Hello again, all you happy writers (and editors) out there! As I’m still knee-deep in edits (or neck-deep, or–when exactly am I certifiably drowning?), I’d like to address a problem I’ve been working on with today’s chapter revisions — the dreaded (and constant) use of the phrase “looked at”.
You’re probably familiar with the problem. You picture your scene like a movie playing out in your head, and find yourself inserting “stage directions” into your writing. As each new development occurs, characters swivel around to look at the person speaking, to stare indignantly at their rival, to gaze up at the source of a sound, to glance at a plot point. It all sounded good in your head as you were writing it down, but now that you’re reading the scene over again, the words looked and gazed, glanced and stared appear in almost every. single. sentence. What do you do? How do you keep your characters from constantly looking and staring and glancing and turning towards each other?
First of all, consider the advice that a reader will comfortably overlook the word “said,” because they’re paying more attention to the dialogue than the repetition of that single verb. What I mean by this is, readers are paying more attention to the action and unique dialogue in a scene than to filler statements like “He looked at her” or “She glanced at him.” These sentences don’t leave much of an impact, because they’re repetitious and we can safely assume that if someone is speaking, the other characters are looking at them. (If you accept this as a given, you can then incorporate with more significance a character’s choice to not looking at another character in a scene.)
So, even though you might think that the choreography of your scene relies on understanding that each character is looking here, at this thing during this moment and there, at that other thing during the next, rest assured that most readers will glaze over those stage directions. If someone is quoting their favorite sentence from a novel, they’re probably not going to remember that moment where so-and-so was talking and someone else glanced up at them and nodded. Don’t worry that you’re making some vital cut to your scene by editing out all the looks and stares and glances.
But, such things are easier said than done! How do you easily edit out a ton of looks and stares and gazes, especially when you’ve realized that your scene–obviously through no fault of your own, of course–consists almost entirely of knuckleheads glancing around at each other?
I have two thoughts I’d like to throw out first:
1. When the POV character is looking at things, this action is almost always a filter separating the reader from the story and can usually be cut without too much trouble. Instead of “Mike looked out the window, where lightning lit up the sky”, you can say something like, “Lightning flashed across the window” or, “Through the window, lightning lit up the sky.” We can assume Mike looked out the window and observed that lightning because we’re seeing the world through his eyes.
2. Alternatively, when another character is looking AT your POV character, this can sometimes be a significant action. If your character has said something important, and another character turns around slowly and stares at them, that moment of the character silently gauging the POV character could in fact be necessary. So, don’t feel so guilty about including actions like that. Still, though, if you have a sentence like, “Sharon looked at Mike and considered his proposal”, you can usually change it to something as simple as “Sharon considered Mike’s proposal,” without losing much.
Point being, consider whether or not the action is of necessary significance to your story. BUT if, as is probably most likely, you find yourself using all this glancing and looking and gazing as empty phrases stuck in there to fill space and keep with the rhythm of the scene, consider the following advice:
Editing Tip #1: See if you can’t delete the sentence entirely without changing anything else about the scene.
Omit the phrase and gauge whether or not the rhythm of the scene continues undisturbed. This is my favorite fix to the problem, since it requires the least amount of work, lol.
But, sometimes you can’t just delete the phrase! I’m editing a chapter right now that is very dialogue-heavy, and I’ve found that a lot of the action I’ve stuck between the speech tags involves characters turning towards and looking at whoever is speaking next. If I went through and dispassionately deleted all the instances of characters looking at each other, I’d have a wall of dialogue! What should I do then?
Editing Tip #2: Substitute all the “looking” with more dynamic, scene-specific action.
This is the best edit to make, if also the most difficult. Find other ways to move your characters around, other ways to inform their actions besides literally tweaking them into place. Characters can pull out chairs, stand up, sit down. Try exploring details of the setting instead of relying on relaying character movements–employ your senses, dispersing sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch details in place of the staring.
It’s hard to get specific with this advice, since it’s so reliant on each specific scene.
He looked up at Sharon. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
versus something like:
Rain lashed harder against the windows. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
You can use details specific to the scene and world around the characters in place of all the gazing and staring you’re trying so hard to edit it. This’ll bring more depth to your scenes and can even create better tension between the characters! It can also help move your plot along faster, if you replace all the staring and gazing with actions relevant to moving your scene forward.
Editing Tip #3: If not dynamic action, replace all your “looking” with other character-specific mannerisms.
This advice basically suggests replacing one kind of filler with another, but if you need packaging to smush in between your dialogue, this is at least a little more unique. Replace the “looking” verb with a character-specific mannerism. For instance, a character in a scene might stomp their feet, scratch their noses, impatiently swipe their hair out of their eyes; they could scuff the floor with their sneaker, clench their fists or their teeth, pick dust off their clothes, check their holsters, crack their knuckles, bounce on the balls of their feet. Basically, if you feel like you need something to break up the dialogue, consider something character-specific that is slightly more interesting and varied.
Editing advice is always hard to give, since stories are unique and pugnacious beasts and every writer requires a different set of revisionary tactics to tame the beast and cram it back into its story-shaped cage. (Real solid metaphor, this.) But, I hope this has helped a little bit! Basically, don’t stress too much about too many stage directions in your story, because they’re not a terribly big deal, BUT, if you’d like to vary your action and strengthen your weaker sentences so they might lift a heavier load, consider some of these alternatives!
If you’d like more help with editing, I walked through my editing process in How to Edit a Scene in Five Easy (Heh. Try Hair-Pulling) Steps.
If weak words are your pet peeve, check out Clean Up Your Draft By Eliminating Crutch Words, where I walk through revising a scene from my WIP by editing out the word ‘was’.