Of course, when an author writes “His fingers inched up her leg,” they don’t mean it literally. The problem, however, lies in the interpretation and not in the intention. An author’s job is to paint a picture with words, to create a story. If we use detached body parts as a part of that picture, we have conveyed the wrong picture.
Authors generally dislike the rule about no autonomous body parts—where eyes, legs, hands, arms, feet, and other parts, act on their own, independent of their owners. “His eyes traveled over her body.” Well, ew. What kind of mental image does that conjure?
Now, some people will use the argument, “Readers know what I mean,” or “They don’t notice.” But they do.
Disembodied body parts present a craft issue. Add to it passive voice and filters, dangling modifiers, continuity issues, and other craft situations, and you have typing and not real writing.
And let me say that none of the above fall into the “author voice” category. We can’t pass things off as author voice when in fact, they present serious problems for a story.
Let me say, in my first drafts, I’m as guilty as the next person, thinking that, “His shaky hands traveled over her breasts,” sounded so much more poetic than, “He touched her breasts with shaky hands.” These things happen almost organically and with luck, the author will see them when they go back over the manuscript before submission. If not, editors will catch them and give you the comment bubble with the request to rewrite.
Given that this construction is obvious, the intention of this column is to discuss this with a bit of humor. Here are many sentences that I’ve found in books I’ve read over the last few months. No titles or authors listed, but the sentences do contain humorous images.
He popped his head in the bedroom. (Do you want butter with that?)
I tossed my head over my shoulder and quirked a brow. (I wish I had a graphic for this one.)
She shoved his head away.
Face, lips, tongue, and mouth:
She couldn’t get her lips to speak.
His mouth meandered up her inner thigh.
…catching my tongue between my teeth.
His lips kissing her spine.
Tongue jutted out and licked her lips.
His face resting on her back.
His mouth meandered up her inner thigh.
Eyebrows and eyes:
Eyebrows furrowed together.
Both eyebrows snapped up.
One eyebrow crept upward.
Eyes moved independently of their faces.
My eyes darted up to meet his.
I tossed my eyes to the clock.
My eyes lifted from their blank stare.
His eyes were drawn to her face.
Eyes fall to my hands.
His eyes watched her hungrily.
Eyelids flutter open (or closed.)
Gray eyes turned down.
Hands, arms, and fingers:
His hands tell me no.
His hands caressed her.
He let his hands flop listlessly on the desk.
Hands creeping of their own volition.
His hands tell me no.
His hand quickly darted from his pocket and his fingers clamp around my wrist.
His warm fingers work slowly.
Her hand going to the zipper.
Her hand sliding down his length.
His hand slid down her hips.
His hands clapped.
His hands tell me no.
His fingers were thick, just like his c**k. (Those are some fingers, a bit monstery, no?)
Her fingers ground into him.
His fingers reached out.
His fingers grabbed.
My fingers hovered over the keyboard.
His fingers trailed up her legs.
The rough pads of his fingertips caressed my delicate skin.
His thumbs feel for the bra.
His thumb flicked…
Her arms wrapped around her hips.
Feet walking on their own.
Feet wandered all over town.
As his foot ran up her leg.
Feet wander on their own.
Feet wander of their own volition.
Miscellaneous body parts:
His firm backside ground into him.
The smirk evident in his voice.
Hips rotated and thrusted.
Long brown bodies, scantily clad.
His body trembled.
My body can’t contain the excitement.
Eyes and Gazes don’t:
Bounce | Dart | Trail | Lock Rake | Ogle | Glare | Stare | Turn down | Rove | Trail | Follow | Roll | Hold | Peel
Web concensus seems to indicate that eye rolling is out, no matter if written, “Her eyes rolled,” or “She rolled her eyes.” The image is hilarious and evokes a teenage girl in a fit of pique.
My author friend and a great friend of The Novel Approach, Paul Alan Fahey, says this: “He was deep in thought when the girl caught his eye.” Gosh that hurts just reading it. As a reader and a writer I notice these kinds of things. And they do toss me out of the story.
