Body Parts All Over the Floor

There is a trend in editing these days which is much less fun than it sounds: the removal of what are known as Disembodied Body Parts.The idea is that it’s poor style to use the following constructions:

His eyes were on Mary.

His arm went round her waist.

Jane’s head was in her hands.

Apparently, there is a risk that readers will interpret these sentences as:

His eyeballs were on Mary’s lap.

His arm went round her waist, but his body had nothing to do with that and may have been elsewhere.

Jane had been decapitated and her corpse carefully arranged by a psychopath.

I’d have thought, if the reader is in any doubt at all about whether Jane is in a) despair or b) two separate pieces, the book has more problems than I can deal with here.

The construction undeniably lends itself to comically poor writing (‘her eyes followed him through the room and out of the door’).  But the prohibition seems to have gone from ‘don’t do this badly’ to ‘don’t do this at all’. I’ve seen all the (in my opinion innocuous) examples above flagged as actually wrong – as if a body part as subject turns readers into Martians, unable to parse simple sentences.

And in some cases, it apparently does. Sample comment from a writing forum thread:

prickI have a weary feeling that, if you asked this commenter, ‘Can I have a drink?’, he’d reply, ‘I don’t know, can you?’

I really doubt that more than one in a thousand readers would think twice about ‘he raised his eyes’ or ‘her head was in her hands’. That’s just how people use language  But the concept of disembodied parts has become a huge issue for many publishers, editors and style gurus. There are people who will tell you that it’s always wrong and apparently some publishers insist that it’s edited out entirely. (Just stating for the record, this is not an issue with any editor or publisher I’ve worked with as an author. I’ve always had nuanced and thoughtful editing throughout.)

Use of a part to designate the whole is a literary device so ancient it has Latin and Greek names. I can never remember these but I’ve been told pars pro toto (the part for the whole) or synecdoche, which is the one I’m going to use. By all means correct me if there’s a better term for this device.

People use this all the time in actual communication. I have my eye on you, I tell my kids, and they don’t try to brush it off their shoulders. His hands were everywhere, a friend complains about her date, and I don’t ask her if they were still attached to his arms, any more than I ask if she means they were in Abu Dhabi and Venezuela. It’s a simple, obvious, metaphorical use of language by humans. And it’s bizarre to assume that people don’t understand devices in writing when they use such things daily in speech.

I’m not suggesting that synecdoche of this kind is always good, of course; merely that it’s not always bad. Let’s take some examples.

His eyes started out of his head at her words, then quickly roamed round the room.

Obviously bad writing. The mixed metaphor gives an irresistible cartoony mental picture. I’m going to call this the Looney Tunes effect for shorthand.

His eyes were on Mary’s breasts. / Her head fell into her hands.

Definite ambiguities there, with potential Looney Tunes meaning. Rewrite.

His eyes followed her round the room.

A hidden mixed metaphor. ‘His eyes’ as metaphor for his look/attention; ‘followed’ suggesting a physical movement. The effect isn’t as glaring as the first, but still risks another Looney Tunes image. Eyes probably cause the most trouble as Disembodied Parts when used metaphorically to convey ‘look/gaze’, and definitely need to be used with care. This doesn’t mean auto-replacing ‘eyes’ with ‘gaze’, though. ‘Gaze’ is just as much a metaphor in uses like ‘Their eyes locked’ / ‘Their gazes locked’, so the change makes no difference there.

His fingers grabbed the axe. / His hand waved. / His legs walked.

That isn’t English. I don’t know why people cite this sort of thing as examples of Disembodied Parts when it’s actually examples of doing verbs wrong.

Okay, so far, so obvious: bad writing is bad. But it isn’t all bad.

His fingers beat a nervous tattoo.

Some people will read that and say, sarcastically, ‘What? The fingers tapped by themselves? Aren’t they attached to him?’ I suppose that’s a valid interpretation. It seems to me akin to reading ‘Exit’ on a door as an instruction rather than a description, and immediately walking out of the room. You can read it that way but there’s nothing forcing you to, and sense and common usage are against it. And if we’re to reject one form of metaphor because it can be interpreted to absurd effect, doesn’t that go for all metaphors? (‘”Icy look” implies that the look is made of frozen water. Consider revising.’)

