A writer’s snag list: Wrestling with the gaze

October 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Mitch almost felt sorry for her, but he kept his eyes on the table.”

The Firm (John Grisham)

In a box? What he kept on the table was presumably his gaze: Sol Stein in Solutions for Writers* comments.

Manuals for writers warn against statements like, ‘he fixed his eyes to the floor.’  An image of eyes being glued to the floor may appear in the reader’s mind. Writers are warned against autonomous body parts: ‘His eyes moved over the hill.’ What about look? ‘He looked over the hill.’ But looked won’t do: it has probably been worked to death already. It is in avoiding the word look that writers make eye blunders.

The difficulty is compounded by the existence of idiomatic expressions such as: ‘He couldn’t catch the waiter’s eye.’ We are allowed, aren’t we, to catch someone’s eye?

Writers resort to the word gaze. We often read sentences like, ‘He lowered his gaze.’ Even though I have written such sentences, I am never happy with lowered: it suggests a winching mechanism.

In Harlan Coben’s Tell No One, Dr Beck’s gaze seems capable of too much:

‘Our eyes met, but his gaze was locked on something far beyond me.’ (page 107)

‘My gaze got snagged on the clock above the examining table.’ (page 169)

‘It was hard to wrest my gaze from that cold, dark tunnel.’ (page 301)

In the following a glance is skewed and eyes are autonomous:

‘. . . he skewed down his glance to take her in, his eyes sliding over her. . . .’

The London Train by Tessa Hadley

Do the quoted examples make sense? They caused me to stop and muse. Writers do not want readers to ponder their use of English.

* This book may appear under another title


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