Emotional Eyeballs

This is a quick rant because I’ve got little to say beyond HOLY HELL am I tired of this. ENOUGH WITH THE EMOTIONS IN THE EYEBALLS. PLEASE.

It must be terribly interesting to be an opthamologist in romance land considering the flickers of emotion all these people in romance novels have harbored in their eyeballs. You think they look into people’s eyes and think, “Damn. This one’s a hot mess.” Maybe they have psychologists on call.

Seriously. Can we stop with the flicker of fear, the fleeting hint of desire, the flash of rage? COME ON. Couldn’t a hero have tension between his eyebrows, a wrinkle near his eyes that indicated rage that smooths out before she gets a good look? Something other than an emotion floating in his eyeballs that she gets a glimpse of?

Shorthand bugs the crap out of me, and I wish there wasn’t so much of it. There are other ways to demonstrate and indicate emotion. I refuse to believe romance authors are secretly opthamologists with those looking-at-the-retina machines and that the retina is some sort of emotional telegraph.

Have you noticed this? Or did you see that flash of impatient fury in my eyes before I hid it behind a debonair arch of my brow and wonder what I was angry about?


Ranty McRant

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  1. Cakes says:

    I was just thinking this while dealing with a “possessive gaze” that keeps “mingling anger and desire.”

  2. terripatrick says:

    Sarah – you are awesome!  That just needed to be said.

  3. Host says:

    I so agree with you!

  4. S says:

    And here I was thinking I was wired wrong or something for not being able to read those emotions in the eyes of the people around me.  What were all these authors seeing that I cannot?!?  0_0

    Problem solved.  Thanks Sarah!

  5. Claudia says:

    It’s all in the eyebrows.

  6. Can we stop with the flicker of fear, the fleeting hint of desire, the flash of rage? COME ON. Couldn’t a hero have tension between his eyebrows, a wrinkle near his eyes that indicated rage that smooths out before she gets a good look?

    First, if 2012 is the year of “his eyebrows furrowed” it will totally be your fault.

    And you picked an easy one. Rage has furrowing brows and tight jaws and big, throbbing veins in the forehead. Then you’ve got a few that come with the arching eyebrow rather than the furrowing kind.

    What if you’re at a party and your guy looks at you across the room and he doesn’t drool. He doesn’t waggle his eyebrows like a cartoon letch. He doesn’t grab his crotch. But you know he’s thinking about a trip to the coat closet for a quickie.

    Or when he’s annoyed to be stuck in a conversation. He’s too polite to show it, but the heroine can see it because she knows him. Unless the hero’s a two-year-old or has no self-control, the differences in his expressions are going to be subtle (like in real life) and, even with body language thrown in, hard to describe.

    I think most authors know it’s a little ridiculous but, in my opinion, it’s a shortcut that works in the readers’ favor. Trying to describe the hero’s reactions from the heroine’s POV and vice versa would become wordy and unwieldy and repetitive to the point you’d want the telegraphing eyeballs back.

  7. Katie Ann says:

    What about mood eyeballs?  “His eyes flashed their usual warm Mediterranean blue to an intense steely blue in a second.”  Maybe I don’t know enough people with blue eyes, but I’ve never seen them change color with emotion.

  8. LOL—I found myself writing the eye thing the other day and had an inner ‘stop the madness!’ moment.

    Would be nice if people were like pets: ears forward = happy, ears back = pissed off, ears down = guilty, ears to either side = WTF?

  9. joanneL says:

    I dunno.

    I can sort of see the raging fury in your eyes.

    The flicker of disgust.

    The impatience that lingers there among the shadows.  (the shadows may be glaucoma, see your opthamologist)

    There is weariness in the pools of my eyes (no peeing in the pool!) as I leave for work.

    I can also see you rolling your eyes. Stop it.

  10. I think I’m mostly safe on that one, but my heroes eyebrows are forever bunching and contracting and furrowing and otherwise pantomiming a gamut of manful emotions. I also like to toss in a flaring nostril here and there when Lucy has some ‘splaining to do.

