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?