Monday, September 24, 2012

Breakaway Body Parts: Are Your Characters' Body Parts Acting on Their Own?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Pick up any novel and there's a good chance you'll find one: a disembodied body part acting on its own. Eyes moving independently of their faces. Hands creeping of their own volition. Feet heading off on their own like they've got someplace to be. You probably don't even notice it in your own reading (and writing), but once someone points it out, then you can't not see it.

I've done it. You've probably done it. Sometimes it works fine, but sometimes it makes the sentence sound, well, ridiculous.
Her eyes followed him across the room.
I picture this:

What's really going on, is that her gaze is following him. Or her stare. Or her attention. The body part is just the conduit for that to occur. But think about how silly these very common phrases are when you picture what that sentence means and what those eyes are actually doing.
Her eyes bounced around the office.

His eyes trailed her like a lost puppy.

Her eyes locked onto his lips. (um, ew?)
It's not just eyes, though they do seem to be the most mobile of attached body parts. Hands, feet, and fingers get their fair share of mobility.
My hand inched closer to his. (I picture Thing from the Addams Family)

His feet wandered all over lower Manhattan. (And no one called the cops?)
I can hear some of you saying, "Oh come on, you know what I mean. You're being too literal." True, there are plenty of instances where a body part can act on its own and it sounds perfectly normal. Metaphorical even. I myself wrote a sentence with parts acting that has been well-praised:
My heart reached farther than my hands ever could.
I think the difference between this sentence and say, "My eyes darted over the fruit stand," is the intention of the sentence. If you're trying to be metaphorical, or lyrical, or poetic, then a disembodied body part can work. It's clear you don't mean it literally.

(More on meaning what you say here)

But when you actually mean "I looked at the fruit stand" and a body part does the looking, it sticks out. That's the actual action you intended. It is literal.

Is anyone going to reject you for writing something like this?

Honestly? Probably not. Readers are used to this. Most won't even notice it. But if you're using the wrong word and writing a sentence that isn't actually saying what you mean in these cases, where else might you be doing it?

Is it wise to get into the habit of assuming the reader will just "figure it out?"

This is why I think it's smart for writers to notice when their words aren't saying what they mean--especially if they're saying something that might be comical. Words are our tools and the better we wield them, the better our books will be. Sure, we can assume the reader will know we don't mean the actual body part is acting, but what if they get jarred out of the story for just a moment? What if it happens several times and they decide to go see what's on TV?

(More on giving the wrong word giving the wrong impression here)

And a reason you might not have thought about...

A body part isn't a character. It pulls away from the point of view character and can make the sentence feel detached and impersonal. What if that small step between a personal "I the character looked at a fruit stand" and "my eyes decided to look at a fruit stand but I had no part of it" becomes the reason the reader could "never connect to the character but I can't say why?"

Readers don't always know why a book doesn't click for them.

Next time you catch yourself writing about a body part acting when you meant the character acted, it might be worth hitting the backspace key and saying what you really mean.

How do you feel about body parts acting on their own?

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Oh, I had tears reading this post! Wicked funny and true. In my first novel draft I had wandering body parts all over. A total zombie fest! Now I am super conscious about putting my character's body back together..and remember its not her eyes that held his face (ewww is right) but her gaze. Thanks for the reminder of this key area to address in writing and revision.

  2. I have different reactions to the different examples above. Bouncing eyes are icky, but sometimes body parts do act without the owner's conscious volition. My hand could inch closer to his even if I'm trying to convince myself I'm indifferent to him.

    I'd say be conscious of what effect you're seeking.

  3. It's so funny when you point it out. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Donna, thanks, I had a lot of fun writing it:) I did it all the time until it was pointed out to me, too.

    Penny, oh absolutely. Nothing is ever all or nothing with writing.

    Kristin, most welcome!

  5. I heard an agent say that roving eyes are one of her pet peeves-- and makes her disinclined towards the writing.

    So, yeah, it's a little thing. But it can have big consequences.

    (And I laughed out loud at this--and at least when it comes to eyes, when I see this now in a ms, I can not NOT see it! ;-)

  6. Cathy, I know! It always makes me chuckle when I see it now.

  7. Good post, Janice.

    One thing: Are we supposed to replace all of the instances of disembodied eyes with "looked"? Personally, I don't like using that word, but I'd have to when the scene has more than two people...Wouldn't I?

  8. Angela, not necessarily. I tend to use gaze, as in "her gaze followed him." Or you can just describe what the person sees and not even use a "looked" type word. If it's clear the POV is looking at something, you don't have to tell the reader they're looking. Everything the POV describes is something they look at or feel. If you're describing someone other than the POV doing the looking, you might use looked, but you could find other way to show someone else was looking at something. Does that make sense?

  9. Yeah, I hate it when my body parts start doing things on their own. They're supposed to listen to me. Very annoying (have you ever seen "Dr. Strangelove"? 8^).