  11. Nadia says:

    Yes!  A description of emotion on the face is great, but it always pulls me out of the story when it’s the eyeball itself showing that rage or desire.  When I was younger, I definitely wondered if it were just me who couldn’t read a man’s eyeballs like the heroines can!

  12. Lisa says:

    In all fairness: anybody who thinks eyeballs can’t talk needs to watch Colin Firth as Darcy watch Lizzie play the piano. But I agree that this is an exceptional case.

    Also, I’m with Katie Ann on the mood eyeballs. My boyfriend’s blue eyes do change color – but only if he’s wearing a different shirt. Can you just see it? “I was mad at you, but I’m not now. So you hang on for a minute while I run to my closet, and then you’ll be able to see it in my eyes!”

  13. Elizabeth Wadsworth says:


    I just wrote something last night like “Tiny, reflective eyeballs flashed as various rodents sought egress” but in all fairness, it’s a rough draft.

  14. HeatherK says:

    Eyes are the windows into the soul. You can tell a lot about a person just from his/her eyes. I know I can just hubby’s moods by the looks in his eyes. Drives him crazy that I can that, too.

    Explains why some people like to hide behind sunglasses. They don’t want their eyes to give them away.

  15. LMAO.  Okay, I’m going to have to skim the WIP for emotional eyeballs. I’ve probably got a few.

    But I’d rather have the eyeballs flickering the emotion then, as Shannon mentioned, the hero rubbing his crotch from across the room…

    *G* It’s a a good way to relay the needed mood.

    Will try to work on the tense brows, though.  A bunched jaw, maybe.

  16. Carrie Lofty says:

    Interestingly, most behavioral research indicates that women rarely watch eyes—men do, but not women. We watch mouths. Think about it next time you’re in a conversation. Really *try* to look into the other person’s eyes. It’s rather freaky and unnerving.

  17. I think it’s the lids that are getting short shrift in this discussion. The eyeballs themselves don’t change much, aside from glistening more or less depending on how moist they are, plus ye oldie pupil dilation and contraction. But the eyelids do all the angry squinching, surprised widening, exhausted drooping, and amorous (or pissed off) narrowing.

    Eyelids, can you has better PR in footure, pleez? The iBalls are stealing all your thunder.

  18. SB Sarah says:

    Explains why some people like to hide behind sunglasses. They don’t want their eyes to give them away.

    Ha! I wear sunglasses so people won’t know where I’m looking while I check everyone out and make sure I’m wearing the right clothing.

    …not women. We watch mouths. Think about it next time you’re in a conversation. Really *try* to look into the other person’s eyes. It’s rather freaky and unnerving.

    You mean it’s not just me?! HOLY CRAP.

    My eyes just soared with incredulous joy. I think I have to fetch them now. Excuse me.

  19. foolserrant says:

    I just finished reading “Where the Heart Leads” by Stephanie Laurens and this drove me crazy with the book.  Barnaby was constantly seeing how Penelope really did want to settle down with him and such in her eyes.  Swirling with desire, their eyes were.  Good gracious, but if my eyes start swirling, I think I might get jumped by men in white coats if-you-know-what-I-mean.

    Shorthand or not, it can get taken to ridiculous lengths.  Like being able to tell that someone wants 2.5 kids and a picket fence because the “passion swirling in her eyes mixed with something deeper, a longing to be with him.  He could see her planning out their future, the years ticking past in those beautiful brown orbs.”  Not a direct quote, but it wouldn’t have been out of place in WTHL.

    Security code: near69.  lol.

  20. Moira Reid says:

    I have been noticing it a lot in my own stuff lately…and not just the eyes. It’s like everybody is “sighing” and “shaking their heads” and “folding their arms over their chests.”

    Seems like all my people are varying levels of pissed off, doesn’t it?? Maybe they are as sick of my cliches as I am…

  21. Barbara says:

    I think part of it, too, is that current fashion where explanatory dialogue verbs are out of style.

    For example?
    “What did you think?” she said.
    “What did you think?” she bit out.
    “What did you think?” she huffed.
    “What did you think?” she purred.
    “What did you think?” she snarled.
    “What did you think?” she replied.
    “What did you think?” she smirked.

