Thursday, March 26, 2009

Taking a Stand on Floating Body Parts

To start us off, here's a pic with Bill Pullman from Spaceballs.

The caption actually reads, 'Their eyes locked.'

Since attending the ACFW conference last Sept, I’ve attempted to improve my writing using the craft techniques I picked up there. I know my writing has improved because others - like my critique partners - have told me so. But there’s one part that I am really having problems with:

Floating Body Parts (FBP's)

I’ve been working on my entries for the ACFW Genesis contest this week and I noticed the judges picked up some floating body parts in Charley’s Saint:

- Hunger pangs sent her hand forward to pull a muffin out from the tin

- She saw his eyes drift out the window

- Her jaw dropped

- He lifted a hand

- Their eyes locked

- She drank in the sight of Henry in her kitchen.

And that’s only the first 15 pages.

I’ve revised my entry to either delete or change the above phrases but you know, I just can’t seem to cut out the last one. I love that line and couldn’t think of any other words to convey the same image. And so I say, The Story Rules! Hoo-uh!!! Yes, I’m taking a chance by leaving it in my ms, but it just feels right at this point.

When I started researching for this post, I realized most searches for ‘floating body parts’ brought up gruesome results. Pages and pages of them. But I just couldn’t find the floating body parts I wanted to discuss here.

So, without any professional refs to back this up, let me say I don’t see anything wrong with the statement: ‘their eyes met across the crowed room’.

I mean, I know their eyes didn’t literally jump out of their sockets and meet in midair in the middle of the room. And, you know they didn’t meet literally, so why can’t I use it? Isn’t that where creative license comes in?

Sure, I can use ‘their gazes met’ but what about the next time they look at each other? How many times can I say there gazes met in one book? I’ve tried to change it up with ‘they looked at each other’ or ‘they stared at each other’ but again, there are only so many way you can say it without repeating yourself.

I know if I spent hours at it, I could come up with much better ways to describe what their eyes are doing but you know, there are so many more important details in the book I’d rather be spending my time on.

Here are some examples of floating body parts. Can you picture these?:

- her eyes drew him forward until he stood but a breath away
- fall into his deep blue eyes
- his hands flew up as if to ward off her words
- she rolled her eyes
- his eyes caressed her
- her fingers flew across the keys
- her eyes flew open
- her eyes slammed shut
- his eyebrows knitted together or rammed together or slammed together
- her head swam with dizziness

But wait a minute, some of those aren't floating body parts, they're just doing other things.

And what about these:

- she took a bus to work
- she jumped right into the fray
- his eyes blazed
- he barked his reply
- she melted from the heat of his molten eyes
- she felt the sting of his words
- her skin crawled

Are they allowed? Should they be banned?

These are just metaphors, right?
According to the Owl On-line Writing Lab at, Diomedes said:

A Metaphor is the transferring of things and words from their proper signification to an improper similitude for the sake of beauty, necessity, polish, or emphasis.

Have we come so far from the old literary masters in our drive for perfection that we’re robbing our writing of it’s voice? Draining it of all those delightful phrases that immediately bring an image to mind? Peeling back the layers until a child could grasp the concept while the rest of us tire from boredom? Stripping the beauty of our words for the sake of a new set of rules?

What do you think? Do you use FBP’s or other metaphors? Should they be banned or glorified?


Hilabeans said...

This is a tough one. After reading your list, I can find some "floating body parts" in my writing. I like your question about voice - if we boil everything down to Hemingway-like prose, will we all sound the same? It's worth reflecting upon.

Excellent post!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thank you, Hilabeans. You've actually caught me by surprise as I'm still doing the final tweaking. I thought it was a mistake when I saw the '1 comment' come up. :)

Thanks for visiting with us.

Captain Hook said...

I've heard that about FBPs before. And I'll repeat here what I said then - FBPs are a writing tool. If used properly, they work. If used improperly or too often, they don't work.

No one who is capable of reading is going to believe that body parts are actually acting independently (unless they're into that really weird sci fi stuff where things like that do happen.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Oh god, Anita, I am so glad someone brought this up. This has been a spot of contention for me for some time. I actually meant to get opinions about it at the last meeting but got swept up in other things.

