Oh Those Eyes!

I’m reading a novel in which a character’s eyes flash — a lot.

Human eyes in fiction do other amazing things, such as sparkle, glow, smoulder and dance.

Only they can’t. Think about it. “Flash” is a verb meaning to emit short bursts of light. Eyes can’t emit light, only reflect it. The eyes of some animals contain reflective tissue called tapetum lucidum, which is why they appear to shine in the dark — but only in the presence of light sources such as headlights, flashlights or firelight. They don’t shine in pitch darkness. Short bursts of reflected light may be described as flashes, but human eyes can’t do that either.

It’s also impossible for eyes to sparkle or glow, phenomena in which light is created by the thing doing the sparkling or glowing. Eyes do not have internal combustion, even when a character is enraged or ecstatic.

As for dancing, the only eyes that can literally do that are ones on stalks. “Dancing eyes” is a phrase used to describe a situation where someone is smiling or laughing — actions which flex the facial muscles — and moving their eyes around as well, looking from one person to another in a state of happy animation.

Eyes are such important features, both for experiencing the world and expressing emotion, it’s inevitable that writers pay attention to them. And of course the phrases I’ve mentioned, such as eyes that dance or smoulder, are really metaphors. If writers never used metaphors or similes and always stuck to the literal, writing would lose much of its life and colour.

But as with so many other areas of writing, it’s a matter of degree. One incidence of flashing eyes may be fine, but when characters are flashing at each other like a couple of lighthouses, I’m diverted from the narrative. I start counting incidences of flashing eyes. I start reading the prose, not the story.

Many of these eye-related words and phrases are also cliches, and while cliches can be useful shortcuts, using too many of them is a sign of lazy writing.

Going back to the flashing eyes as an example — what is it that I’m trying to show when I use this phrase? Obviously not bursts of light coming from someone’s eyes (unless the character is a robot or someone with supernatural light-emitting powers). If I stop and visualize what my character is doing, I see them sending a quick glance toward another person, often with a facial expression that conveys anger or annoyance. How else can I express this? How about: “A glance like a thrown knife,” or “He darted me a narrow-eyed glance,” or “A look that made me wish for a catcher’s mask and mitt.”

Whatever I choose — simile, metaphor or simple description — I aim for a frictionless reading experience. Word combinations that are too clever are just as distracting as overused cliches. I have to remind myself I’m not trying to score points for originality or cleverness, just keep the reader engaged with the story I’m telling. If I get it right, the reader will subconsciously register my colourful prose without losing the narrative thread. After they finish the book, they’ll say, “That was a great read!” without realizing precisely why. And that will make my eyes light up and dance.


Hey! There’s That Dog Again!

Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed b... on Twitpic

I’m a big fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side and rue the day he stopped drawing those bizarre and wickedly funny cartoons. One of my favourites shows a couple of typical Larson cows discovered in the act of drawing a meat chart of a human figure. The caption reads: Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed back at him. Somewhere, off in the distance, a dog barked.

I recently read a review of a book I’m reading — Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven — taking the author to task for ending a scene with the “ultimate cliche” of a dog barking in the distance.

I googled the phrase, wondering just how much of a cliche it could be. A 2010 article in Slate listed authors from James Joyce to Jodi Picoult who have put variations on this barking dog into their novels. Kurt Vonnegut used it consciously as a kind of leitmotiv in Slaughterhouse Five.

Side note: compiling this information is a lot easier now that ebooks can be searched for particular words or phrases. I’m betting the average reader would hardly notice these recurrent dogs (except as they are used in Slaughterhouse Five, where they are meant to be noticed).

Eventually, an uneasy feeling crept into my ruminations. Could there be — oh, surely not! — a barking dog somewhere in the Herbert West Series, written by one A. Driscoll? I pulled up the books on Adobe Reader and searched on “dog.” And there it was, in Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure. Young Herbert West, during an awkward “date” with a girl called Violet, hears a dog barking in the distance when he should be carried away with the thrill of kissing Violet.

Well, dang!

So really — what’s going on here? Why do so many writers, including quite a few highly-regarded ones, make this barking dog an accessory to scenes in their novels? In my case, it was unconscious. I lived the scene as I wrote it, and I heard that dog. Revisiting this scene in the course of multiple revisions of the text, I never considered deleting the dog.

That Larson cartoon is a parody of the Moment of Crisis, as when Farmer Brown realizes those cows are Up To Something Serious. Even while laughing at the cartoon, I was reminded of similar moments in various novels, where a terrifying realization breaks upon the protagonist. They know I’m a fake. He’s planning to kill me. Those things aren’t human.  Here, the barking dog is more than a filler; it’s a reminder of the ordinary world in which the terrible thing is happening, highlighting the contrast between the mundane and the terrible.

If you find a barking dog in a piece of your writing, put out the dog and reread the paragraph. If its fine without the dog, leave it out. If a necessary tinge of poignancy is missing sans dog, let it back in.

Things other than dogs may serve the same purpose if the presence of a dog is either implausible in the situation or the writer is dutifully trying to avoid cliches. Consider the following:

A bird sang far away, and another replied, nearby.

A little breeze stirred the curtains.

A moth bumped against the lampshade.

A burst of laughter erupted from the street.

A siren wailed in the distance. (This one may be just as common as the dog).

On the other hand, the barking dog may be seen as a secret detail that unites a diversity of writers. William Faulkner, Jackie Collins, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King and Henning Mankell are all members of the Order of the Barking Dog. So am I.