    If you’re not allowed to use those words, then all the emotion has to come out someplace else. And they’ve picked the eyeballs.

  22. judy says:

    I agree 100%!!  I have always been annoyed by my lack of ability to read eyes – I’ve never seen any emotions (other than tears) in someone’s eyes – facial expressions, sure – but I’ve never seen eyeballs express anything, nor have I seen eyes change colors (of course, my eyes are brown, so I’m already at a disadvantage).  BTW, I’ve also never really noticed flairing nostrils, nor do I recall back in the days of dating staring at someone’s mouth (or anyone staring at mine!).  I’m resigned to writers moving the plot along via emotive eyes, but I still think it’s awful silly and not at all realistic!  And Carrie – I agree w/you – I’m very uncomfortable staring into someone’s eyes when they talk – I watch their faces, not just their eyes!

  23. If you’re not allowed to use those words, then all the emotion has to come out someplace else. And they’ve picked the eyeballs.

    Well, let’s not put Angry Boner Man in a corner. I suspects his rage manifests itself just a few feet further south.

  24. I’m with Cara McKenna on there being some emotion to be derived from eyes—if only from how they move, what they’re looking at, and what the eyelids/lashes are doing. My eyes sure as hell don’t change colour based on what I’m feeling, but there is definitely something going on even if it’s not in the eyeball, so to speak.

    I will admit I’m guilty of using eyes for emotion, but it’s usually in the form of narrowing or squinting or pointedly not looking at things.

    Heh. ‘degree33’. It’s all a matter of degree, really.

  25. Sarah W says:

    Right on (write on?), Sarah!

    This reminds me of the time one of my writing profs asked us to go through one of our WIP chapters and highlight any short-phrase movements that were used with dialogue:  “he shrugged,” “She grinned,” “He raised an eyebrow.”

    Turns out, our characters were twitching all over the place . . .

  26. Carrie Lofty says:

    My husband studies human behavior and twists it in lovely ways for market research purposes, so I get the inside scoop on a lot of the “blink” sorts of behavior—such as where people watch during convos. Men watch eyes because they’re on the look-out for aggression. Women watch mouths because we’re more verbal and have a greater ability to read the physical cues taken from lips and their myriad expressions.

    The best behavioral finds were where people first look when they see a naked person, and how long it takes for men and women to determine if a person is attractive…

  27. hollygee says:

    Heh. Terry gross interviewed Colin Firth yesterday and talked a lot about how he, in A Single Man, tamped down emotion in his face and body, but his eyes mirrored his grief and pain.

  28. Amanda says:

    I don’t think it’s ridiculous to write about emotion being in the eyes.  There’s a reason there’s the old saying that the eyes are the window to the soul, you know.

  29. CourtneyLee says:

    I’m willing to buy that by “eyes” most writers mean a combination of brows, lids, etc, but it would be nice if that was spelled out. Maybe the problem is that we read subtle cues, like fine lines to indicate tension, almost subconsciously so they’re hard to pin down. Regardless, I’d rather not feel that I’m supposed to be able to read the striations in someone’s irises like they’re some sort of secret language. I always feel like I’m missing my decoder ring or something.

    And I don’t get the color-changing, either. The only people allowed to have mood-ring eyes are paranormal creatures.

  30. Cate says:

    Preach it, sister!

  31. dangrgirl says:

    My eyes do seem to change color on a gray-to-green spectrum depending on my emotional state and I have seen the same in others with light colored eyes. However, the change is subtle and not likely something just an acquaintance would pick up on.

    Lighter eyes have less melanin, with gray having the least. About 15% of Caucasians have eye color that changes around puberty (source: http://www.thetech.org/genetics/ask.php?id=30), which says to me that eye color is affected by hormone levels. While certainly lighting, pupil size, and clothing color can affect the perception of someone’s eye color, that article says this:

    “The genes involved in eye color determine how much pigment gets made, how quickly it is degraded and where in your iris to put it. In other words, eye color is an ongoing process that is not necessarily set in stone.”

    So, yes, it does seem both anecdotally and objectively that eye color can change. Just like anything else in writing, though, it can be over-used. Writing emotion is so so so so hard to do at all, let alone in an original way.