From Beverly Hines: Not sure if these fit, but if I read about one more person “toeing off his/her shoes” or “slanting his/her lips over his/her lips” I will stop reading the book. I don’t think these very simple acts need to be described this way at all. Don’t get me wrong: if you’re a drag queen kicking off your Manolo Blahniks and you accidentally stab your best friend, that’s different. And another thing. Mashing lips against lips hurts like hell cause those nasty hard teeth get involved. No lip mashing, please. And conversely, what’s with the brushing of lips over lips all the time? It’s a sweet image, but SO overused. If you’re gonna smooch, smooch!
From Author Gianna Simone: Though there are times, with multiple people in a scene and people’s vision is obscured for whatever reason, you have to have disembodied body parts. For instance, three or more people in the scene, you’re in one person’s POV and hands rest on that person’s shoulders from behind. That person doesn’t know whose hands they are, so they’re just hands until they turn around or someone speaks. So every now and then, you have to break the “rule.”
A POV character can observe “Her face paled,” but be sure not to get too carried away.
If the POV character is blindfolded, then disembodied body parts might be fun. Hands rubbing, lips kissing, etc. He might not know who’s doing what (think ménage fun.)
Next month we’ll talk about impossible simultaneous actions.
Please tune in on June 24th to And the Rest is History on WON/Blog Talk Radio, for my interview with Paul Alan Fahey, a friend of The Novel Approach and a wonderful author. The link to WON is below.
Born in a small town in Upstate New York, Brita Addams has made her home in the sultry south for many years. In the Frog Capital of the World, Brita shares her home with her real-life hero—her husband, and a fat cat named Stormee. All their children are grown.
Given her love of history, Brita writes both het and gay historical romance. Many of her historicals have appeared on category bestseller lists at various online retailers. Brita has the rights to past publications (due to publisher going under,) and she has rewritten and expanded many of them.
Musa Publishing, home of Brita’s het romances, will release the newly revised bestselling first book, formerly Serenity’s Dream, in her Sapphire Club series in August, 2013, the second book, formerly Lord Decadent’s Obsession comes out in September, in Musa’s new erotica Eros line. The third book, formerly Chocolate, Tea, and the Duchess, is almost finished. Brita has signed contracts with Musa for two other historicals as well, no release dates as yet.
Tarnished Gold, the first in her gay romance Tarnished series for Dreamspinner Press, was a winner in the 2013 Rainbow Awards, Historical Romance category. It also received nominations for Best Historical and Best Book of 2013 from the readers of the Goodreads MM Romance Group.
A bit of trivia—Brita pronounces her name, Bree-ta, and not Brit-a, like the famous water filter. Brita Addams is a mash-up of her real middle name and her husband’s middle name, with an additional d and s.
Readers can find Brita Addams at any of the following places:
Monthly column at The Novel Approach
And the Rest is History WON Radio/Blog Talk Radio shows
17 thoughts on “Call Them Sentient, Autonomous, Floating, Or Disembodied, They Are Still Detached Body Parts – By Brita Addams”
Okay, they eyeball/orange is just creepy!
It was the creepy doll heads that got me! I’ve never had a blog post give me nightmares before. ::shudders::
Tina Marie – The orange/eyeball is about “keep your eyes peeled.” Kind of makes you think how ridiculous that sounds, doesn’t it?
Lisa, I know. But you know that we have heads doing all kinds of things in books. They bob, roll, nod, shake – all by themselves.
I actually get creeped out by fingers doing things. Too much Cousin It on the Addams Family (No relation, LOL)
Another great column bursting with witty phrasing. How’s that for a purple sentence? But it’s okay, because I’m sincere. PS: I’d like to thank the editors at Dreamspinner for breaking me of the disembodied habit. As you said, some arrangements of words just sound better together, have a better rhythm, or whatever. But I don’t want readers laughing at the wrong moment because they had a sudden mental image of a pair of eyeballs rolling along over naked skin. Thanks for a diverting read!
