Floating Body Parts

Writers conferences and blogs talk about this topic often so I don’t pretend to be breaking new ground with this post. Yet I still see some floating body parts and cliches creep into otherwise great stories. No, I don’t mean murder mysteries depicting a stray arm floating in a river. I mean much gentler fare.

Yes, floating body parts offer the reader — and writer — shortcuts. But relying on them as description in narrative doesn’t challenge anyone’s imagination.

Rolling eyes

The offender I see most often is:

“She rolled her eyes.”

Yes, we all know this means that her eyes went from the ceiling and back. No, wait a minute. Her eyes didn’t go the ceiling and back. Her gaze went to the ceiling and back. See the difference? No pun intended.

Eyes are never glued anywhere — unless you’re talking about a stuffed teddy bear.

Fingers and feet don’t fly on their own.

And don’t throw up an arm — I’m terrible at sports and liable not to catch it.

Want to eliminate these from your writing? This post from A Novel Writing Site offers suggestions, along with substitutions for the word “gaze.”

Never Famous Enough

Some bloggers say that famous writers can get away with using floating body parts. Perhaps. But rather than than striving to be famous enough to get away with using them, why not hone your writing to its best, regardless of where you are in your career? Use your powerful imagination to find other ways of describing eyes locking and stares boring. The only exception I would make is that in dialogue, the occasional floating body part is appropriate. Why? Because that’s how some people express themselves. But narrative should be more formal.

Old Hat

Cliches are just as distracting as floating body parts in narrative. But for the same reasons as floating body parts may work in dialogue, so can a few well-placed cliches. For a pretty comprehensive list (caution — contains the occasional off-color word), read Cliches, Avoid Them Like the Plague.

Your turn:

What floating body parts and cliches distract you the most in books? When, if ever, have you seen a cliche or floating body part used effectively?



33 Responses to Floating Body Parts

  1. Avatar
    Sharon A Lavy November 17, 2011 at 5:15 am #

    The more I learn about the writing craft, the harder it is to just sit down and enjoy reading. Hard to turn the internal editor off and just relax.

    You got me right between the eyes with the rolling eyes one. I am guilty of this one big time.

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    Timothy Fish November 17, 2011 at 5:27 am #

    I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not sure your example is a good one. The thing is to roll one’s eyes is not the same as her gaze went to the ceiling and back. They’re not only different, they are very different. When we refer to someone’s gaze, we imply that they are able to see and comprehend. But when you roll your eyes, your eyes don’t have time to focus. Rolling one’s eyes is a form of expression, much like shaking one’s head. If someone shook his head, we wouldn’t say, “his gaze went to the left wall and then to the right wall”; we would say, “he shook his head.”

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    Lee Ann Rubsam November 17, 2011 at 6:18 am #

    “Throwing up an arm” — Regurgitation is never pleasant, but that would be a definite nightmare!

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    Lynette Eason November 17, 2011 at 6:44 am #

    Hey Tamela, great post. And a good reminder. I’m definitely guilty of floating body parts upon occasion. That’s why I have good editors. LOL. Seriously, you made me laugh. That’s a good thing this early in the morning.

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    Dina Sleiman November 17, 2011 at 7:21 am #

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m unwilling to play by the rules, but I find this floating body part discussion annoying. We use these expressions in speech everyday, and no one is confused by them. I can’t imagine a reader even noticing this. And we wouldn’t either if we hadn’t been trained to. Okay, I’ve been looking for a place to say this for a while. Nice to have it off my chest 🙂 And no offense to Tamela, who I think is wonderful.

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      Timothy Fish November 17, 2011 at 9:37 am #

      I agree with that. When it is everyday expressions, I see nothing wrong with them. What bugs me is when writers try to be cute and try to express the every day expression a different way. That often turns into corny writing. I think writers need to remember that we are first communicators.

      • Avatar
        Kent Wyatt January 26, 2018 at 1:29 pm #

        This is definitely a tough one. Done well, a fresh description of normal body movements is a joy to see. But as Timothy points out, trying too hard in this regard can end up with something that makes the reader want to, as Lee Ann eluded, throw up–I guess, depending on your genre, it might be an arm. I have come up with some creative approaches that my readers loved, but other times I have tried to get creative with body movement descriptions only to have my beta readers not able to visualize what I was talking about and suggesting I return to a standard phrase. If it takes the reader out of the scene, what have you accomplished? A FBP that keeps the story moving is floating in the right direction.