I understand why people point it out and caution against it, but I also think "Come on man, clue in... do you really think his eyes hopped out of his skull, picked up lint on their way across the floor, and rested on her?" I entirely agree with you, what happened to poetry, literary craft, and creative license? I mean, sure, if a phrase makes a person snicker and jars them out of the story it should be changed, and I think finding new ways to convey the same thing (ie: a moment of romantic connection) is always better, but for just plain old movement.... there are only so many accurate ways to describe looking at someone: gaze, stare, glare... or verbs like look and watch. Frankly I think my characters always staring and glaring at each other would arouse more snickering :)

I think Captain Hook summed it up well. It's a tool to be used properly, like any other. If your characters eyes are constantly following one another, locking, resting on each other... maybe that's a sign the manuscript needs to focus on other senses rather than using the eyes, but if it's done at the right time and doesn't seem cliche, it doesn't bug me.

As you say, they are often metaphors... as in eyes not literally being locked. Other times, they're synecdoche, with hands standing in for the whole person. Honestly, how many people even hear that literary term anymore? Sure, maybe it involves the character more directly to say "She did something" rather than the hands doing it.. but if everything boils down to "She did" "He did"... the prose falls pretty flat in my opinion. I want more than just story and forward motion. I want writing that seems worth the time, so I say kudos to you for taking a stand on those lines you refuse to compromise on!

And now with my morning rant out of the way, it's time to head into town!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Oh and Ray Rhamey talks about floating body parts (mostly eyes.. which I think are the worst tendency, and probably the most cliche) here

ban said...

i'm with all you ... long live creative license ! ! ! (so long as it's not overdone and corney) hey, how many paintings and drawings did picasso sell anyway ?

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
I've probably been guilty of using every one of the phrases you mention. It is really hard to come up with new and fresh ways of stating things. But as writers I think we really have to strive to do that. Whether we succeed is another story.

Maybe a rule of thumb might be to try to avoid using FBPs or any kind of phrasing that pulls the reader out of the story and makes them go "Huh? How is that possible?" If a reader stops being interested in what our characters are doing and instead concentrates on the mechanics of the writing, that's not good.

That said, are most readers bothered by mild forms of FBPs or is just writers like us who notice them?


Silver James said...

I wonder if editors are more tuned in than readers?

Agreed, though, if the FBPs are such the reader gets yanked out of the story. *as her fingers fly across the keyboard* I try to watch for them in my own writing but sometimes, you just have to go with the gut when describing a physical action/expression/body language in terms the reader will readily interpret in their own imagination.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thank you, Captain Hook. I appreciate your comment and thoroughly agree with you, but then you knew that. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Ah, Hayley, I loved your morning rant.

I've actually had this post waiting for a couple weeks while I built up my courage before putting it out there for my peers.

I following the link to Flogging the Quill. His FBP definitions are really quite funny the way he says it.

Thank you, Hayley. I appreciate your words.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Love your enthusiasm, ban.

Thanks for your 2 cents. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Good point, Jana.

I don't like anything that takes the reader out of the story which is why I did change so many of my words after the judges picked me up on the FBPs.

And, it might just be me, but I'd hazard a guess that it's the writers who are more picky. The readers just want the best possible story they can imagine.

Imagination - now there's a word for this topic, eh.

Thanks, Jana.

Donna Alward said...

*raises hand* guilty as charged.

I once had an editor that flagged every single case of "eyes" in a manuscript. I got so sick of the word GAZE by the end of it. And some I left because I was downright ornery. Which was the greater sin - an autonomous body part or overusage of a term?

Some are easily remedied - for instance "his hand lifted to touch her hair" and "he lifted his hand, touching her hair" but then you've got those awful 'ing' words getting in the way?

My rule of thumb is always not to worry about it - just be aware of not over using it, and if it pulls me out of the paragraph etc. find a way to reword.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Silver, reading your comment made me think of this:

When you look at the phrase as her fingers fly across the keyboard, the word fly jumped out at me. (ha!) My mind automatically changed it to flew and in my mind, I saw her fingers go very fast!

But what if someone looks at that phrase and the word fingers leaps off the page, instead. (Ha!!) And they're hung up on what the fingers can't do.

Is that why it seems to be either yes or no?

Yes, Silver, you do have to go with your gut because you have to live with your words.

