A Mind of Their Own—Wandering Body Parts

His lips caressed her cheek with a butterfly touch.

His lips caressed her cheek with a butterfly touch.

I’m sure most writers have struggled with this particular writing problem. Most editors want you to stifle these recalcitrant parts and make them behave, preferably with a whole character attached. And I have gotten better at it over the years—I’ll write “His fingers trailed down her arm,” then go back and change it to “He trailed his fingers down her arm.” But I still don’t see the problem with the first version.

One editor, Teresa Stevens, in her post called “Wandering Body Parts, Oh My,” actually agrees that this construction, in some instances, is acceptable writing. Her take on the wandering body part phenomenon has to do with the verbs used. If the action is not something the body part is capable of doing, then it must be changed. But if the part is capable of the action, it can stand. “The cure for this problem is careful editing and attention to the nuances of verbs.  Whenever you name a body part in a sentence, identify the verb describing any action or motion of that body part.  Can this body part actually act in this way?  If the answer is yes, then you should be fine.  But don’t be too quick to answer yes.” She does say that she would have no problem with the sentence “His fingers raked through the hair on his chest,” because the verb “to rake” can mean to scratch and fingers are capable of scratching and are the only part doing the scratching, not the whole body.

There are other editors who are completely adamant about rooting out any body part that wants to act independently. My former editor with Lyrical Press, Mary Murray, is one who insists on strict adherence to the character taking charge and completing the action, rather than the part. In her post “Wandering Body Parts: A Cautionary Tale,” she explains the rationale. “If a character is acting even in the smallest way, unless they can’t help it, that character is in control of their actions. Every eye movement, gasp, sigh, motion of their hands, feet and every body part in between. Lips do not just nibble–the female character nibbles using her lips. His feet don’t pound without him making them pound; he pounded the path with his feet. Remember that.” She goes on to add that when the author is writing in deep third person, “the reader feels as though they are the character, so sometimes even the slightest WBP can bump the reader out.” A very big reason to corral those parts.

I have always equated the wandering body part with literary conventions, akin to metaphor or simile. “My love is a red rose.”  Well, unless she’s Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, she’s not.  But readers have been trained to understand this type of comparison so it’s an acceptable sentence.

In her post, “In Defense of Wandering Body Parts,” author Bernita Harris also cites literary devices that are acceptable in literary fiction. “In synecdoche, a part of something is used to signify the whole; such as “ten hands” to indicate ten helpers. In metonymy, the name of one thing is applied to another thing with which it is closely related; so “crown” may stand for a king, a “sword” for a warrior, “eyes” for a ring of enemies.” If these usages are correct, surely “hands” or “fingers” can reasonably stand for the character using them?

But I’ll let you judge. How do you stand on body parts with a wanderlust?

 

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24 Responses to A Mind of Their Own—Wandering Body Parts

  1. ki pha says:

    Reblogged this on doingsomereading and commented:
    LOL Sometimes we just like to make things up about what their bodies can do.

    Like

  2. melissakeir says:

    Very helpful post. I do this. But then again, like you mentioned, I know what’s going on. Some of my editors are more against this than others and since I’m working on improving, I am learning to try to fix it. I think that as readers become more like movie-goers, we are going to see the images in our heads and not worry so much about the fingers or hands doing the wandering. We get it.

    Like

    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      These constructions are usually easy to fix, but some of them I tend to find makes the moment more stilted, at least to my eyes. Again, I think if the prose is clear, the reader won’t envision dismembered parts feeling up the heroine/ LOL Thanks so much for coming by, Melissa!

      Like

  3. My Lyrical editor left me a comment in my manuscript regarding an intimate scene with the hero and heroine. She said “I think he’d enjoy this so much more if he were doing it 🙂 ” I can laugh at myself–and my writing when need be. I got her point rather quickly. However, I still want to believe the occasional creative wording, like “His fingers trailed down her arm,” is okay. Great balanced post, Jenna!

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  4. Daryl Devore says:

    Thank you Jenna. I have this belief that if the reader is engaged in the book – they know whose part is wandering over whose. I’ve read a lot of older books and parts wander and I know who’s doing what. People get onto a band wagon and just run with it – without considering – is this rule carved in stone and must be obeyed with no question. Or is it a guideline? Check the writing if it’s clear who owns the wandering hand – then let it do it’s thing. Especially in an intimate scene or a tense scary scene. Sometimes the flow and beauty of the words are far more important than a writing rule.
    Super fantastic post. Sending you some virtual chocolate.
    Tweeted.