You’re welcome Connie. DSP is wonderful with this and other editing issues. I actually learned this from a writer friend, early on. Since then, I’ve studied it and other things, always honing the craft you know. I think fingers and eyes are the worst offenders, but mouths do things as well, that well, mouths don’t have brains. I imagine mouths gliding up backs and down other paces and it is creepy. Best leave the movements to the brain. LOL Thanks for coming by!
I agree with most of this but in a few instances, it’s tossing out figures of speech that have 100-200 years of history and are well entrenched enough in the language that they don’t look like a problem until a “don’t ever do this” editor notices them.
Of course, everything has exceptions, PD. I’ll stick with the editors though, because figures of speech such as “Keep your eyes peeled,” conjure up unwanted images in my head. My mantra is, “Keep those body parts attached.” Thanks for coming by.
Wonderful, Brita, as always. You wouldn’t believe how many bookmarks I have now of your writing dos and don’ts. My mind staggers! LOL. Hugs your way. Great and fun post. P.
Hi Paul. Glad you came by. Can’t wait to talk to you Tuesday! Big hugs my friend. Glad you enjoyed the post.
These are the ‘do not do’s.’ But how about giving the do’s? Maybe it’s just me, but I always like reading a balance and not just told ‘don’t do that!’ It’s much more helpful if what does work is also given as an example.
Here’s a couple of work abouts, Penumbra:
Her fingers ground into him. – She dug her fingers into him.
His fingers reached out.- Her reached out to touch his face.
His fingers grabbed.- She grabbed the scarf.
Or other creative ways to say the same thing, but to have the body part connected to the character.
And always proofread. The first one: She dug her long fingers into his back.
The second one: She reached out to touch his face.
I’ve never found any of these to be more than figures of speech. I think the workarounds sound clunky and awkward.
In some cases they are figures of speech but that makes them cliche as well as disembodied. The workarounds don’t have to sound clunky or awkward. I read many that are almost poetic. The point wasn’t to set down “never to be used,” rules, but to talk about what so many editors point out regularly in manuscripts. I appreciate your input. Thanks for stopping by.
Great post Brita :). It’s something that editors have pointed out to me over the years and I’m learning to examine how I phrase my body parts’ stories! :) It is most definitely a craft issue.
But I don’t entirely agree that readers notice it, or are aggravated by it. I think they’re more likely to notice a clumsily structured sentence – I do! – than read some of these phrases as a literal truth. We all have more sense LOL. I think, like many of these things, it depends on the usage and the phrase itself. I think we can all cope with “he caught my eye”, but not “I tossed my eyes to the clock”! We can cope with “Shaky hands touched my neck” when we’re writing in first person / when the MC is disorientated / when we’re creating a mysterious scene i.e. it’s also a matter of style.
All of which makes things more difficult for the writer, I know! It’s always important for us to improve our product, but we need to balance that with developing our individual style. A good editor will take both into account, I also know :).
I agree with you that in mystery, when the MC can’t see, then sentient body parts are valid. But in a scene where there are only two characters, it isn’t, because they know who’s doing what. I think it’s sexier to have “HE slid his warm hands up her back,” than “HIS warm hands slid up her back.” The first evokes intimacy, where the second strikes me as kind of creepy.
There are always exceptions. And this isn’t an all or nothing situation either. “He caught my eye,” that can work, depending upon the context, but some get really carried away. What it means is, “He caught my attention.” There are many ways of saying that without using eye. A good writer can make that happen seamlessly, without the use of the cliche.
In preparing for this piece, I asked a lot of readers that I know whether they notice these things, and across the board, they said they did. I do and I roll my eyes, which is what prompted me to write the piece.
You are right. It is about improving craft. While I know readers don’t take some of the phrasing as literal truth, “He tossed his eyes to the clock,” it’s best to phrase those lines so that readers can read over them and not have the wording stop them or toss them out of the mood, or give them a laugh when one isn’t intended.
Thanks for stopping by, Clare and for your insightful comment.