    Regarding dialogue tags, I’m revising a novella right now where I forbade myself from using any sort of dialogue tag whether it’s “said,” “replied,” or the more descriptive ones. It’s the best story I’ve ever written because I forced myself to show emotion in ways I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Sometimes if an author has a strong enough voice these sorts of cliches fade in the background, so I think it really all comes down to balancing out all of the tools used to tell a story.

  32. Laurel says:

    Thank you, SB Sarah!

    I first wondered about this during my formitive years and ultimately concluded that I had a highly specialized form of autism that manifested as being the only person in the world who could not take social cues from someone’s eyes.

    Pupils dilate or constrict. Aside from that, I get nothin’. Eyebrows, lids, eye contact, thinned lips, those red blotchy spots some people get when they’re thoroughly irked, however, speak to me fluently.

    I agree with what seems to be the consensus. It’s shorthand for an author. Easier to write “anger flashing through his eyes” than describe three or four different areas of tension on the face and body. That is one really cool crutch in shifter stories. They can “smell” fear, desire, rage, etc. It makes sense in the story and doesn’t pull me out of the moment since I’m not a shifter and I can just take the author’s word for it.

  33. Maybe the eye color-change thing is related to the instant attraction thing, where hero fastens his gaze on the target of desire and something inside clicks on and says, all tight-jawed and strained-zipper: MINE.

    That said, I have to add that I could take one look at my second son’s light blue eyes and know when he was lying because they seemed to fade—gone the vibrant color, even as he exerted himself to look right into my cold hazel orbs. Methinks it is possible for slight color change, but unlikely anyone but a “familiar” could know what it meant.

  34. Laura (in PA) says:

    OMG, this is so totally true.  She said, her eyes flashing.

  35. Julia T. says:

    I agree with this, especially when its strangers. How can you tell subtle social cues from someone you just met? Now with my sister and some of my best friends, I can tell how they feel by their face and my one friend and i can do the “communicating with the eyes so no one else knows what we are saying, but we get it” thing.

    But it is so overused, the emotional eyes. I understand the rage. And you’d be able to tell from the red now flooding too my eyes. Though that may just be pink eye…. or a burst blood vessel.

  36. It wasn’t the anger that flashed in your eyes. It was the smack upside the head. 😉

    Note to self: no more eyeballs

  37. pooks says:

    I dunno. Go to crazy with the facial details and I end up seeing Jim Carrey going rubber-faced. This is not a good look. Sometimes shorthand works.

  38. Lisa Hendrix says:

    Holding up hand. Guilty.

    But in my defense, I come by the eye-color emotion descriptor from first hand experience. I actually went to high school with a girl whose eyes changed color, and in a truly bizarre way. She ordinarily had rather bland hazel eyes, but when she was upset, one eye went brilliant emerald green and the other went cocoa brown. She could never hide when she was angry or sad because all we had to do was look at her. Her boyfriend appreciate it because there was no mind-reading involved.

    For that matter my own eyes change color from day to day — although it probably has more to do with what I’m wearing than how I feel. At various times, I’ve been described as blue-eyed, green-eyed, gray-eyed or hazel-eyed.  Since I’m never sure, I put hazel on my passport.

    (Strangely, my captcha is remember72—which is when I was in HS with Jeri, the girl with the traffic signal eyes.  How do you guys do that??)

  39. Scrin says:

    I have seen exactly ONE MOVIE where the character’s eyes played a decent role in his interpretation.

    Did anyone else see Spiderman 3 in the movie theater? Did you keep feeling like the Sandman looked a little sad?

    If you have it on DVD, pop it in and find a scene where he’s featured a lot. Keep your attention on his face and his eyes.

    It was a lot more noticeable on the big screen, which really had me digging the movie (taking a Study of Film class from Mr. John Butler will do that to you).

  40. Mama Nice says:

    Add me to the “So glad I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t see all those flashes of anger and lust flitting through people’s eyes” cmp.

    Personally, I’m a fan of the subtle clench in a man’s jaw.

    Side note – I remember reading about how people’s pupils dilate when seeing something/someone they love.
    Took a quick trip down Google lane, and found this:

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