Scene Writing: More than Looking

The look across a crowded room. That look your mom gives when you’re naughty. The puppy dog eyes of a pleading look. In scene writing, writers are faced with so many looks. But repeating the “L” word too often may irritate readers.

Writing Tip for Today: How can writers capture a full scenic experience without overusing the word look?

Synonyms Get First Choice

She looked at him. He looked back at her. These looks get repetitious quickly. Dig into your thesaurus or your knowledge of different ways of seeing. People peek, peer, stare, gaze, glare, glance, glower, shoot looks and a host of other ways of saying “he looked.”

Don’t bend over backwards, though. A stretch of terms just to write about a look will seem as contrived as a silly dialogue tag. Balance your scene by using alternate terms for looking.

Leave out most of the “ly” modifiers to look. If your character is looking angrily, you’re telling, not showing. Most of the time, these ly words don’t add much to the scene anyway. Readers resent being told how to feel. Rather, they want to be shown what the character is feeling.

Don’t Count Out Other Senses

We’re a visual society. We lean on our visuals harder than most other senses. Yet in scene writing, you’re missing out if you don’t use the whole CSD (Concrete Sensory Detail) spectrum.

Hearing is accomplished mainly through dialogue, but you can also round out a scene by incorporating the sounds of the setting. The whir of an air conditioner, the roar of a storm or the faint mew of a newborn kitten can help readers imagine the scene more fully.

Less obvious are the senses for smell, taste, touch. These senses are powerful—especially smell. Who isn’t moved by the smell of fresh bread baking or the taste of salt in tears? The light brush of a lover’s touch or the violence of being punched? Because of their power, use sparingly, for places where your character reacts in a more important or bigger way than the other sensory spots in the scene.

Even More Tools

When we write our scenes, we must convey the emotions of the POV character. After all, if the character doesn’t care, why should readers? Yet relying too heavily upon the body language of looks or any other sense can short-change your scene.

Scene writing will be more balanced and flow better if you mix it up. Use dialogue, body language and setting clues, but don’t forget about interior thought. If the POV character has a perspective or opinion on everything (and she should!), she’ll have running thoughts or judgments about what is happening around her. As Lisa Cron says in Wired for Story, these thoughts don’t need italics—we’re already in her viewpoint.

A word about interior dialogue. Interior thoughts can be written as plain prose in the narrative—no quotes, italics or tags needed. Interior dialogue, however, should be placed in italics. Use this technique very sparingly. The more the character “talks” inside her own head, the more melodramatic the scene will appear. Your scenes will benefit from a little less looking as you get creative with scene writing.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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