    Like

    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I really wish editors would treat it as a guideline and not a hard and fast rule, but I doubt that’s going to happen. *sigh* The virtual chocolate makes it better. 🙂

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  5. Great post, Jenna! I’ve had many wandering body parts before edits, lol.

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  6. Love this blog and have definitely come across this issue in books I’ve read and even written. Tricky body parts!

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Thank you, Toni! When you find them in books as a reader, do they ever bring you out of the book? I mean other than the flying eyes? Pounding feet wouldn’t bother me, though.

      Like

  7. I agree with you on the first two examples, I see nothing wrong with either. In fact, the first sounds more intimate to me than latter. However, yes, sometimes it can lead to comical sentences.
    Great post. Shared via Linkedin

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  8. I remember doing this. I don’t think I do it anymore, but I don’t really think about it. Hmm. I tweeted and shared.

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  9. Grinning here, Jenna. I’ve read some really funny phrases with body parts doing all sorts of odd things.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Oh, they can certainly be entertaining! My favorite is “Her eyes flew around the room.” I see the eyes with little bat wings darting here and there for an up close look at the people in the room. LOL

      Like

  10. danijace says:

    Okay I’m guilty here, but when using a personal pronoun that denotes who the fingers belong to, I don’t have a problem with parts. There not just fingers, they are “his” fingers. It’s understood he has control of them. Personally, I’m drawn out when writing becomes technical to the point it sounds stilted.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      My sentiments exactly, Dani. And when I think of the situation, and you’re in the character who is feeling those fingers slide down her arm or cheek or butt, I think about what the fingers are doing, not the man that’s controlling them. That may just be me. Like I said, I think in some cases it should be a literary convention. (Not, of course, when eyes drop or fly around the room. LOL)

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  11. Harliqueen says:

    I think writers do need to be quiet clear when it comes to this kind of thing 😀 Otherwise it can create some rather funny scenes when it’s supposed to be serious.

    Like

    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      That’s exactly right, Harliqueen. As long as it’s clearly understood, like her fingers raking a man’s chest, I think there shouldn’t be a problem. And I’ve seen the construction used in books by prominent authors and I stab my finger at the page and shout, “See! Jo Beverly gets to do it! Why can’t I?” I get kind of passionate sometimes. 🙂

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      • Harliqueen says:

        Exactly, I don’t see the problem in using phrases like that if the reader understands it 😀 Not every rule should be followed if you can break it well!

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  12. E. Ayers says:

    Oh, Jenna, you had me laughing at this one. It’s such a common beginner’s mistake. I don’t think we have to be redundant, but we do need to be perfectly clear.

    She swept the area with her eyes, absorbing everything in the room. (Eyes that can vacuum?) Her eyes locked with his. (Who super glued them together?) His hand snaked around her waist. (Remember that old creepy movie, THE HAND) Some sentences are just gross! But we all do it. We know what we mean when we write it. Unfortunately that’s not the way it comes across to the reader. A good editor will catch it if we don’t. But we should never let it happen in the first place.

    Fingers raked the hair on his chest is a little different from his fingers raked the hair on his chest. Sometimes you have to step back from a manuscript and look at the sentence all by itself. Then look at how it is used. How clear is it to the reader? Is there another meaning? Or did that body part do something without the rest of the character?

    I have a character who threw his fist in the air. Not something I would normally allow but in the context of what was going on, it makes perfect sense. We all know those moments of excitement and when put with that situation, it was fine. Everyone knows that movement and if I had tried to describe it any other way, it would have taken away from the scene.

    It all comes back to Write-What-You-Mean. Being concise is very important! And awareness combined with practice will usually keep most writers out of trouble.
    🙂

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I think write “what you mean” is a good rule to go by where this is concerned. I’ve schooled myself now so that the character’s gaze drills into another character. Because eyes don’t do a lot of the things we think they do. Other body parts, not so cut and dried, like your fist being thrown in the air. It depends on the context and the meaning you want to convey. Thanks so much for coming by, Bev! 🙂

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