When body parts go travelling…

Eye on legsHis hand grabbed the door handle, and he burst into the bedroom.  She was lying on the bed…his eyes flew across the room and landed on her heaving bosoms.

I haven’t actually come across those exact words; it’s not a direct quote, but I have come across many, many autonomous body parts, such as:

Heads nodding, shaking, snapping down, lifting, appearing round doors—that one does worry me a tad:  reminds me of a scene in Harry Potter.

Fingers curling, grabbing—you really have to watch fingers; they get everywhere.

Hands clutching

Eyes widening, locking, studying, reading, following—following? Don’t know about you, but I like my tall, dark and handsome to have his deep-brown adoring eyes firmly in his sockets.

Mouths gaping

Arms waving and flailing

Feet wandering

All of the above are examples I’ve read.  All members doing their own thing in their own time and very ably on their own, thank you very much.  But body parts do not have a life of their own:  they don’t have jobs, mortgages, holidays and two point four children.  They are very, very firmly attached to our bodies, and our brains do a very good job of enabling our limbs.

Such phrases where hands, eyes, lips, heads, arms, legs leading independent lives may well cause a bit of a titter of amusement when read for the first time in a book.  The trouble is, they aren’t written to cause mirth:  they’re written, very seriously, to try and evoke passion or drama or atmosphere.  It doesn’t.  The image of eyes rolling around independently of their owner simply detracts from that passion and drama the author is trying to create.  The reader is probably going to divert his attention to the image s/he has of eyes rolling around out of control, like escaped marbles, all over the floor.  I’m not saying authors should red-pen every breakaway body part:  some actions are involuntary, like twitching lips or eyes, or hands shaking (in fear, for example), or hearts racing, and of course, other, ahem, bits and bobs that may act autonomously in scenes of passion.  Judgement is required:  it may be worth standing back and just checking that the disembodiment is feasible.

Let’s try and keep body parts attached to their owners, for the most part, so that they can control them.  Let the character control his arm waving, head shaking and finger curling.  Or, by the end of the book, the poor chap will be completely limbless.

Author: Cathy Speight

Reviewer Cathy Speight is British and lives in England. The Kindle revived her passion for reading and after stumbling on a Facebook group of independent authors, she now does her best to encourage and assist indies as much as possible. Books by indie author form the majority of her collection. Cathy shares her views on the books she has read on her blog.

39 thoughts on “When body parts go travelling…”

  1. I know I’ve seen this so many times. I have probably done it myself though I don’t make a habit of it. But I’m a bit non-plussed. Aren’t many of these meant to be metaphorical?

      1. Actually, they are metaphorical. A metaphor is not as limited as a simile–and in it’s wide sense is the soul of poetry. “She walks in the beauty like the night” is a metaphor, as is “The sea is turning its dark pages”. It’s a hallmark of very skilled writing. “Darting shoals of Japanese schoolgirls on the platform”. “He was radiant with drugs.” Eyes, in fact, do widen. Heads do nod. Hands shake. Asses do get out of town.

  2. I don’t like to read about jaws dropping or eyes jumping out of their sockets, but eyes widening? That’s exactly what happens when someone is surprised or shocked.

    Fingers curling? I’m sure readers don’t think of ice and brooms when they read the phrase.

    Editors and authors need to look at things from a reader’s perspective and stop being so literal.

  3. In most cases these are metaphors. Of course, many romance novels or erotica tend to exaggerate a bit, but if you look at extremely well-written classics, these descriptions can be very effective. If you eliminate them altogether, you lose many opportunities to “show” instead of “tell.”

  4. The one that always makes me smile is ‘his eyes dropped to the floor’.

    However, it was only when I read a book on editing which pointed out this very subject that I started to really notice the unattached body parts in my future reading – and it can be hard to find a novel that doesn’t have them, especially in the mystery and romance genres. But I think that Kathy is right when she says that most readers either don’t notice or don’t let it interfere with the enjoyment of the book.

    However that doesn’t mean that as authors we can glibly ignore the issue.

    Great post.

