When Good Body Parts Go Bad Articles / On Writing

We’ve all read that story. You know the one with independently moving body parts, right? This is called disembodied motion, and it’s an issue that can worm its way into the writing of even the most seasoned of authors. But is all disembodied motion bad? Of course not. As with most things in the English language, there’s an exception to almost every rule. But this article doesn’t focus on when to use disembodied motion. It’s to help authors learn how to spot it in their own writing and how to fix it.

What Is Disembodied Motion?

Let’s start with a blatant example of disembodied motion.

When Martin entered the room, his eyes flew across to Jane. When she spotted him by the potted rhododendron, her eyes traveled up his lean body. His legs carried him over to her, and when he reached her, his fingers caressed her cheek. Before her mouth could speak, his lips caught hers in a searing kiss.

As you can see, there are many body parts moving independently of Martin and Jane with very little interaction between these two because their body parts are doing it for them. It’s as if their body parts are making decisions without the characters’ permissions.

The Problem

There are several reasons why disembodied motion should be avoided.

  • It creates a disconnect between the action happening and the characters themselves.
  • The focus shifts to their body parts, which take center stage and cuts out the actual person responsible for those actions.
  • It lacks real emotion because, honestly, how much emotion do one’s legs feel?
  • When taken literally, it can be quite funny, which probably wasn’t the author’s intention.

And let’s not forget the phrase “I found myself…” which creates a disembodied state for the characters to do actions as if they’ve lost control of their body and are powerless to stop their actions.

The Fix

So, what’s an author to do to safeguard their manuscript from good body parts gone bad?

  • Look for places where your story feels impersonal, especially in scenes with physical interactions between characters.
  • Search the manuscript for body parts—hands, eyes, head, fingers, legs, lips, etc.—and determine if they’ve hijacked the action.
  • Ask your critique group or beta readers to pay attention to those quirky phrases such as “she threw her hands in the air.”
  • Hire an editor (cough – Write Divas – cough) who understands how to spot and correct disembodied motion.
  • Find better ways to describe the scene without resorting to disembodied motion. This can be difficult when trying to avoid the repetition of a word when describing an action.

So how would I have fixed the disembodied motion in my atrocious paragraph above about our two would-be lovers?

When Martin entered the room, he spied Jane in the corner. At the same moment, she looked up and met his gaze. Giving him an appreciative once-over, she smiled and his pulse quickened. In his haste to get to her, he almost tripped over that half-dead rhododendron she’d been torturing since college. When he reached side, he caressed her cheek and gave her a searing kiss to show her the power she had over him.

The next time you write a scene and you suspect body parts have become more important than the characters who own them, take a step back and read the words in the literal sense. If you start to laugh or notice that it sounds a little ridiculous, you’ve probably found some disembodied motion.

What tricks do you use to keep your characters’ body parts in line? Please share them in the comments below.

Now… go write something!


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