Quite a lot.
Especially when your characters “look” at each other all the time in your scene description. Same goes for staring, gazing, glowering, eyeballing, scrutinising or any other synonym for the word “look”.
Until I starting script reading on a regular basis, I had no idea how much my characters “looked” at each other and how much of a problem this *can* become for the Reader. Now let me get this straight: “looking” is not a problem per se – until you do it all the time. It’s easy to fall into this trap. You want some actions, you want to render stuff as image, right? Looking is an action, nice one. Stick that in.
DON’T! If your characters do very little but look at stuff and/or each other, then frankly, it becomes a dull read. If a character is not what they say, but what they do, then an action is not a look but a real movement. What do you move when you look at someone or something? Your eyes. Hmmmm. Suddenly I’m thinking not only that’s pretty dull, but also problematic: a look after all is always open to interpretation; one man’s rage is another’s cool indifference, one woman’s sorrow is another’s resentment. Just HOW are we supposed to see this? If you can only read it actually on the page, does this not then mean you have committed the cardinal sin of sharing information with the Reader that is inaccessible to an audience? Go straight to jail & do not collect two hundred pounds, naughty screenwriter.
Of course “looks” can add to your writing. There are those “Oh Shit!” moments when characters’ eyes meet when something bad happens or they are visited with a moment of insight; used in the right context, this can work well. Equally, characters in love can stare at each other and get away with it because people in love DO actually stare at each other like sick puppies (also go straight to jail, boo). Just use this type of thing sparingly, so as to not affect their impact.
No, what I am referring to is what will be known forever as The Wimbledon School of Staring on this blog, when characters look at each other so much in the course of your scene description that it becomes a mad mess of looks, going back and forth like a tennis match with turgid action and highly directorial prose to boot. Something like this, in fact:
Jenny stares at her hands, won’t look at John.
JOHN: Look at me.
Jenny still won’t look up. John glowers at her, his face red with anger.
JOHN: Look at me!
It’s not that a Reader *doesn’t* know what’s going on here. John is peeved with Jenny, Jenny is ashamed, blah blah blah. Okay, fine. But the Reader will want a more entertaining read and you could give it to them, firing on both cyclinders, blast off baby. There’s some serious conflict going on here, yet the writer in question (okay, me) is relying on staring or not staring (how DO you show a character NOT doing something??) to get their point across when they could use anything they want. In your spec, it’s absolutely limitless. What if John was peeved with Jenny and he was the type of man prone to violent outbursts? What if Jenny was prone to violent outbursts? What if Jenny is struggling to hold in tears or John is less outraged than desperately hurt that his wife could have done this to him?? Looks alone can’t achieve that sense of drama. They can add to a scene (sparingly!) sure, but using looks alone is dangerous in my view, it bores the Reader. They’ll be reading a squillion other specs that rely on the same device, how is yours going to stand out?
Maybe something like this:
Jenny loiters in the doorway, hangs her head like a guilty schoolgirl. John pours a glass of scotch, picks it up with shaking hands.
JOHN: Look at me.
Jenny blots her hands on her dress. John’s cool demeanour slips, his face contorts with rage – he throws the glass at Jenny, it shatters against the wall, inches from her.
JOHN: Look at me!
Not the perfect scene, but that’s okay ‘cos it’s just an example I came up with whilst writing this. But by forcing myself NOT to use words like “look”, “regard”, “stare” etc, I’ve injected more visuals into this scene. I’ve had to dig deeper and find props like the scotch glass that truly convey (by throwing and breaking it) how mad John is at Jenny, instead of the vague “look of rage” he had before. I always think that a good gauge is: if it’s harder to write, then it *must* be better.
Part 2: When is a visual not a visual?