  5. It’s all a matter of context. If you’re trying to tell us that “He fell backward, his arms flailing,” is poor writing, you’re not going to get many followers. This is a legitimate technique, used for several specific reasons.
    First, it can be used to focus the reader’s attention.
    “My hand covered hers,” if used to indicate their relative sizes or some sort of protective relationship, will work. Otherwise, it sounds weird.
    Second, it can indicate an apt comparison. The “eyes flew” metaphor is, yes, a metaphor. When you are looking at an object, and your regard moves quickly to another object, then your focus has moved as if it were following a bird from one perch to another. A metaphor that is very appropriate becomes embedded in the language, and I’m sure readers do not notice it as anything unusual.
    Third, it can be shorthand for a common experience. “His feet wandered,” describes a situation where your mind is elsewhere, and does not seem to be directing your route, leaving it up to your feet.
    Point of view has a lot to do with it. If you are observing another person, it is reasonable to only consider the part of his body that is important to you at that moment; “His hand crawled up my arm,” is more effective, I think, than “I watched his hand slide up my arm.” The POV character would rarely have reason to regard a part of his body separately.
    As with any technique,it stands out if overused or put in for no apparent reason, as in the two examples at the beginning of your post. We must be careful in our editing; because response to this sort of thing is subjective, a writer or editor can get hypersensitized to it, and lose the perspective that allows him to guess what readers will accept and what they will not accept. Hence we get “comma Nazis” and “descriptor Nazis” and other forms of fanatics.

    1. Some very good points, Gordon. We don’t want our writing to sound stilted or to stifle creativity purely for the sake of purity. “He fell backward, his arms flailing” is fine because “He” is the true subject of the sentence. “Arms flailing” describes what happened when he fell backward.

  6. Very well put, Gordon.
    And I’d like to underline the last few sentences there. I was going to mention that earlier in response to “readers notice it”. I ignore (if not get sarcastic about) any writing advice that contains “readers don’t like”, “editors don’t like” “agents will reject”. Supposition not backed up by research or anything. BUT… if you see a usage in a best-selling or critically acclaimed book, then it’s a good argument that all of those projected entities do, in fact, accept it.

    1. I’ve just read an appalling edited book, a trad-pubbed one, by a bestselling author. It doesn’t make it okay to churn out badly edited books.

  7. My smile-provoking phrase while reading is eyes that “drop to the floor.” The word “gaze” works better in that context. It’s best to skip the body part as the subject and use “he” or “she” instead, e.g., “She rolled her eyes”; or “He shrugged his eyebrows.” I don’t think that anyone would object to that. I’ve chosen eyes over gaze, if the verb doesn’t conjure up amusing images. We can still be creative, if we do it carefully and with forethought.

    Enjoyed the article, Cathy!

  8. Cathy touched a nerve, didn’t she? In above 500 reviews on my titles, I have never had a reader complain about traveling body parts. I have had pseudo editors sneer at his ‘gaze followed her.’ I have characters mouth’s ajar or gape because it fits the scene. Every editorial critique always points to traveling body parts in romance novels. I wrote for Harlequin for sixteen years. Traveling body parts were part of the genre. Nobody complains about this stuff in thrillers or mysteries or sci-fi or trad pubbed titles. Our readers know what we mean. They get it. I’m on page with Linton and Gordon.

      1. I’m only a reader not a writer, and indeed, I would never mark down a book because of travelling body parts. And as I’ve said, I have no problem with them in the right circumstances. However, sometimes, their actions are a nonsense.

  9. Hmm. I think you’re picking nits here. 😉 I have written about eyes widening numerous times and have never been called on it. To me, saying that “his eyes widened” is a way to show surprise without coming out and saying, “He acted/seemed surprised,” every time — which would get boring very quickly. And the literal description of the action — “He widened his eyes” — seems stiff, as well as not altogether accurate, as people don’t typically open their eyes wider on purpose when they’re surprised.

    Still, I get what you’re saying, Cathy. The one that gets me is when a car turns into a parking lot. Whenever I read that, I want to see the video. 😀

    1. On the other hand, “His eyes jumped into a cab and sped to the nearest bar for a couple of stiff belts before shipping out to Singapore” is probably pushing it too far.

