Writers learn about craft at conferences and on blogs, so I don’t pretend to be breaking new ground with this post. Yet I still see what are known as floating body parts and cliché creep into otherwise great stories. No, I don’t mean murder mysteries depicting a stray arm drifting in a river. I refer to much gentler fare.
Yes, floating body parts offer the reader–and writer–shortcuts. But relying on them as descriptions in narrative doesn’t challenge anyone’s imagination.
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 to 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 “Ban Those Floating Body Parts” 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 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.
Clichés 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 clichés. Here is a list of clichés found on a website.
What floating body parts and clichés distract you the most in books?
When, if ever, have you seen a cliché or floating body part used effectively?
[A version of this post originally ran in November 2011.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We need more poets.
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.
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!
Hey Tracey, I meant for rewrites on those sections. Story still trumps all.
These articles were most helpful…thank you!
You are so welcome!
Damon J. Gray
Tamela, it is not the cliché or floating body part that jolt my reading fluidity, but rather the misplaced “only.” What is surprising to me is that I find highly-accomplished writers falling into the trap of the misplaced only. It makes me squirm every time I encounter it.
Only I fed the dog.
I only fed the dog.
I fed only the dog.
I fed the only dog.
I fed the dog only.
Which is it?
Related to this is “all.”
“All movie-goers are not fond of horror films,” when what they mean to say is “Not all movie-goers are fond of horror films.”
Okay, now I need chocolate to help me settle down. 😉
What a great illustration! In my own writing, I notice that I make that error sometimes when I’m typing quickly. I try to make a habit of reading all my emails and certainly formal writing to catch those types of mistakes before sending messages to the recipient. Still, sometimes a typo will slip by!
But you are right — each sentence you wrote means something different — a wonderful lesson on being a cautious and careful writer.
Brennan S. McPherson
But don’t worry about not using these in your draft. That’s too stifling and restrictive. Of course, it’s better to not use these, but good luck trying to write according to the “rules.” Edit that way, but write free.
And honestly, the use of language is fluid and the decision to use phrases like these is legitimate and part of the choice writers have to make on style, etc. Readers care about story, not whether you use a phrase they use every day already (like “she rolled her eyes”). Just don’t be unaware that they’re cliches. I’m sure Tamela might disagree to some extent, but that’s my un-asked for two cents… and I care about quality writing.
Brennan, your comments are always welcome! I do agree that it’s better to keep the flow on a draft than to stop everything and lose time over something that can be addressed later.
Cliches tend to jump out at me regardless, probably because I’m in publishing. Perhaps other readers would skim over the words, not giving them another thought!
Brennan S. McPherson
Thank you, Tamela! You’re always so gracious. I really appreciate it. Hopefully you never feel that I don’t return it! Blessings.
Sharon K Connell
Brennan, I agree with you 100%. In your first draft you’re not supposed to be worrying about grammar, flow, spelling, etc. Get the story down, and then go back and tweak it.
The use of cliches and floating body parts are perfectly acceptable in dialogue for your characters. It’s the way people talk, and you want your characters to be realistic. The reader needs to identify with them. Author-readers sometimes balk at every cliche or floater you use, but that’s their problem.
When it comes to my writing, I try to use a well-placed cliche or floater when it’s appropriate for the character or the situation.
Let me add my “two-cents.” We’ve discussed this topic with the readers in my group forum from time to time, and the “readers-only” have no problem with cliches or floating body parts as long as the storyline and plot are good and keeps them reading.
Brennan S. McPherson
Yeah, that’s what I’ve seen in reader responses, as well — they just don’t care that much. I wasted a lot of energy making language beautiful in early writing, and editors loved it, but it took so much energy that I had to make a decision on my style, and what was sustainable and right for the market. Of course, I’m not trying to please editors anymore–only readers–because I’ve now switched to going fully indy. So, take my perspective with a grain of salt. I think this way because of the market realities I’m facing. And they’re different from what lots of readers of this blog want to face by chasing down the attention of the wonderful agents of this blog. But for my own sanity, I had to stop caring so much about this. Obsessive technical precision in writing can kill your voice (and lead to awkward writing).