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    Tamela Hancock Murray November 17, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    Great discussion, as always, everyone. Lynette, I’m so glad I could make you laugh! Dina, this is the perfect place to express opinions. Love the interaction here. 🙂

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    Pamela Meyers November 17, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    LOL, I remember the old days at ACFW when Brandilyn Collins and Tracey Peterson would “get into it” over floating body parts. Tracey is a purist when it comes to FBP.
    Rolling eyes gets a pass with me. Everyone knows what that is and sometimes it just fits. I don’t think of it as a FTB but I do catch some doozies in my crit partners’ submissions sometimes. I think throwing up her hands is one that always makes me laugh as I get a visual of someone tossing their disjointed hands into the air. I for one am very careful with floating body parts, except for eye rolls LOL.

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish November 17, 2011 at 9:43 am #

      Your mentioning Brandilyn Collins reminds me of one that I hate. Several writers use the phrase “fisted his hand”. I always get this image of someone wacking his hand with his fist, but I don’t think that’s what the writers actually intended to say.

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    Dina Sleiman November 17, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    Have to come back to talk about rolling eyes. It has a certain snarkiness that a paragraph of trying to describe still wouldn’t quite capture. It’s like sometimes two words of telling can capture a page of what might otherwise be boring showing. I think at those moments we have to choose not to be ridiculous.

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    Lynette Eason November 17, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    Okay, I have to admit. Floating Body Parts don’t bother me. I know what the author means. When I read, “the woman threw up her hands in disgust.” I don’t have have visions of her vomitting her hands. I see her tossing her hands in the air (FBP intended) with an expression of disgust on her face. I’m just sayin’…However, I still try to avoid too much of it in my own writing. And I’ve never had a reader ding me on FBP. Only other writers. So…..

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish November 17, 2011 at 9:47 am #

      Yeah, I agree with that. Many people use “threw up her hands” in normal conversation. Occassionally, someone will get cute and make fun of it, but usually they are just people who have very bad timing for a joke.

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    Jan Cline November 17, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    I remember the first time I made the connection with this writing visual. I thought Oh my gosh, how could I have missed those! I think we hear cliche and these kind of expressions so much, we just dont notice them any more. Im not sure the average reader is really getting hung up on them, but now that I am aware, I notice them!

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    Tracey Bateman November 17, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    I roll my eyes at the entire concept of making yet another stupid rule surrounding something a commonly referred to as “rolling eyes” and “throwing up hands”. I have always felt the “floating Body parts”rule is ridiculous. It distracts new writers from really learning to tell a great story and they edit the life out of their work before they really get a chance to LIVE. I think rules like this do more harm than good–my opinion only 🙂

    • Avatar
      Timothy Fish November 17, 2011 at 10:00 am #

      Lately, I’ve been noticing how writers pick everything apart and can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s like looking at a rainbow and understanding how the sunlight is reflected and refracted, but not seeing the beauty.

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    Peter D. Mallett November 17, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    The thing I get from this discussion is that although some readers may not roll their eyes at these things, most of these expressions are cliche. We work hard to remove most cliche expressions from our writing. We find other ways to say, He looked like a boxer on steroids, but when it comes to these expressions we leave them in. Definately, food for thought(er I mean something for internal consumption). 🙂

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    Sally Apokedak November 17, 2011 at 9:36 am #

    I think this is a matter of taste. One editor read a page I’d written and said, “A cabin can’t squat at the top of a cliff. It’s and inanimate object.” Another editor read the same page and praised my lyrical writing. Some people are literalists while others are poets.

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    Dina Sleiman November 17, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    And I also think that cliches can work in dialogue or deep POV internal monologue if they demonstrate something about the character.

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    Anne Christian Buchanan November 17, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    As an editor who works on a lot of fiction, I have to say I give the eye rolls a pass too. An idiom isn’t exactly the same as a cliche, and eye rolling concisely conveys something (contempt, sarcasm) that would take many more words to convey without it. Actually, I’m just as annoyed when authors use a “synonym” with the wrong nuance just to avoid repetition. A grin is not the same thing as a smile! And as for my personal pet peeve, I get annoyed when authors write, “She shrugged her shoulders.” What could she shrug except her shoulders? Just write, “She shrugged.”
    The real point: Be aware of what your words are actually saying.

