In the draft of my first fiction short story, I wrote: “Chiano leaned on the tabletop. His eyes pierced her.” I liked the two sentences. The lead-up had established that the “her” in the story was seated behind a table, and Chiano had previously threatened her, verbally. A writer friend agreed to take time from her own busy writing schedule to critique my story, my first ever. She also introduced me to the awesome Microsoft Word Review Pane. When my story came back, there were those three words: “Disembodied Body Parts.” Something was wrong with my sentence. A quick google and I learned how annoying these independent body parts are to many publishers, and writers.
The simpler the writing –– sometimes the crisper the writing –– the better the writing, unless you have an established reader base. When you are that person, then eyes can “fly to the door.” Until that time, “he looked at the door.”
Research showed some writers believe that publishers have gone a tad overboard, with editors longing to find and strike the undisciplined part that got away. Others are appreciative that the craft is being tidied up. I have to admit I haven’t noticed breakaway body parts over my long years of reading, but then it’s my opinion that I’m drawn to good writing –– so there you are. Maybe there weren’t any, but you and I both know there were. I can’t imagine an author with at least a few published fiction books or articles who hasn’t let “eyes roll” somewhere, not to be confused with “She rolled her eyes,” which she probably did and could if she wanted to.
Here are some sourced examples that make sense to me:
His feet wandered all over lower Manhattan.
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.
His eyes were on Mary.His arms went round her waist.
Jane’s head was in her hands.
Apparently, there is a risk that readers will interpret these sentences as:
His eyeballs were on Mary’s lap.
His arm went round her waist, but his body had nothing to with that and may have elsewhere.
Jane had been decapitated and her corpse carefully arranged by a psychopath.
I’d have thought, if the reader is in any doubt at all about whether Jane is in a) despair or b) two separate pieces, the book has more problems than I can deal with here.
… First things first, the subject needs to be the character, not his body. As for the object, well, that will be dependent on context. For example:
Incorrect: “His body fell to the ground with a thud.”
Correct: “He fell to the ground with a thud.”
Change the subject to the person doing the action (in this case “he”). Since the reader inherently knows that falling to the ground generally involves the body, you don’t need to say what falls. The corrected sentence is already doing a better job of “showing.”
Is it ever okay to use autonomous body parts?
As with most things in the writing/editing world, there are exceptions to the rule. If you can justify the use of a particular sentence that uses an autonomous body part, then you aren’t necessarily wrong. There are cases where it may work better within the context of the narrative.
For instance, I’d argue for keeping a sentence like this:
“Bast’s eyes widened, then narrowed.” – also from The Name of the Wind
Bast is reacting to whatever he’s just seen. It effectively shows what he’s feeling: surprise at first, then suspicion. Also, the alternative version would be rather clunky: “Bast widened his eyes, then narrowed them.”
I said above that my fiction story with the character, Chiano, was my first. That was maybe four months ago. My sentence became: “He placed his hands on the showroom table and leaned toward her.” His eyes did nothing. The threat remained obvious. No matter how smart I thought the words fell in the story, it was an impossible thing. A generous critique partner (you know who you are) stepped up to help a beginner, and I am grateful.
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