Avoid Floating Body Parts in Your Writing

By Kathrese McKee | Craft

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Last week, we discussed head-hopping, and the week before, we covered out-of-body experiences. This is the third post in a three-part series.

Out of Body, Out of Mind, Part 3: Floating Body Parts

“The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” —Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Did I say there are no absolute rules in writing? If not, let me do it now. There are no absolute rules in writing.

Enter the great debate over floating body parts (FBPs)—those pesky parts acting of their own volition or doing physically impossible feats. Taken literally, these phrases can be comical. I read this line in a romance novel by a NYT best-selling author (who shall remain unnamed): “Her eyes ate him up.” Call the forensics team! We’ve got a cannibal at the Smith’s place.

Well-worn, culturally meaningful phrases like “rolled her eyes” and “threw up her hands” have practically reached the status of idioms, figurative language that isn’t to be taken literally and has a meaning other than what the words say. You can fuss all you like, but eventually, the sheer weight of common usage inevitably leads to general acceptance. Avoid using them if you are able but accept that we, as choosy authors and editors, are on the losing side.

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Hold the phone. Don’t rush down to the comments and burn me in effigy. I may turn off the comments if only to frustrate those, on both sides of the debate, who cannot resist arguing for their opinions. If you aren’t polite, I will delete your comment.

Yes, FBPs can weaken your writing. Yes, FBPs can be embarrassingly funny. Yes, some agents and editors will reject your work out of hand. But are FBPs to be avoided at all costs? No. Overzealous editors will flag FBPs every time, but I believe there are mitigating circumstances:

Encouragement for Authors

Authors, do not let your fear of committing the great FBP sin stop you from writing your story any way you please on the first pass. Annoying clichés and funny word pictures can be weeded out in the editing phase. Don’t worry about it; just get it written.

But in the editing phase, do not use the argument that other (famous) writers use FBPs or that FBPs sound more creative. Editing is supposed to be hard and critical. Floating body parts are a potential weakness you want to minimize.

Self-editing Tips

During self-editing:

  1. Look for body parts doing improbable things or acting on their own initiative, like faces falling, arms dropping, and feet flying. Here are some examples of floating body parts:
    • Her arm shot out to the side.
    • Their eyes dropped to the floor.
    • His hand combed his hair.
    • His jaw hit the floor.
    • Her eyes flew to his.
    • His head spun toward the window.
  2. Keep the focus on the characters and use strong verbs as in these examples:
    • Sally blocked the ball with her forearm.
    • They studied their toes.
    • Handsome swept his hair to the side with one hand.
    • He gaped at her.
  3. For eye references, use alternatives like gazed, looked, stared, watched, and gawked.
    • Instead of his eyes followed her, use his gaze followed her.
    • Better yet, describe what he sees: Her hips swayed as she walked away. Now the reader sees what the character sees, and it is obvious that his gaze followed her.
    • She spun away from him. Smoke billowed and sparks flew from her spiked heels. The door clanged shut. Don’t you want to know what happens next?
  4. Don’t worry about involuntary action; there may be no more efficient way to write something.
    • Her heart pounded.
    • His hair stuck out like the fluff of a downy chick.
    • Her hands shook.
  5. Don’t overuse involuntary action; guard against melodrama. Is your character always suffering from heart palpations? Is she often crying, trembling, smiling, or frowning? Have mercy on your readers (and your editor). Please, I’m begging you.
  6. Consider the circumstances. If your character cannot see what is happening, then FBPs like these may be the way to go:
    • Booted feet passed by the basement window. This is acceptable and interesting because the feet are all the character can see.
    • His cold hand crept up her arm. She’s blindfolded, and the focus is on her perceptions.
    • A hand shook his shoulder. Bobby has been sound asleep, and his friend is trying to wake him; he senses the hand but knows little else.
  7. Avoid creating more awkwardness by trying to eliminate every instance of FBP. Use your best judgment.
    • His fingers dug into her arm. This wording has been used before, but it’s quick, and everyone understands the wording.
    • This alternative is clunky and doesn’t mean the same thing: He pressed his fingers into the flesh of her arm.

Out of Body, Out of Mind articles

Don't miss the first two posts in this series:

Thanks for reading this series. Send me your best/worst examples of floating body parts via the contact page or put them in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from you.

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About the Author

Award-winning author, Kathrese McKee, writes Young Adult Fantasy and helps others bring their fiction to life through editing and mentoring.

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