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I've read a lot of such phrases, but that one in particular doesn't make sense to me. Physically, what is supposed to be described here? How long is the moment? I've personally tried to make my eyes "flash" as quickly as possible and it's not nearly so quick. Perhaps I am unique in my lack of abilities, but most of the time when I read this in fiction I get the impression that the expression is so fast as to be just barely noticed.

Perhaps a better question is: what is a more descriptive way to explain this act in fiction writing?

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  • The expression could conceivably also appear in non-fiction, e.g. a vivid description of a board meeting or political discussion, as recounted by a witness. Jan 20 '20 at 10:41
  • Check my answer for a more visual representation of what "flashing with anger" might look like.
    – T. Sar
    Jan 20 '20 at 17:57
16

Writer At Work

With the phrase...

"...his eyes flashed anger for a moment”

...you've stumbled upon "The Writer at Work".

Which means that the writer has interrupted your reader's reverie by choosing a phrase that cannot be "seen". It jars you from the story itself and is intrusive.

This is why writers often repeat the old adage, "Show don't tell."

This "eyes flashed with anger" has become a cliché, not a descriptive showing of what is actually happening. It is a shortcut that a writer has used (and now many writers copy) to tell the reader that "The character was angry but is trying to hide it."

It is far better to show the action as if you saw it happen on a movie screen and then wrote it down. The best way to do that is:

1) determine what you want to show - in this case we want to show a character becoming angry but attempting to hide it from one or more other characters.

2) imagine how an actor might portray it on screen in a movie

Now, how about this.

His boss said, "Well, if you weren't so stupid, maybe you wouldn't have lost the sale."

Wesley turned his face away from his boss and stared at the cubicle wall. He held his breath and gritted his teeth.

Then he turned slowly back around. "I'll do better next time, boss."

This is showing the anger happen, not telling the reader what they should think is happening. It is far more powerful because the viewer/reader gets to decide what is happening.

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    Small addendum: to me, "show, don't tell" is actually about evoking emotions, rather than just describing things in greater detail/being subtle. So I say, you're not trying to write a scientific paper, you don't have to be objective or impartial. Don't be shy to use any rhetorical devices, or unusual/provocative language. The reader shouldn't be confused, but they should also be (emotionally) engaged. Worst case scenario, you end up sounding melodramatic, but that's fixed in editing/the second draft. "The first draft doesn't need to be good, it needs to be done." Jan 17 '20 at 22:52
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    I don't agree this answers the question. Eyes flashing with anger is a thing. You can show anger entirely in your eye area, and this is what is intended by the statement. I also disagree that describing the actions an emotion elicits is always better. Sometimes it can take you out of the moment, as you have to stop and process what emotion is being conveyed. While perceiving emotions is automatic for most people when they actually see something, it's not as automatic with a description. Plus the description is just longer, meaning it takes more time to parse. Very little is always bad writing.
    – trlkly
    Jan 18 '20 at 9:16
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    I don't understand the answer. It starts by criticizing "eyes flashed anger for a moment" because it is "not a descriptive showing of what is actually happening", and ends by suggesting something else which "is far more powerful because the viewer/reader gets to decide what is happening".
    – JiK
    Jan 18 '20 at 17:52
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    I'm with trlkly. Eyes can totally flash anger. I have an immediate, clear visual image of someone doing that upon reading the sentence. I'm not skilled or willing enough to try to describe it beyond that, but it's clear and unambiguous, and is exactly what I'd file under "what an actor would do on screen to convey the character's emotions and reactions". Jan 19 '20 at 22:36
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    I can think of at least one work (the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan) which used such phrases very regularly, to the point where I frequently wondered about "WTF is this supposed to look like and how did the other characteres get it?!" However the story was excellent and somehow these expressions didn't ruin it at all.
    – Vilx-
    Jan 20 '20 at 10:34
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“His eyes flashed with anger for a moment” simply means the character looked angry for a second. Perhaps he immediately realized an interruption was important or he regained his composure in a tense situation.

It is NOT bad writing and is certainly not telling rather than showing. “Show, don’t tell” is a reminder to avoid simply saying something exciting or interesting happened without describing it, like “John had a very difficult time making the dangerous crossing at the river and nearly drowned at one point.” Or “Mary spoke very persuasively at the meeting and convinced the town council not to demolish the historic library.”

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    "Perhaps he immediately realized an interruption was important or he regained his composure in a tense situation." If that's the case, then it should be said. In your example, I would be left thinking the character remained angry, and I would have no way of knowing the character realized anything or regained any composure. The only thing the statement in question tells us is only that the character got angry, nothing else. The character could just as easily be plotting revenge.
    – Aaron
    Jan 20 '20 at 14:38
  • @Aaron Flashes (of any sort, including super heroes) are fast, and so intrinsically short lived. You don't need to then subsequently describe their transience. And this example sentence has already done that, anyway, by specifying "for a moment". You don't "flash" anything "for a moment" and stay in that state perpetually or ambiguously. It was done quickly, for a moment. You obviously return to your prior state. I don't know how you could read it any other way. Jan 20 '20 at 20:02
  • @zibadawatimmy You are confusing "eyes no longer look angry" with "the character is no longer angry." Humans don't work that way. If the author expects me to assume the character was only angry for an instant and that the anger is gone just because the eyes no longer show it, then the author has strongly broken my immersion because that's an unreasonable assumption. Unreasonable to the point of being fantasy, and I'd call "broken suspension of disbelief". Unless, of course, this is a specifically a dystopian future story with emotion-oppressed individuals, but that's usually not the case.
    – Aaron
    Jan 23 '20 at 14:57
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Taking this phrase at face value, I'd assume that the area surrounding the character's eyes (and not just the eyes themselves) show a very brief sign of anger that the character then manages to get back under control.

