Friday, August 5, 2011

Wandering Body Parts: A Cautionary Tale

Sounds kinda sexy, doesn't it, as if some delectably hot man is letting his fingers wander slowly over your skin as he seduces you. Or chilling, if the body parts are just wandering around the parking lot when you go to the store for a gallon of milk--disembodied arms and leg flopping across the tarmac on a mission to kill you.

Alas, it's nothing so dramatic, dear writers. It's just a description of a character's action written as though the character has no control over what their body parts are doing.

Believe me, though, it is out to get you. Muahahahha! (That was the phenomena of  wandering body parts laughing, not me, by the way. I have enough problems with it myself.)

Would an editor, seeing a flood of WBP's in your submission pass on the project? Depending on the editor and the standard of writing expected, of course they could. Like head hopping or any other big no no, editors know they're gonna have to explain how passive and active voice works to that author should they accept the submission, how voice relates to perspective, yaddah yaddah yaddah. That's a lotta work an editor would rather not have to do.

Here are a few of the classic examples we all know and love:
Her eyes flew across the room.
Her lips nibbled his neck.
His feet pounded the path.

At one time or another we've all come across them in some variation or another.

It is a phenomena, by the way. And even the most conscientious, anal retentive of us get caught up in it. If you're looking at a bunch of action sentences all close together, in a sex scene, say, and trying to avoid starting every sentence with 'He' or 'She', do your best to not fall into the "Oh, using a wandering body part-passive voice-type sentence adds variety" trap. Wrestle those words around until the subject is the character, describe around the action, leave the sentences alone for a few days and gain a little distance, do anything...

Wow, Mary. Talk about dramatics.

But feel no guilt, dear writers, just recognize the WBP phenomena, correct it and move on. Tell your beta readers and CPs to be on the lookout for it in your work and do the same for them. Like having a spa day and treating your friend to one too, it just does you both sooo much good.

Here's another way to look at Wandering Body Parts. Remember Sir Isaac Newton and "A body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force"?

How strange that I sucked so badly at physics in high school I flunked all the tests about the laws of Gravity and Motion, yet here I am, an editor, realizing Sir Isaac was indeed a god of science. Hmm. No wonder my mother threw a fit when she saw my grade...all that education money down the tubes.

Anyhoo. Sir Isaac was correct as usual. A character's body parts stay at rest unless used by the character to do something--anything.

And that's exactly what should be happening in those example sentences but is not. 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.

Yes, sentences are written like that all the time, in all sorts of books. That doesn't make it right, or cool, though it might be trendy, and can be especially embarrassing in sex scenes. Just imagine, as an author has written it, whoo-hahs and schmeckels doing whatever the heck they want all over the page without the knowledge of the hero or heroine. Cringe-worthy, and a little scary, I think.

I'm truly blessed as an editor, because every author on my roster, even those sparkling new to the Mary's World of Writing Weirdness party do not intentionally make the Wandering Body Parts mistake. They fight it tooth and nail. I can tell that whenever I read their work. But like me, they're human, and like any writer, seeing the trees for the forest is hard. I place no blame and totally sympathize. We are in the boat together.

This cautionary tale is for anyone preparing submissions and revising out there in the world beyond my roster.
If you've figured out that the true and correct subject of all the example sentences is 'he' or 'she', and realize that's true of any sentence involving a character acting--even if the 'he' or she' is just understood and not blatantly trotted out as one of the words in the sentence--you, dear writer, are golden. And if your character can't help nibbling your hero's neck or gasping because he's so unbelievably delicious, then that must be specified. Easy, huh?


  1. I dislike WBP in the context of just swapping the subject of your sentence...but actually, I'm good with *some* WBP. For example, fingers creeping or clawing are a powerful image--cinematic, almost (indeed, to write "she crept" would not be the same as "her fingers crept.") Sometimes, there's a literary intention to focusing on a particular body part/aspect; you *want* the body part to appear as a separate subject to its owner. There's an element of detachment at play in the metaphorical sense.

    I do take issue with body parts doing impossible things, mind (I did a whole blog post on eyes). I think there's a big difference between doing this by accident, and doing it deliberately.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Lucy. I went to your blog and read the post on eyes too, and I am so with you on that score. :)
    In third person omniscient voice, WBPs integrate nicely, we expect it even as readers because we read from the author's POV and the author wants us to "see" everything. Just my opinion maybe, but because omniscient voice leaves the reader out a bit, makes them more of an observer than a participant, the story and characters lose intensity. So many subs in the slush pile get rejected because eds don't feel as though they know the characters and a lot of times, third person omniscient is to blame. Heh. That's a post for another day.
    But in deep third person limited or deep first person present tense, the reader feels as though they are the character, so sometimes even the slightest WBP can bump the reader out. Which, if I hadn't been in such a hurry to go pick up my child right before I hit Post, I would have remembered to put that distinction in there. Sorry about that. I've just been seeing a lot of WBPs lately, both in the slush pile and while doing line edits.
    Not that I'm an editor who rejects solely on WBPs, but if they're flagrant and numerous, I could lean in that direction.

  3. Wahaha. I have had MAJOR rants about third person omniscient. I dislike abuse of it for plot convenience in particular. "I am in charge of this narrator, and so I shall leave out important point A because it adds tension to point B, even though mentioning A now would be logical, and leaving it out just looks silly." (Dan Brown's latest went in the bin for committing this sin within the first few chapters).

  4. Thank you, Mary. I'm sharing this post with my network.