    2. Again, it’s just a matter of consideration. Eyes widening is perfectly acceptable. Sounds so much better than ‘he widened his eyes’. But consistency is not de rigueur in the case of body parts. Sometimes the owner has to have control.
      Well, I didn’t dare mention the car one. Cars starting and stopping all on their own freak me out just a tad!

  10. I think I’ve written all of these at some point.
    As a reader I would only notice this if it appeared forced. If it flows well, I’m okay with it.
    “His eyes dropped to the floor” or “he looked down?” Eyes dropping to the floor, while messy, make me feel his embarrassment. That said, thank you for pointing out instances when moving body parts can distract the reader. 🙂

  11. Cathy, great post! I love the line about body parts leading independent lives! And I so hate to see these things in print. I won’t say I’ve never done any of them (not sure), but I definitely cringe when I see them. Good job.

  12. Some are fine; some are unintentionally comic.

    “She raised her hands” is fine; “She threw her hands in the air” is unintentionally comic. Unless she’s an amputee juggler, in which case it’s intentionally comic.

    Some of these can be metaphors, as others have pointed out, but not every instance is a metaphor.

    As an editor I’m highly attuned to them now. I query every “he nodded his head,” since, seriously, what else could he be nodding (don’t answer that)?

    1. Oh, should probably have said “an amputee who’s also a juggler.” Fell victim to unintentional comedy myself, there. 🙂

      An otherwise awesome song by none other than Bob Dylan has a line that always made me snicker:

      “Senor, senor, do you know where she is hidin’?
      How long are we gonna be riding?
      How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
      Will there be any comfort there senor?”

  13. And… eyes glued to the door is metaphorical. Period.
    It might, if you want to be erudite, termed a synecdoche but there are some problems with that. In fact, there is no actual glue involved. The gluing is therefore said to be metaphorical.

    1. Dang it! Linton, I’m trying to bake an apple pie. I’ll never get to it. Are you still on Mexico time?
      Synecdoche is a rhetorical trope and a type of figurative speech similar to metonymy—a figure of speech in which a term that denotes one thing is used to refer to a related thing. Synecdoche is sometimes considered a subclass of metonymy. It is more distantly related to other figures of speech, such as metaphor. More rigorously, metonymy and synecdoche can be considered sub-species of metaphor, intending metaphor as a type of conceptual substitution

      Just so y’all know. Synecdoche works for me. It works for my books. I’m done. I’m hungry for pie. I’m gonna go bake it.

      I wish Big Al would weigh in again and put this to bed. He is the premier reviewer in our Indie universe. If I get a 3, four or five star out of him or his reviewers, I’ve got a book. that’s it. I sell it.

    2. Linton, is that a reply to me? If so, I agree with you that it’s a metaphor. It’s also a clunky one that makes me laugh every time, so it doesn’t work for me.

      By the way, I only just learned how to pronounce “synecdoche.” Not even close to how I was actually saying it!

      Oh, and another one similar to my earlier example that I’ve seen fairly regularly is, “He threw up his hands.” Probably shouldn’t have eaten them in the first place, right? 😉

  14. Guilty as charged. I’ve had corridors turning left, eyes roaming and so on. Fortunately I have an extremely stern editor, for whose greying hair i am at least partly responsible. I accept about 95% of her objections. On those rare occasions when I do not, it is because I deliberately wish to ascribe intent and animation to an inanimate object for dramatic effect, in my case often a fire .

    I agree, that it’s a question of balance, but that the privilege/exceptions should be used sparingly, or the desired effect is diminished or lost..

  15. It’s not a metaphor. A metaphor is, and I quote: “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action that it does not literally denote in order to imply a resemblance”. In the cases quoted the body parts are actually doing what the verb suggests. The eyes ARE widening and following, the hands ARE grabbing, the fingers ARE curling. The omission is that the owner of said eyes, hands and fingers are making them do it. However, ‘my head was spinning’ IS a metaphor, because of course your head can’t spin. Unless you’re an owl.

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