She threw her arm and rolled her eyes,
then madly threw her head;
with pieces flying everywhere,
I guess that she’s now dead.
Her fingers flew across the keys,
and her feet did dance;
she must have borne a voodoo lease
and have been in a trance
of disembodied cliche’d grace
that permitted bits to float,
but I really hope she didn’t face
a lean and hungry goat
who would have been most pleased to sup
on that which he might fain pick up.
Hilarious, Andrew! Thanks for the chuckle!
Sharon K Connell
Thank you, Tamara.
I spent several weeks eliminating weed, words, including body parts from my novel. Thank God for the “search” function.
The search function is a good friend of mine!
I thought these were just idioms. Some of them seem to be attributing the whole of something to a part (synecdoche?), like “boots on the ground” referring to soldiers and not just feet. The post you referenced listed “Her face fell” as a floating body part, but I have always understood that to mean a sudden negative change of expression due to bad news or a disappointment. Now that you’ve pointed out what FBPs are, I’ll try to watch out for them and find better ways of expression. But how do we know what is an acceptable idiom and what is an unacceptable FBP? I guess it’s best to avoid them.
Great question, Barbara! I’d say to avoid as many as possible. But if you end up writing something awkward to avoid a cliche, you might be better off in that case, to stick with it.
Yes, the falling face does convey emotion well. When thinking about this cliche, consider what actually happens when a face falls. Think about the look of the falling face, and describe that instead.
Oh my, Tamela, I was flabbergasted at the list of cliches. I felt like rolling my eyes, but thought better of it. Then I threw up my arms and said, “Well, I’ll get the hang of it someday.”
Seriously, I have relatives who live in a remote mountain region, who speak almost entirely in cliches. In fact, I wrote a humorous blog post using their conversation as an example. Fortunately they don’t know how to use computers, so I didn’t need to worry about their finding out.
Thanks for your post.
That sounds hilarious, Roberta! When we talk to certain people all the time, we tend to develop shortcut language and no one thinks anything of it. But as a visitor, you saw it!
Nancy B. Kennedy
“He touched her arm.” What does that even mean? But I see it all the time. Is he poking her? Tapping? Where exactly?
I always visualize an arm touch as a light touch on the forearm. But now that you mention it, I could be wrong! I’d think if the character were poking on the shoulder or twisting the wrist, for example, either the author would let us know the action is hostile, or we could gather that from the conversation taking place. You make a great point on being specific in writing.
Sharon K Connell
Why not leave some things up to the reader to interpret? Was it important to the story to know exactly how she touched him. Most of the time, when I read this in a story, I assume someone touched the other person with one of their fingers, unless the scene itself is set up where they are close enough for the person to maybe gently bump into the other party.
Not everything has to be spelled out for the reader.
While critiquing, I’ve seen writers go out of their way to avoid a cliche or floating body part and wind up with a sentence that’s awkward.
Tamara is right in saying there are some cases where an appropriate cliche or floating body part is exactly what’s needed for the scene, even if it isn’t horror genre. 🙂
I think you could use it well in a song lyric (hey, it’s writing). “Faces are falling” … in a lyric you have the luxury of pursuing ambiguity for fun. It could be about being crestfallen – or then again, it could be about dropping facades. Or humiliating someone. But then you can get away with all kinds of purple and ungrammatical things when it’s a song, so maybe this isn’t contributing much to the conversation. Still …
Faces are falling
And only the dead know why
Angels are calling out
Under a turgid sky
People are sleeping
And none more so than the awoke
A headcount of lies that are spoke…n
Wow! Room for contemplation there. 🙂
That’s a great illustration as to why we as artists must consider our art form and audience.
