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If you're anything like me, you've watched your share of gut-punchingly emotional scenes in movies or TV shows where the characters seem to say EVERYTHING with their eyes.
Just the subtle play of their eyes in that split second to capture what they feel: heartbreak, hope, fear, disappointment, anger, love.
Even in our daily lives, the eyes tell a story of someone's moods, thoughts, and reactions. Talented actors and actresses can convey even more. (The 100's Bellamy Blake seems to have a corner on the expressive eye emotion market.)
So, if you're FURTHER like me, you watch these great scenes and think, "That! That right there is what I want to capture in my novel."
And here's where those eyes begin to lead us astray. The danger is that, while eyes can be a powerful nonverbal cue on-screen, readers can't actually SEE them on the page. We end up describing the eyes (telling) rather than the emotion itself (showing). All that great potential too often fizzles in feeble phrases like "He looked..." or "Her eyes widened."
This last one is a good example of the limitations. While "eyes widened" is a nice lead-in phrase, what does it actually tell us? People's eyes can widen in surprise, in hurt, in fear. Which one is your character facing?
On TV, we naturally intuit the answer from tiny clues. A frightened eye looks different than a surprised eye. But those are nearly impossible to communicate on page via eyes alone. In order for it to have meaning, we need to take it deeper and that can be danger-ground for telling.
But it doesn't have to be. Instead of letting the eyes do all the work, opt for other supports and alternatives that pack more punch on page:
- Facial expressions and movement - What does your character do with her eyebrows, forehead, lips, nose, chin that helps convey what she's feeling?
- Action - Make your character DO something. Even a subtle shiver or the clenching of a hand can speak volumes. Action is doubly effective for emotion, because it can be seen, and sometimes felt, by both the POV character and any other characters in the scene with him.
- Internalized actions - Showing action doesn't mean your character needs to physically move. Throats can tighten, stomachs can turn cold, spines can stiffen.
- Inner dialogue or thoughts - A character can't see her OWN eyes to describe emotion, so unless you're writing omniscient, sprinkle in some thoughts to give us a peek at her internal reaction.
- Dialogue - This is your best bang-for-the-buck at conveying emotion and advancing the story. Dialogue on the page is what eyes are on-screen. Readers intuit the tone, subtle undercurrents, and what's left unsaid as much as what your characters discuss aloud.
Now, go forth and make us weep!