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      Timothy Fish November 17, 2011 at 10:09 am #

      At the same time, its important that idioms be used in the right way. If a character is going to roll her eyes, it had better be as a result of something that it worth rolling her eye for.

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    Annette Irby November 17, 2011 at 9:52 am #

    This is something I mark when I’m editing writers’ works, but it’s up to the author to decide if they want to change it. Some acquisitions editors will turn back work including FBP, some won’t. It’s subjective. I will confess that after this year’s ACFW conference, where FBP came up (thanks, Tracie Peterson!), I began marking this much more often.

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      Tracey Bateman November 17, 2011 at 10:15 am #

      A smart editor won’t pass up a great story because of FBP. They might turn it down for other reasons, but any decent acquiring editor realizes that’s an editing issue that has nothing to do with great story telling and the ability to write. Most writers (new writers) will take them all out at the copyedit stage to make a sell. Even the most conservative publisher I wrote for who is vocal about this topic, allowed one or two to pass if I insisted and compromised on most of them. I shake my head at the idea that any editor would actually turn down a great book for a few FBP. That’s just crazy!

      • Avatar
        Annette Irby November 17, 2011 at 10:22 am #

        Hey Tracey, I meant for rewrites on those sections. Story still trumps all.

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    Selina Gonzalez November 17, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    The other day my little brother was reading a book out loud to my mom. I was in the same room working on homework, when I hear him read “My eyes fell on a verse…” The poor kid, he had no idea why I was laughing.

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    PatriciaW November 17, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Tend to agree with Dina and Tim. Where it’s a common part of speech and would rarely be misinterpreted, I don’t have a problem with that. Eyes do, in fact, roll, or circle, or however you choose to express what moving them in a 360 deg angle might be.

    But I get that at times authors, in an attempt to “show, not tell”, sometimes attribute action to body parts that doesn’t make sense. I think that’s what you’re really talking about. A really, really bad example might be, “Her ear leaned…” Ears don’t lean. They never change their proximity in relation to the head to which they are attached. Now she might lean her head toward something in order to better hear, but that’s different.

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    Peter DeHaan November 17, 2011 at 11:32 am #

    There are items listed on the cliche list that I didn’t know were cliches. Now I have to be really careful.

    (By the way, there are 6.6 million occurrences of “She rolled her eyes” found online. I guess that’s why they are cliches!)

  20. Avatar
    Janalyn Voigt November 17, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    The title of this post snagged me. As I read, I visualize. Being literal-minded, I sometimes laugh in places a book’s writer never intended. When a character “drops her eyes,” as an example, I want her to pick them up again!

  21. Avatar
    Rick Barry November 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    I believe the first-ever recorded instance of someone who threw up her arms was committed by Miss Venus de Milo. Didn’t she realize what an unattractive statue that action would yield someday?

    Ernest Hemingway must have been familiar with this problem too. He highlighted it in his title A Farewell to Arms.

    (Sorry, everyone. I’m on a quick break from more tedious work and couldn’t resist!)

  22. Avatar
    Tamela Hancock Murray November 18, 2011 at 4:50 am #

    Rick, you made me laugh!

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    Martha Rogers November 18, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    Wasn’t it Shakespeare who wrote: “Friends, Romans, and countrymen, lend me your ears.” Now that would have been a sight to see. Cutting off your ears to lend to Caesar? I’m sometimes guilty of FBP because I get lazy and don’t want to fool with it at the moment. Sometimes they slip by in editing and I don’t catch them until the galley. I’d never thought anything about it until Kansas City and Brandilyn and Tracie going on about FBP. Not using cliches I get, but FBP don’t really bother me that much.

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    Beth Steury February 1, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    A little late to the discussion, but I too have issues with so much negative attention to things like rolling eyes. I write YA. If you’ve personally spent more than one hour in conversation with a teenager who DID NOT roll her or her eyes, I do hope you noted the time and place of this historic conversation. Eyes roll and scan, shoulders shrug and slump–they just do. Too many rules can suck the very reality from our characters and their stories.

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