  10. I think you're right. It's about intention. There are times when I read about eyes trailing and such and it seems right. There are other times when it's obviously wrong and jars me out of the story.

    But my question is what's the alternative? I hate when there are a million mentions of a character's gaze, as if the author is purposely trying to avoid having an acting body part.

  11. RE Hunter, I did years ago, but I don't remember much about it anymore.

    Patricia, whatever feels right, as un-helpful as that probably is :) If a body part feels like the right phrase, then use it. If gaze or some form of looking feels wrong, try phrasing it in a different way. I don't think there's a single right answer, and it'll depend on the sentence and the scene. A lot of times you can get rid of the "gaze" tag altogether.

  12. I'm not sure about this one. Say you're in your character's POV and he is noticing someone's "gaze" following him. You could be really literal AND in POV say "her eyes swivelled in their sockets, as if tracking his movements across the room." Or you could say what everyone understands and what doesn't sound like an anatomy textbook. "Her eyes followed him across the room." You know when someone's eyes follow you. You can feel it and see it. I think the real problem is not that the eyes are "disembodied" but that "eyes following" has unfortunately become a cliche.

  13. I'm totally guilty of this and had to laugh at this timely post as I consider my WIP. But how do you feel about a phrase like "my stomach growled"? Would that be another instance of body parts acting on their own? Or does that contain enough of the character's POV?

  14. When I began writing less than three years ago, I was indeed told body parts don't move. Now that I'm aware, I hope I never do that again. And you're right, the eyes stare right back at me if I do. :)

  15. Batsy, it could be the cliche, but it's also the fact that the eyes are not actually following. It's the stare that you feel. The intense gaze. You don't feel eyes per se. But if you prefer eyes and feel it fits and works in your manuscript, by all means use it. There's no right or wrong here. In some instances it might sound just find and in others it'll sound off. The point is to think about what's being written and decide if that's what you really mean to say or if it's coming across unintentionally comical.

    Lin, stomachs do growl, so no problems there. There's nothing inherently wrong with body part descriptions, it's only when they feel independent like their own POV it typically becomes weird.

  16. Guilty of this. But I blame being
    D-E-S-P-E-R-A-T-E for brevity, whatever the cost, plays a part in this, both for myself and others.

    Don't you think, Janice?

  17. We'll have to agree to disagree on this one! I don't think you can see or feel a "gaze" though you can follow one. I think it's much more evocative to read, e.g. "she felt his eyes on her butt" than "she felt his gaze on her butt" even if it is a little silly if you picture the eyes on the butt literally. "She held my heart in her hands" is pretty gross if you think about it, but I understand the sentiment. Quite frankly, stomachs don't have throats and so the idea of them growling might be comical - if you spent your time picturing the bear in there.

    Anyway, my point, I think, is that for me "eyes on her butt" captures the heavy feeling of someone watching you better than "gaze on her butt" would.

  18. Okay, so I'm laughing because I'm thinking about the novel I'm about to release and it soooo has hands and eyes doing things. Hoping I don't have too many lol!!!

  19. I've been aware of my tendency to write roving body parts and most I can rein in! Sometimes it's part of an effort to avoid I did this, I did that etc, in my first person POV. So I have knowingly left a few in. Bad writer! heehee!

  20. This is true of many English phrases. The more you think about them, the less sense they make - and many are even worse than the ones you've listed. Never look a gift horse in the mouth? Unless you know the origin of it, totally nonsensical. Why not, will it bite you? I, for one, would never read 'her eyes followed' as a set of disembodied eyes. I think these phrases are fairly well-understood.

  21. Great topic, Janice. And Batsy's counterpoints are always refreshing. This post inspired me to put the word "eyes" in the search box on my MS to see what I did with those things. Mostly my characters controlled their own eyes, but there was a lot of narrowing, rolling, opening, and closing. Might be time to change up the gestures. Thanks for the tip. :)

  22. I think roving body parts do sound stranger in 1st person as opposed to 3rd.

  23. Oh boy am I guilty of this one. :)

    I don't usually find it weird to read, though, so I never thought of it as weird to write. As long as I don't overdo it, I'm fine. Also, I think "her eyes followed him" implies a sneakier kind of stare, like she's trying to hide her attention by looking with her eyes instead of turning her head and being obvious and awkward.

  24. Taurean, I think people get used to seeing certain words together so they pop into your head when you're writing.

    Basty, feel free to disagree :) What's important is to write the phrase that feels right to you and for your story. And as I said, it's not an all or nothing situation. His eyes followed her across the room might feel totally right for one story and wrong for another based on the voice and situation.

    Angela, hehe I'm sure it'll be fine. Anything weird someone would have caught :)

    GSMarlene, good point about first person. First person body parts would feel much more awkward than a third person part.

    Ciara, good point about adages. If a phrase is more iconic you probably wouldn't have a problem. Perhaps "eyes following" is one such phrase. But eyes bouncing or darting might not be. It'll depend on the context and usage.