I’m not just grumbling here. There is a small but crucial difference between ‘His fingers beat a nervous tattoo’ and ‘He beat a nervous tattoo with his fingers’, and there are very good reasons why an author might use one rather than the other.

Let’s dig into this a bit. And let’s do it sexy.

His fingers ran up Jonah’s thigh.

The Disembodied Parts theory holds that fingers don’t move on their own, and that this is depicting Jonah’s sexual assault by Thing from the Addams Family. I think that’s ignoring a great deal of nuance.

Consider the following pairs, and note which of each strikes you as better. There will be a test.

1a) Ben looked at Jonah, thinking how much he needed this man. His fingers ran up Jonah’s thigh.

1b) Ben looked at Jonah, thinking how much he needed this man. He ran his fingers up Jonah’s thigh.

 

2a) Jonah held his breath, waiting for whatever would come next. Ben ran his fingers up his thigh.

2b) Jonah held his breath, waiting for whatever would come next. Fingers ran up his thigh.

I’m going to guess you went for b) both times. Here’s why.

Example 1a is detached body parts because we’re in Ben’s POV. Separating Ben’s fingers from his POV is weird and awkward. As contrast, try this:

Ben would be insane to touch him now. Yet his fingers ran up Jonah’s thigh, apparently of their own accord.

Point up the separation between thought and movement, show that his body parts are indeed moving without conscious volition, and it works.

Example 1b is perfectly good English: simple declarative sentences. (We’ll come back to the overuse of first names.)

Example 2a puts us in Jonah POV for the first sentence, yet the second sentence has Ben as the subject and actor. Too much of this risks giving the impression of head-hopping. You could do it deliberately to indicate that Ben is leading the scene and Jonah is passive, but it risks detaching Jonah, and by extension the reader, from the immediate experience. Even more importantly, it’s very boring writing over a long stretch. Jonah did X. Ben did Y. Jonah did Z. The boy saw the ball. Run, Spot, run!

(I recently read three books from the same small press, different authors, all with glaring overuse of declarative sentences. ‘I did…I went…I touched…’ until they sounded like a child’s What I Did On My Holiday. When this subject came up on Facebook, someone mentioned this particular press as having an absolute ban on disembodied parts. I wonder if the two facts are related.)

Example 2b has us in Jonah’s POV, experiencing what he does: the touch of fingers. Ben’s fingers, still attached to his hand: I really think we can trust the reader to understand that. But the use of ‘fingers ran’ keeps us firmly located in Jonah, tells us that Ben is the actor without making him the subject, and foregrounds the physicality. Because the point here, the purpose of the sentence, the author’s intent isn’t to tell us that the fingers belong to/are moved by Ben. We know that. The point is that they are on Jonah’s leg. If you change the subject of the sentence to Ben, you change what the sentence is doing.

(I’ve used an m/m scene here in part because of the Pronoun Problem – whose thigh? Whose fingers? Seriously, you try writing a few of these. Synecdoche here is a great way to get around the clunky overuse of names as shown in example 1b.)

***

My point is, stylistic devices aren’t interchangeable. ‘She had her head in her hands’ does something different to ‘She put her hands to her head’ – description rather than act. ‘There were hostile eyes on him’ doesn’t have the same feel as ‘He was aware of hostile eyes.’ Different constructions give different effects. Used properly, with awareness and control, synecdoche is a terrific way to vary sentence construction, shift focus between characters, get the nuances you need, give physicality to a scene.

Used badly, it leads to bad writing, absolutely. But there’s no need to reject a stylistic tool because it can lead to bad writing. The logical end of that line of thought is that we should all throw away our keyboards for good.

________________________________________

I suspect many people may disagree. Have at it in the comments!

My apologies to followers who received a draft version of this post earlier. I clicked the wrong button. Or, rather, my fingers clicked it. Stupid disembodied parts.

Think of England is out now. Remnant is a free story at Smashwords that features an actual independently moving severed limb. Compare and contrast!

