Why looks can kill a scene
One of the trickiest verbs to translate is 'to look'. It’s a word that often flags up a missed opportunity to describe more precisely what a character is doing and feeling, using alternative words that give the reader (and director and actors) more practical information.
Mostly, ‘looks at’ isn’t specific enough to tell the actor what’s going on. But there are lots of ways to describe more precisely how and why a character is looking the way they do.
For example, there are lots of words that convey more precisely the intention of the person looking. Words like: glare, gawk, eyeball, gape, ogle, peek, leer, etc. Alternatively, similes (‘as if…’, ‘like…’) can paint evocative pictures too. Using adverbs is sometimes a necessary evil, but using too many of them in an English script can really spoil the read. Another way is to add a facial expression or a physical gesture that accompanies the look.
In the end what is most important is to describe as evocatively as possible what the characters are doing and why. All languages have this potential.
Here are some examples of ‘looking’ from a scene in the Netflix series Better Call Saul (season 1, episode 7, ‘Bingo’, written by Gennifer Hutchison). Note that this is a scene with four men (two detectives, a lawyer and his client) in a police station hallway. They all stand close to each other and most of what they do is speak and look at each other. So it’s essential to describe the nuances of what the characters are doing and why in order to create good drama.
‘Jimmy looks to Mike…’ This is in response to a question from one of the detectives. Jimmy (the lawyer) looks to Mike (his client), not at him. It’s an action, it’s Jimmy cueing Mike up, saying – without speaking – Okay, Mike, now is the time to tell the detective what we agreed beforehand you would tell him.’
‘Sanders looks at Mike, subtly raises an eyebrow.’ Here a tiny physical detail provides the intent of the character. He’s sceptical. Expecting some kind of trickery or lie.
‘Abbasi ignores Jimmy, fixes his glare on Mike.’ Imagine someone fixing a glare on you. You will be left in no doubt that this person is angry with you, right?
‘He and Mike exchange a look.’ Exchanging a look is a great way to describe a subtle interaction from which the viewer understands that these characters know something significant they’re not saying out loud. Here it happens after one of the detectives has stormed off and it indicates that the other detective and Mike know something Jimmy doesn’t. This is confirmed when Mike asks Jimmy to leave, and when Jimmy doesn’t…
‘Mike just watches him – level.’ There are many ways to watch someone, but in this case, adding the word ‘level’ tells you that Mike is more confident than Jimmy and does not accept Jimmy’s refusal to leave. It’s as if ‘level’ is telling us that Jimmy’s words mean nothing to Mike.
‘Jimmy looks at him, sees it’s hopeless.’ Here’s a simple ‘looks at him’ but with the addition of what Jimmy experiences by looking. It’s telling the reader how the character is responding, it’s information that can be acted.
If any of these descriptions had settled for a simple ‘looks at’, the scene would be far less dramatic and the interaction far less informative for the narrative.
It’s those little things that make all the difference…