Thanks so much for giving us your thoughts. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks Donna.

As soon as I saw your name come up, I thought, 'Uh, oh. Here it comes...'. LOL

Karen said...

Hey Anita,
Great topic. I'm all for 'creative license' but sometimes a frown is just a frown, no need for someone to start knitting with their eyebrows.

So, yes, to the well placed metaphor but beware of FBP's.

Off to start investigation of wip.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Donna, I agree with you, the word 'gaze' just gets damn boring after a while. And sometimes I feel like I'm being downright dramatic to have my characters gazing a one another, especially when the scene isn't sappy-romantic.

Likewise though, I think eyes are a big problem for a lot of writers. They're an easy way to convey emotion (making them flash, smoulder, etc) but also overly emphasized, and don't frankly mean anything to others. You've reminded me to go through and slash all those eyes (ugh... rephrase!) on my own, unless they really make a difference.

Helena said...

Anita, you really know how to stir the pot!

I am guilty as charged. (Notably in my 'first page for critiquing' which has eyes locking. Had already planned to change the order of the sentence but maybe eyes would still have locked, meaning not being able to tear one's eyes away from the other set of eyes. Oh, oh, more FBP)

The comments so far have been great. I believe that writers have to avoid cliches of all sorts. Perhaps if we view the FBP problem that way we will seek more creative ways of expressing our characters' actions. And some of it is just commonsense. If "he touches her hair" isn't it obvious that he has to lift his hand to do it? So leave out the unnecessary words.

Lots of food for thought today. Thanks, Anita.

Janet C. said...

Well said, Helena :) When I scoured my MS for FBPs, I found I could eliminate a lot of needless words and tighten the story/action/emotion by re-wording and re-thinking my intent.

In fact, everyone's comments today have been fabulous. Like others have said - as a reader, I never worried about it. I just kept reading (of course, I speed read and perhaps missed a lot of the individual words - looking instead for the context of the phrase ~ can you guess how I taught kids to read?). When I started writing/editing/learning - that's when I began to look closely at how writers said things.

The only time, now, that I get taken out of the story is when I'm not really into the story. OR I'm re-reading a great book in order to learn from it.

Great post, Anita - love having these issues debated.

Donna Alward said...

Oh God, now I'm an "uh oh"????

Anita Mae Draper said...

Ka-ren! You don't like someone knitting their eyebrows together? But, can't you just picture the tangle? Oh wait - that's knotting together. LOL

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Donna - only because you know your stuff and will set me straight if I'm wrong. So, take it as a compliment. :)

Hayley and Donna - you're starting to make me realize (yes, it takes awhile sometimes) that I do put too much emphasis on what my character's eyes are doing. Maybe it's because I firmly believe that the 'eyes are the window to the soul'. I dunno.

But, I know this discussions is going to make me a better writer. :)

Thanks guys.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey there, Helena, you make a good point when you say, 'If "he touches her hair" isn't it obvious that he has to lift his hand to do it? So leave out the unnecessary words.'

That was a big problem for me when I started writing because I really wanted the reader to see exactly what I saw and tried to convey that. Most of the time, I remember that lesson. :)

But I still think a writer should have the option of using whatever phrasing or literary trick he wishes. Look at the modern writers whose books are filled with passive writing and yet the ensuing movies have been block-busters? Who's to say those stories would have retained their spark if the writer tore it apart to make it look better for other writers?

If you look back at all the great literary masterpieces, not one of them can be considered perfect according to the rules we have to write by today.

...uh... sorry Helene, I'm off my soapbox now... that last bit wasn't directed just at you, ya know. I'm so glad you commented.

Silver James said...

Okay. Now see...this is the way I feel about POV. Dang it! *I* want to know what everyone is thinking and feeling! LOL

Eyes ARE the mirror to the soul. You can also get a good idea of the emotions by looking into them. Ask anyone who does interrogations. You focus in on the eyes. (Well, there are other little tell-tale "gives", too, so...anyway) Uhm...what were we talking about?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Love your attitude, Silver!

... but don't get me started on POV - well, not today, at least. :)

Donna Alward said...

Heee heee! This is fun.

Actually, I finished up my chapter after reading this blog and was a lot more aware of what my character's body parts were doing. Darn it!