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28 thoughts on “Body Parts All Over the Floor

  1. I think you’re right that like many bits of writing advice it’s gone from “be careful about how you do this” to “don’t do this ever”. Like “don’t overuse adverbs in a lazy way” has become “don’t use adverbs.” And turned from advice and guidance into an absolute rule.

    And what’s that research about how the nerve impulses to start a movement of a body part have been show to happen a tiny fraction of a second before the decision to do it has been processed in the brain? Body parts might not be disembodied, but they do move of their own accord. 😀

    Sometimes movement is instinctive too. You don’t think “I’m raising my arm to ward off this thing someone had thrown at me”. Your arm just flies up without conscious thought in instinctive reaction.

    Reply
    • Yes, the idea that every movement is conscious is just…odd. Or that every movement has to be linked to a subject in case we forgot who was there.

      Reply
  2. Loved this post. Absolute reliance on “rules” takes away one of our most important tools as writers: the ability to analyze what we’re doing and why, and then use that to create exactly the effect we mean to.

    Reply
  3. I love this post! There’s a goofy story called “The Eyes Have It” (by Phillip K. Dick, of all people) about a reader who completely fails to understand this and concludes that all novels are written by self-disassembling aliens.

    Reply
  4. In “The Worms Of Heaven” I have a scene in which a character comes apart–her body disarticulates and the individual pieces attack my narrator while her head grows legs and runs away. (Think John Carpenter’s “The Thing”.)

    While I was writing it I was struck by how often people’s body parts are described as moving by themselves, and that I had to add extra description to make it clear that I was talking about literal rather than figurative disembodied parts.

    Reply
  5. Thank you so much for this! I had to explain to my editors that, yes the character’s heart was beating and his chest moving *all by themselves*, since the character was unconscious. I’m lucky, because where I wanted to keep a focus on what the body part was doing, I was allowed to keep my “autonomous” body parts. I was glad they pointed them out, though, beause some other bits were stronger when reworded to avoid them. Like you say, it’s about trying to avoid over using, or misusing them.

    Reply
    • Yes – just looking at it on a case by case basis, that’s all. No blanket approvals, no blanket bans. Seems common sense to me (as the quintessential fence-sitting wet liberal…)

      Reply
  6. I run into this sometimes for a completely different reason. I write BDSM. And when a submissive is out of his head, he really *doesn’t* know what’s going on. It could be Julius Caeser touching him instead of his love interest and he wouldn’t know it. And in situations where there is more than one person in the scene, writing the person who is responsible for the action actually takes the reader OUT of the submissive’s head. That’s a tough one to get some editors to understand. I’m lucky, mine are pretty good about it, if I’m explaining, “yes really, this is how it works,” they go with it. But it is a struggle.

    As someone else said, I do believe a lot of it has become, instead of a style suggestion, an absolute rule. But like all “rules of writing,” we should know what they are… so we know how to break them properly.

    Thank you!

    Reply
  7. This also can apply to a case where the POV character doesn’t know know who the body parts belong to. I wrote a scene where a character being rescued from a fire is grabbed from behind and lifted out of danger. Until later in the scene, he doesn’t know whose hands those were, he just felt hands pulling on him.

    Probably less likely in sexy times, but in mystery/suspense/thriller stories, I could imagine quite a bit of this.

    Reply
  8. Amen! What I find comical is that writing/editing advice changes with each generation, but each generation is positive its way is natural and The One Right Way. Remember when split infinitives were the worst sin a writer could commit? That’s because older generations of grammarians looked to Latin as a model, and Latin infinitives *can’t* be split (they’re one word). There’s no inherent grammatical reason that we can’t boldly go where no grammarians have gone before. 🙂

    Editing prescriptives are a style. One style amongst many. Certain styles are in fashion at certain points of time. That’s all. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Stumbling Over Chaos :: Fe-fi-fo-fum, linkity!

  10. Haha, this is a great post! I think “disembodied body parts” can be powerful when used well, but sometimes they are used more than necessary, and other wording would be stronger.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: Useful links to writing blog posts | Anna Butler

  12. Pingback: Useful links to blog posts on writing | Anna Butler

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