There are plot cliches (teen resistance leader, armed only with a medieval weapon, defeats the technologically-advanced Empire), character cliches (kick-butt heroine! brooding hero! implausibly motivated villain!), symbol cliches (parental hand-me-down with astonishing magical powers). There are also sentence- or word-level cliches, expressions so overused it's hard to find a YA novel without them. I pointed out one such cliche in a previous post ("I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding"), and I'd like to address another today.
This one goes something like: "His smile didn't reach his eyes," or "She smiled, but it didn't touch her eyes." Lots of smiles out there in YA Land that don't make it to the smiler's optic apparatus.
You know you've seen this before. Maybe you've even written it. (I have.) But I think it's time to stop.
I get what the writer's saying. I really do. It sounds silly--as if it were possible for the corners of one's lips to penetrate the cheeks and make physical contact with the eyes--but I do understand that's not what's being implied. The implication is that this is an insincere smile, or a smile without real joy, a perfunctory smile that conveys just the opposite. It's the kind of smile you give your boy/girlfriend when you're ready to break up with him/her, or the kind you throw at your companion right before you jump off a cliff, armed only with a medieval weapon, into a nest of flesh-eating guggernauts. Since it doesn't reach the eyes, and since the eyes (according to another cliche) are the windows to the soul, it's not a very smiley smile. I do get that.
But aren't there other, equally good, or even better ways to say this? Couldn't one describe the smile in more concrete terms? Or couldn't one dispense with the smile and describe some other, more interesting character action that conveys the same thing? Or, heck, if you've done a good job setting the scene and characterizing the characters, do we really need to be told that the character is less than delighted to be taking a plunge into that nest of guggernauts? Shouldn't we be able to figure this out ourselves?
YA Guy thinks so, anyway.
So let's save the smiles, genuine or not, for when they're really needed. Chances are you'll find they're not needed much at all. Surely, at moments of high tension, people can be doing something more captivating than smile at each other, whether they really mean it or not.
I'll make an exception, of course, for when someone's smile actually does reach their eyes. You never know with those guggernauts. They've got really big mouths.