FWIW I agree with you Anita on the eyes. IMO no other body part conveys feelings like the eyes. So I use them... a lot.

Oooh POV...another great topic. And another where I take the middle of the road stance...go ahead, switch POV. But just don't do it so I'm aware of it. LOL. Just like anything else in can do it, you just need to do it well.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Donna - I'm assuming you're saying 'Darn it!' because the awareness of it interrupted the flow of your writing and you had to find words to rephrase instead of getting the story down like you'd intended. I'm sorry if we (yes, us Chicks stick together) were the cause of that.

So what you're saying is do it so well that you don't get caught. Wow. Isn't that a philosophy for life. LOL

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hmm, I'm seeing myself about to launch into a whole topic just on the eyes... Anita, mind if I sink my teeth into that for a bit of blogging this weekend?

Anita Mae Draper said...

No, of course not, Hayley. Blog away.

I firmly believe our writing will improve by bringing to light those aspects that we disagree with or are confused by.

At least that's the way it's supposed to work. :)

Molli said...

Hi Anita. I enjoyed the post, and have found some souls in sympatico in the comments. My bottom line on this subject is write it as you see it in your own style, then when reviewing decide whether or not body parts are doing their thing a bit too independently. As has been said, too many "gazes" get boring, fast. As a reader, if a phrase has me doing a double-take, or worse, laughing out loud when that was the last thing intended, I'm generally forgiving--the first time. Maybe even the second. But the third.....?

Sharon A. Lavy said...

He lifted a hand. This is not floating body parts. He lifted the hand the hand is not said to lift itself.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

A lot of the last phrases in your post are not floating body parts. Someone is taking this too far.

In my opinion critique partners can point out these things, but you have to decide if they are changeable or not.

Their eyes locked is stronger for a reader than their gaze locked. The gaze lock would be for friends who know a secret. The eye lock is for potential lovers.

My 2 cents.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Sharon, nice to see you here.

He lifted a hand - you'd think it would only be a FBP if the phrase was His hand lifted but that's not what the judge thought. Granted, judges are only writers like the rest of us, but since I found a better way to write the sentence, I didn't let it get to me.

And I agree that Their gaze locked is much stronger and I could've kept it but after I dropped it and reread the next sentence, I realized I didn't need it after all.

Which is why I did keep the sentence about Charley drinking in the sight of Henry in her kitchen. Maybe I'll get picked up on it from a Genesis judge, but I felt strong enough to keep it in.

And that's the crux of the whole writing thing, isn't it - it's your work and only you can decide the actual words. Break the rules if you want to but do it knowing you had a reason for doing it and then stand firm against all naysayers.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sharon.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Molli - didn't notice you sneaking in here late last night...

Gee, you're gonna be a hard reader to please, lol. Maybe I should swing my ms past you before I consider it complete, eh.

Thanks, for commenting. I appreciate it.

sheandeen said...

FBP--another thing to think about when I am taking a second and third look at my writing.

Anita you are making me stretch-ouch I feel another pulled muscle. This was another thought provoking blog.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Nancy, I'm sorry if I'm causing pain. Really.

But, if it improves your writing I will accept the burden.

That didn't come out right, but I think you know what I mean.

connie said...

Hi Anita Mae,
i have never been bothered by floating body parts as using such phrases is something everyone does in every day conversation.
I am always saddened by the fact that i have never seen eyes twinkle, smoulder etc. i think i have missed something.
i will continue to use metaphors and similes with body parts if that's what happens in a scene.
I despair sometimes that metaphors and similes don't seem to be taught anymore. I once was sent to a specialitst because of a shooting pain that went from my eye to the pack of my neck. there was a med student assigned to do the interview. i tried to describe the pain as feeling as though a knitting needle went from my eye to a spot at my nape. she told the doctor i believed i had a knitting needle in my eye. what happened to 'like' and 'as' jumping off the page to indicate a simile?
the Bible writers got away with talking about removing a plank from your own eye...
i'm going to keep on using similes and hope my readers don't think my bits and pieces have a life of their own and stop to explore the idea.
metaphors, similes and yes, floating body parts, have their place. if you get your mind around them, their usage may enflame your heart,make your eyes shine and lift you to all new heights!