This week, I’m excited to bring you an article from guest blogger Candace Johnson of Change It Up Editing.
Avoid Eyes That Crawl and Other Wandering
Body Parts in Your Writing by Candace Johnson
Her eyes crawled around the room.
His eyes combed her face.
Her eyes became demented.
Those eyes, those eyes, those beautiful eyes! The windows to the soul and all that . . . unless writers unintentionally give them the ability to do things eyes just cannot do.
Wandering body parts are usually the result of a writer getting carried away while trying to construct engaging and descriptive prose. I see it frequently while editing fiction, and it’s sooooo easy to do—and is almost always unintentional.
You think, How many times can I write “He looked at her longingly” or “She looked around the room”? I gotta mix it up a bit.
Eyes falling, dropping, crawling, rolling. Writers love to add a bit of literary color by describing a character’s actions. Most readers will understand what you mean, but too many wandering body parts will have them rolling their own eyes.
Vampires and Zombies
If you’re writing a paranormal/dystopian/post-apocalyptic story, your character’s eyes might actually leave her head and crawl around the room . . . but that description won’t work for the rest of us.
Eyes blink. Eyes roll. Eyes don’t wander—a gaze wanders. And before you object and say “rules are made to be broken,” let me add:
If you make a conscious decision to have body parts participate in action, be sure the action makes sense.
Romance novels are filled with descriptions of body parts—like eyes slipping down to cleavage and hands sliding down a back. In this genre, writers take a bit more license with those wandering body parts. But if you’re writing in another genre, consider whether or not your phrasing makes sense.
His hand reached for the book. (Was the rest of him having coffee?)
His spine uncurled. (OUCH!)
His feet climbed the stairs. (Too bad the rest of his body was still on the first floor.)
Each of these examples is easily fixed: make sure the action verb relates to the character, not to a part of the character’s body: his hand doesn’t reach for the book—he does.
The Slippery Slope of Clichés
Their eyes met across the crowded room.
We all know that eyes don’t literally meet, yet that phrase seems okay because it’s so common. But as with other literary conventions like metaphors and similes, writers need to be alert to their own tendencies to overuse clichés. Self-editing is the first way to catch them, and remember to ask your critique partners and beta readers to be on the lookout as well.
Dangling Modifiers and . . . Dangling Body Parts?
Almost seven feet tall, his head skimmed the ceiling.
Climbing the stairs, her feet barely touched the steps.
She caught his eye hurrying with arms filled with packages.
A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence. When a dangling modifier is combined with a body part instead of an entire character, the results can be hilarious. A seven-foot head, disembodied feet, and an eye in a hurry (with package-laden arms, no less!) certainly provide some interesting mental imagery.
Show, Don’t Tell
One of the quickest ways to slip into almost any writing problem is by telling the reader instead of showing the action. Look for a recitation of facts about what your character is doing, especially if it involves body parts like eyes, hands, feet, or heads, and then consider if there might be a better way to share that information. For example:
Her lips burst with girlish giggling that flung her golden hair forward from behind her ears.
Let’s take a look at what’s going on in that sentence:
- Lips bursting with girlish giggling
- Giggling that flings hair
As an editor, I would flag this sentence and suggest a revision that describes the giggling and hair action instead of telling the reader about the character’s lips.
Beware the temptation to take action away from a character and hand it over to an eye, a hand, or another part of that character’s body as though the character has no control over his or her own parts. Those wandering body parts will haunt you and your writing until you reattach everything in its proper place.
Think about Frankenstein’s monster: Created through a combination of alchemy and chemistry, he was a collection of body parts that didn’t work together. Resist the urge to uses pieces of the whole when the entire monster character is the subject of your action, and you’ll avoid those uncomfortable and embarrassing wandering body parts. And if you’re brave enough, feel free to share your most cringeworthy examples in the comments.
Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter—she loves making new friends.