumbing problems any day.

Bethany, that's a great quote. Don't you love that book? King has a way of making a point so that it sticks. :)

Fiona, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I sincerely hope this will be my last year for the big buffet supper! It's fun, but hoo boy is it a lot of work.