    Cat, counterpoints are always good :) There is no right or wrong way to this. And you're right about first vs third. What might sound fine in one could sound ridiculous in the other.

    Laura W, I like your take on eyes followed. That's a good example of how it might work well in context.

  25. Another great post! Thanks for the reminder. I confess that zombie body parts tend to creep into my early drafts. I have to work hard to kill them as I edit.

    Have a great week!


  26. Guilty. I'm going to go through my first draft right now and work on some rewrites. Thanks!

  27. Martina, thanks you too! I think a lot of stuff creeps into first drafts :) I need a whole list to remind me what to check on. But that's the beauty of first drafts. Anything goes.

    Amanda, most welcome and good writing :)

  28. This post made me laugh, AND I learned something! Thanks so much

  29. Ah. Guilty! I think my problem is that often, I like the way the roving body part sounds better, and I kind of plug my ears and go "la la la" whenever anyone points out I'm technically wrong. But I'm working on that :)

    What I'm really commenting about is this --
    A body part isn't a character. It pulls away from the point of view character and can make the sentence feel detached and impersonal.

    I just wanted to say that this is true, but it's also a tool you can use to great effect. I've read a lot of scenes where the character is in such a state of shock or grief or what have you, that their body is doing things without them ever consciously thinking about it. A slightly cliched example is the person hearing someone screaming and realizing it's themselves. The roving body part does come off as detached--and sometimes that's what you want.

    Food for thought?

    Thanks for another great post!

  30. Julie, most welcome!

    Mandy, that's an excellent example of where this *would* be appropriate. The goal is to make the body part feel detached. And you're not wrong if you like the way it sounds. If it works in the text and that's your preference, keep it. If it jars readers or sounds funny, then you might want to think about changing it. Just be objective about what it's doing and if that's what you intended.

  31. Disembodied eyes are a pet peeve of mine. I used to do it, too, until I learned about it. Now I don't. But my problems are fingers/hands. I always have someone lifting fingers to wipe tears (or something), and when editors point it out, the picture is hilarious. I still can't seem to spot them in my own writing, though.

    1. You might try adding them to a list of things you check during edits. I do that and it works great, and you can relax and clean it up afterward :)

  32. Yes -- a pet peeve of mine when editing. Why are all these eyes doing all these things? :o) My eyes look, watch, gaze, focus in on, etc. But all these are opportunities to give more depth to a scene or micro-action in a scene. Eyes on butts, for example... Someone staring at your butt (we assume while walking away) means you feel their intent, their attempt to invade your space or show disrespect, perhaps. This is an emotion-driven action - a power trip. Why not keep the eyes in their sockets and show how the character being stared at reacts? Internal thought that fumes about how the character is certain this offender is staring at her butt. Maybe she glances (her eyes don't glance, she does) back and sees the guy staring, sees the crooked smile, as he strokes his beard -- and then winks at her. Internal thought then shows her fury that he caught her looking at him, checking out whether he actually was staring at her butt.

    Point is, WE watch, look, gaze, stare - why give the power of that to the eyes? It's assumed that the eyes are doing all this stuff, just like we assume a hand and fingers are involved in grasping something.

    I love it that you've brought this back up, Janice. These are evergreen tips that deserve their own post-it...stuck, well, somewhere obvious. Thanks!! :o)

    1. Thanks! There's a fine line between accuracy and poetic license, and some phrases are common sayings, such as "she caught his eye," so this can be tough to balance. I try to avoid anything with eyes, but I have had feet and hands do stuff :)

  33. My heart reached farther than my hands ever could. "further" is the correct comparative. "farther" is for physical distance.

    1. It's referring to the physical distance. She's waxing poetically a bit, but it's still distance.

  34. I really found this interesting because I think there's currently a penchant for writers to really strip manuscripts to their bare bones, making many authors indistinguishable from their peers. I've stopped reading one of my favourite chic-lit authors as her style has gone from descriptive (you really get a sense of what the characters look like, sound like as well as how they feel), to just untagged and quite non descriptive dialogue. Many of the books in the last 5 years feel fractured with short, sharp sentences and unbelievably blunt scene endings. I’m struggling to finish her latest book and won’t be buying anything of hers again.
    Writing is a craft and I personally believe that the best way to achieve the right fit in terms of perceived ‘no-no text’ is to see what works for your audience, rather than stripping out the individuality of style. Many of those I consider great writers tag dialogue, have roaming body parts and leave you wondering on the POV's intent; nobody really questions them, but then would they care anyway? They have their audience, and that audience likes the writing just fine or it wouldn't come back for more.

    1. That's a real problem. I'm a firm believer of doing what works for the story and the writer, and if their voice breaks rules, then break them. And as I said in the post, some readers won't care. But others will be jarred out of the story and not know why.

      I think there's a difference between roaming body parts that jar readers out of the scene and ones that flow with the scene. If the sentence says what the writers wants and it works, then use it. But if they're getting negative feedback about it, it's worth reconsidering the way the body part is described.