This is called a micro expression and lasts about 1/5th of a second: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microexpression

In the case of anger, for this brief instance, you'd see one or more of would be the following facial muscle movements:

  • eyebrows lowered and drawn together (in a V shape)
  • vertical lines between the eyebrows
  • lower eyelids tightened
  • upper eyelids raised
  • directly staring at the other person

You could try to come up with a more descriptive sentence based on these. The "tightened eyelids" ("narrowed eyes") are probably understandable enough as well as the "lowered eyebrows" or the "vertical lines between the eyebrows".

Describing the quickness of the emotion might be trickier. You could say something like "he put on a placid smile again" or "but when I blinked, he looked as composed as ever".

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  • "The tightened eyelids (narrowed eyes) are probably understandable enough..." but there are multiple things that cause that. Deep analytical thought also causes a tightened eyelids/narrowed eyes, and I think I would more likely jump to that conclusion, if any. So you would want me to think the character got angry at a statement, but I'd just think the character thought about it intensely for a moment.
    – Aaron
    Jan 20 '20 at 14:42
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    Adding to this: "his eyes flashed with anger" is short and sharp. The sentence "flashes" past too. Taking time to explain "his eyebrows furrowed for a moment, his eyelids briefly tensing with anger" is long. The pacing of the text doesn't match that of the scene it is trying to convey Jan 20 '20 at 15:32
  • @Aaron: Indeed. Clint Eastwood is famous for looking angry, when in fact he was squinting due to the glare of the sun/light fixtures. Jan 20 '20 at 16:35
  • This guy's eyes flash with anger multiple times during a short interview: youtube.com/watch?v=7ahlsZitm0Y
    – jo1storm
    Jan 20 '20 at 22:47
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I narrowed my eyes at someone once, and only once. It was an unconscious reaction, but I was fully aware of doing it. It was quite a strange experience and I left feeling embarrassed knowing that I am instinctively subject to the human condition.

The phrase alone means nothing. I need to know what happened after. Did their 'expression soften' (they repent) or did they 'regain their composure' (resume tactically guarded body language) ?

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Regarding intentionally trying to make your eyes "flash" an emotion, that's actually very challenging, as emotional indicators on our faces can be quite subtle and difficult to fake. When we notice really subtle cues like this, it often is very quick and subconscious. This is one of the cases where speaking more directly to emotional context rather than describing the physical actions makes a lot of sense, because what you perceive in a situation like this is directly the sensed emotional context. In particular, in a case like this, the fact that you only see a flicker of anger gives the additional context that they are trying not to openly broadcast it. Describing a more overt physical reaction that expresses being angry changes the scene significantly.

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  • To this point, you can also flash joy, hate, boredom, and a host of other emotions. And, ironically you can't do a flash. It will always feel slow. It's something that happens at a much lower and faster level of the brain.
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 21 '20 at 1:18
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An image is worth more than a thousand words.

enter image description here

"Eyes flashing with anger" is the very last part of this sequence. It is usually quicker and less dramatic than this, but this image is good to illustrate the concept.

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Eyes flashing anger can happen when the person observes or hears something (or someone) who's purposely or unwittingly created a situation which affects another - to the point of anger. That anger can manifest physically through the eyes and face, while the body stays still. Sometimes "flashing eyes" also include a grimace, smirk or jaw tightening as well. It can either happen "in a flash" and be over, OR, it can happen suddenly and be sustained leading to an angry show down. It depends on what the writer intended but the phrase normally is used to show a certain amount of restraint on the angry person's part and is also used to suggest being volatile but not to the point of being out of control. That being said, it can suggest at least in some readers minds; beneath this cool exterior there lies a beast waiting to pounce at a more opportune time. The character could be the good guy or the bad, but nevertheless, a vengeance to be exacted...

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Eyes flashing/glittering/sparking, etc. with anger is an attempt by authors to describe the way emotions show behind a person's eyes. Ever heard that old cliche "the eyes are the window to the soul"? It's because somehow you can often "see" some bit of the person's essence/emotions in their eyes. It's why one of the things people say makes it immediately apparent someone is dead is that "their eyes are lifeless."

It is VERY difficult to describe using physical context words exactly what it is we see in another person's eyes, and how sometimes you can just TELL what someone's emotional state is largely by the look in their eyes. What seems to resonate the most is that description of there being a gleam, or a glitter, a spark, or a flash of something in the eyes, hence why it has become a cliche in writing, as authors have said "hey, that description actually gives the impression of the phenomenon I'm trying to evoke an image of" they've stolen the wording, and now EVERYONE uses it.

In fact it is overused, because it is so short and easy to drop in and move on. People often default to that description as a way of telling you how another (usually non-POV character) is feeling without having to work at finding a more accurate phrase, even when in context what the character is feeling might be better displayed by some more obvious physical cues.

"Eyes flashing with anger" is a perfectly legitimate phrase, BUT it should probably be reserved for situations where it is actually appropriate. After all, though that little glitter of anger in the eyes may be there whenever someone get angry, it is not USUALLY the thing that clues you in. Especially because you may have to be especially observant or know the person really well to even notice it. Usually what tells you someone is angry is more direct physical cues like facial expressions, body posture, etc.

Some examples when you may wish to use this phrase: a) when your POV character is already looking directly into the eyes of someone they know well and therefore notices it before any other cues or b) the person who is angry is SO good at concealing their emotional response that the emotion behind their eyes when they first begin to feel angry is the only evidence of how they are feeling (and the term "flashed" usually implies they manage to stifle that initial reaction quite quickly as well). In this instance your main character must be observant enough to pick up on it; a less aware character may get a "sense" that the person is angry but not know why.

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