13 July 2023

Too Much Eye Contact

P.N. Elrod published this on her Facebook page and I immediately asked for permission to reprint it here. She is a writer and editor, best known for her Urban Fantasy series, The Vampire Files, a hard boiled take on the pulps of the 1930s. She has survived reading slush-piles, conducting countless workshops, and doing book deals in hotel bars over chocolate martinis.
— Rob

Too Much Eye Contact

by P.N. Elrod

An excerpt from the "Learn Your Craft" section of Dear Aspiring Author. (I'm still editing. It won't be out anytime soon.)

I've been through dozens of submissions from a wide variety of writers spread along all levels of a bell curve from the ready-to-publish to the "you need to read more."

A difference I've noticed between the neos and the ones who are almost there: neos are obsessed with EYES.

This is usually to do with dramatic scenes where characters are reacting to something or the protag is watching other characters. That's when we're given a lot of "eye contact."

The prose is full of eyes looking at this or that, characters looking at the eyes of other characters, and then the usual eyes rolling, darting, and following people about.

The latter descriptive is not only anatomically impossible, but always brings up a mental image of Bob Clampett cartoons where 'Toon eyeballs float about like tiny balloons to great comic effect. (Not to mention characters who "throw up their hands" – yikes.)

An Editorial Observation: Do trad writers do this? Yes, all the time. Their editors either don't notice or don't care.

There's one bestselling writer whose work I really liked but she became obsessed with eyes rolling, especially in her later books where she began phoning it in. Her protags roll their eyes every few pages, and sometimes twice a page. That's not funny any more.

Teen characters roll their eyes, but adults, not so much. I'm guilty of it as well, but am consciously cutting it out.

The more experienced writer may mention eyes, but they go past the surface description and get into what the protag is thinking and feeling.

One is an observer, the other a participant.

I understand how it has come about and so do you: blame TV.

When you see a really good actor with a fantastic script cutting loose on his or her craft it's all in their EYES. An actor can sell a whole show with one look and we feel what their character is feeling– which is pretty awesome when you think about it.

The neo writer, working hard to find his voice, focuses on the dramatic facial expression and what a character's eyes *look* like.

The more experienced writer is inside the character's head and letting us know what the character is *feeling*. She is thinking, not giving a description of eyes staring/glaring.

I hope this makes sense. I'll readily admit that I did the same Eye Thing starting out. In the movie I run in my head, the characters act out a scene, and I'm sure much of my early stuff includes lots of staring eyes. I've dialed that back!

Another point I want to cover to hopefully impart one good writer tip here, which is please eliminate stuff where characters "turned-and-looked-and-saw (something)."

Get rid of "He watched-and-saw/ he looked-and-saw/he looked-and-watched/he-watched-as" phrasing.

Please, just describe what's there. No need to put in stage directions.

For those with a work in progress, do a global search of words like "eyes, watch(ed), look(ed), stare, glare, rolled" and find a better way to get that drama across to a reader. Don't kick up a fuss that it's too much work. Having your software doing the search is better than going through hard copy pages the way we did in dinosaur times.

Besides, this is your CRAFT. No matter how much work it is, you do it to make a book better.

By way of example, one of my writer friends did a global word search. In his 350 page MS, he found 300 mentions of eyes. Yikes.

He's– um– editing!


  1. Great post. I'm so guilty of this--especially in long conversations between characters--and have tried to watch out for it and cut back on it in recent stories. Reminders like this are good for all of us.

  2. Well, gotta go back and look at the eye references in the latest thing I'm working on. Thanks.

  3. Immediately going to check my WiP (book 18) for the above! Thanks for this post. 30 years in the biz...still learning.


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