What I’ve Learned: Floating Body Parts


Inspired by a comment by Fiendish!

She swung her eyes around to where he stood in the doorway.

My first questions when I read a sentence like this: Are they tied to a string? Is she using them like nunchucks? Doesn’t that hurt?

Her face fell as he broke the news to her.

Again: Ouch! She should have latches installed or something.

Here’s one I just read in a novel by a best-selling author:

His eyes slid over her face.

Ewwww. Just, ewww.

My first mentor at SHU had this thing about passive verbs and floating body parts (FBP), so I learned pretty early on to get rid "was" and "were" as well as FBPs.

So what’s a FBP? It’s any time in the story where an action is attributed to a body part rather than a character. The quotes above are pretty good (and common) examples.

In the first, she swung her gaze around, not her eyes. Accuracy in description is important. Many readers won’t catch it, but the more literal-minded will. And you don’t want to ever lose readers if you can help it.

The second example is a little different. Saying someone’s face fell is a somewhat common expression, but when writing, there are much more effective ways of getting the idea across. What things happen which create the "falling" of a face? Perhaps the jaw goes slack, or the brows furrow or come together over the nose. If you describe the changes in the face that create the crestfallen look, not only will your reader get the idea, but your writing will be that much stronger for the description. Your character will seem more alive.

The third example is similar to the first, only grosser. Blech.

"But," you say, "my favorite author, Mr X, does that all the time!"

Well-published authors, best-selling authors, and authors who have made a niche for themselves aren’t always considered as critically as new authors. If an author already has numbers (sales) on his side, it means he already has a fan base which will buy his books regardless of some minor issues.

Unfortunately, those of us who are just breaking into the business, or attempting to, are held to a higher standard. We have editors to impress in order to get our foot (feet?) in the door. We’re competing against hundreds, often thousands, of other hopeful writers, so anything we can improve in our writing can only increase our chances of catching the editor’s eye. Tight and accurate descriptions help.

I know when I started writing, my characters’ body parts were doing all kinds of things! Once I started recognizing FBPs and began to shift the action from the body part to the character,  my characters became more realistic and my scenes, especially action scenes, came across as more focused and immediate.

Have a look at some of your stories. Do you have issues with floating body parts?


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  • Reply
    Adam Kamerer
    April 21, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    Good points. Makes me want to go back and look for these sorts of things in my writing. Thanks for posting this. 🙂

  • Reply
    April 22, 2008 at 10:04 am

    Very good post. I’m going to have to reread some of my works and check for such awkward phrases.

  • Reply
    April 22, 2008 at 11:04 am

    *slides eyes across the computer screen, leaving a thin trail of slimy residue*
    I have never thought to look for this in my writing, so thank you very much for this insightful post.

  • Reply
    Bob Younce at the other Writing Journey
    April 22, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    I love this picture! I’m also horribly guilty of floating body parts. I’m going to have to spend days fixing the last six chapters of my novel, LOL!

  • Reply
    Catherine @ Sharp Words
    April 22, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Ick, I’m actually scared to go and read my stuff now in case I’m badly guilty of body parts being strewn all over the place – I suspect I might be.
    Although on the other hand, I’ve done a lot of text-based roleplaying and often (in private) mocked people who did put that sort of thing, since I’m someone who does read or hear things literally sometimes (mostly for my own amusement).
    I guess I’ll have to see.

  • Reply
    April 22, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    Great informative post… although I’m disappointed – I thought I was going to learn more about writing about floating body parts for the horror-genre. 😛

  • Reply
    Diane Scott
    April 25, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Thanks! Just the laugh I needed today 🙂

  • Reply
    April 25, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    Ewww! I have never thought about this before, but I get the point.

  • Reply
    Arachne Jericho
    April 28, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Excellent advice. And something that books by editors mention again and again (and again, because people don’t get it…).

  • Reply
    April 28, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    The use of eyes to mean gaze used to be fairly acceptable. It sure has gone out now though.

  • Reply
    Bobby Revell
    April 30, 2008 at 7:04 am

    If a writer normalizes everything, they lose much of their individual voice. I purposefully have elements like this in my writing. I even take it further and break every rule possible.

    In my world, normalcy is the enemy; however, it can be difficult to not get so far out that people cannot understand it.

  • Reply
    April 30, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Great post. I find that once the ‘tricks’ are laid to rest, the story can really shine. When prose is simple, it allows for the reader to do their own writing so to speak, in their minds. It allows for the story to become theirs. Thanks for sharing your perspective 🙂

  • Reply
    May 2, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    As always great tips and with some excellent examples. 🙂 I’ll take another glance at my writing to see how I am doing with this particular part of my style, thanks!

  • Reply
    Tonya Root
    May 8, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    Ewww…I hate to admit it, but I’ve floated a few body parts in my day. Thanks for the great examples!

  • Reply
    May 20, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Guilty! And honestly, it isn’t something I’d ever considered before. *rushes off to find floating body parts*

  • Reply
    May 20, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    The funny thing is using ‘eyes’ metaphorically to mean gaze used to be pretty widely acceptable. I certainly see a lot of it in my pulps from the 40s-70s. However, as my editors remaind me, it is not acceptable any more.

  • Reply
    May 23, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Floating body parts–the bane of my writing. My first drafts always have tons of floating hands and disembodied heads and so forth–and I don’t write horror, either! 😛

    I found your blog on blogcatalog.com, by the way, and since you’re obviously into writing, I wanted to let you know about a new e-zine that me and some writer friends are putting together.

    It’s called The Oddville Press.

    We’re just getting off the ground so our website isn’t completely finished yet. Still, you should check us out if you’re interested–or better yet, submit something!

    I’ve bookmarked your blog and will definitely be poking around here in the future.

    Thanks a bunch!

  • Reply
    R.E. Taylor
    June 5, 2008 at 9:06 am

    Awesome post. I’m sure I’ve made a few of these faux pas’ in the past and will be on the lookout for them in my future writings.

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