Monday, April 20, 2015

"Looking With Eyes"—Avoiding Redundant Description

(A busy day cut down on my available writing time, so I'm afraid I have to post my first-ever rerun today. There'll be a new post up Wednesday.)

Here are some sample sentences from works I've edited:
  1. Derek surveyed their surroundings with his cloudy gray eyes.
  2. She kissed the envelope with her full lips, leaving a bright red lipstick mark behind.
  3. He grasped the sword hilt in his shaking hands.
What's the problem here? Take a moment to look again.

The problem is that each of these sentences contains an awkward, redundant phrase. In example one, the phrase "with his cloudy eyes" is unneededhow else would someone survey their surroundings, after all? In the second example, of course she kissed "with her full lips." That's the body part that kisses. In example three, we already know that he's grasping with his hands, so telling us that is redundant and unnatural.

So why do writers do this? If you'll look at our example sentences, you'll notice that each of the named body parts is preceded by an adjective: cloudy eyes, full lips, and shaking hands. These adjectives are the reason the authors included the redundant phrase. 

In example one, for instance, Derek is being introduced to the audience for the first time. The author wanted the readers to know that his eyes were a cloudy gray, but didn't simply want to say "Derek's eyes were a cloudy gray."  And that was a good goalthis is a more interesting way to find out what the character looks likebut you can usually do better than an otherwise-redundant phrase.

Here are some examples of how these sentences could be reworked.

Make the body part the subject of the sentence: Just about every sentence needs a subject, after all, so it's unlikely to be redundant.
  1. Derek's cloudy gray eyes surveyed the surroundings.
  2. Her full lips kissed the envelope, leaving a bright red lipstick mark behind.
  3. His shaking hands grasped the sword hilt.
Give the body part something else to do: Add a phrase or sentence that further describes the action of the original sentence.
  1. Derek surveyed their surroundings; the blinding light made his cloudy gray eyes water.
  2. She kissed the envelope. Her full lips left a bright red lipstick mark behind.
  3. His hands shook uncontrollably as he grasped the sword hilt.
Try to work the adjective in somewhere or somehow else: This can be the trickiest solution, but also often the most subtle and graceful.
  1. Derek surveyed their surroundings. Lina studied his eyes; they were intense and focused as he searched, the same cloudy grey as the water beneath the boat.
  2. She kissed the envelope, leaving behind full red lipstick marks.
  3. He grasped the sword, trying to keep the point from wavering. It didn't work.
Remember that specifying that a character performed an action "with" something is fine if it wasn't clear how the action was performed. For instance:

     He sliced the steak with a worn shark-tooth knife.

This is a perfectly acceptable way to describe the knife. It's not redundant because there is more than one tool for slicing steak, so it's natural to explain what the character is using to slice.

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