I’m not sure I understand the problem. Are we supposed to not attribute action to body parts in order to focus more on character?
“Philips hands closed around Roger’s throat.” Is bad as opposed to
“Philip choked Roger.”
I dunno the first one seems more visceral and implies a slowness of motion that you would perceive in a high tension moment.
And isn’t “roll their eyes” a technical term? Like wink or “raised his hands” or ”mouth dropped open?”
If we’re being technical then that is what is happening.
I suppose you are saying it’s better to attribute those actions to a character? But doesn’t “Katie rolled her eyes.” Or “Katie grit her teeth.” Still have the same problem? Are you wanting more precise phrasing?
“Katie looked away and sighed, avoiding eye contact with Bert.” Or “Katie bit her teeth together in a firm manner as if wanting them to crack under the pressure.”
That is more descriptive I guess but it’s a lot more wordy, which I guess isn’t necessarily a problem.
I always thought attributing action to body parts was a way to imply speed of movement or to illustrating a lack of social understanding in a POV character.
So “Robert’s fist slammed into my face.”
Are you wanting “I felt Roberts fist slam into my face?” But that gives the sentence an overly past tense tone that becomes almost half passive.
Or “Sally’s eyes seemed affixed to the ceiling. What was so wonderful about our ceiling that she would always study it when she cane over? Her hands trembled. Was it too cold in here?”
I must not understand. It seems like you’re saying not to describe physical action. But what you are saying is all physical action should be attributed to the will of the character? What if the action is instinctive or seemingly uncontrollable?
Sorry I’m failing to get this.
Thanks for asking, David. The point of the post is to show that a writer is ill-advised to use so many cliches to show a character’s bodily reaction to a statement or event that the story suffers. If you read the comments to the post, you’ll note that several people used many floating body parts on purpose to show how distracting they can be. When the floating body parts call attention to themselves, they can put off a reader. Using too many can also make the writer seem “lazy” for lack of a better word. I also noted in the comments that using the occasional floating body part is better than dragging down your writing with awkward phrases — a point you illustrated well. Your comments show the struggles an author may face when cutting down on the use of floating body parts. Each author and story is different, so the answer will differ accordingly. I hope this offers the understanding and clarification you need.
Brennan S. McPherson
That’s great clarification!
Thanks for the post. I find my character’s bodies doing impossible things quite often.
Patti Jo Moore
Great post, Tamela!
A phrase that I see a LOT (not sure if it’s actually considered a floating body part?) is: She smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.
I’m not being critical here (I promise!) but I’ve seen this same sentence used over and over (by many authors I love and admire) but after seeing it so often, I now smile when I read it. Although I’m not sure if my smile (while reading) does, in fact, reach my eyes. 😉
Thanks for sharing this!
I wouldn’t call that a floating body part, but I agree that’s a well-worn expression indicating a false face. Now you are motivated to create your own expression for this phenomenon when you write!
As with any sort of writing advice, you started with the most common ‘rules’ and went on in your comment replies to agree that writers make judgement calls. If I’m writing in a free flow, I’m apt to make body part fly, drop, fall, and land in ways they naturally wouldn’t.
When I edit, better yet when I have someone else read it, those faux pas become more evident. I can make decisions about whether they stay or go. I’d say that as a reader, they distract me more in narration or description than in dialogue. If someone writes, ‘Derek rolled his eyes’ and Derek is a 16-year-old, that rings true. And if Mom says to Derek, “Don’t roll your eyes at me,” I can definitely relate. *smile*
Agatha Christie is one of those famous and prolific authors who used and got away with floating body parts. In one of her mysteries, she said a character’s “eyes fell on the table.” (I’m laughing even as I write that.) It stopped me cold in the middle of the story and was a real ‘eye-roller.’ hahaha. It was sloppy writing, but people still eat her stuff up (yikes! a *cliche*) even after all this time.
Excellent insights, Paula!
Floating body parts I get and understand after so many workshops at ACFW conferences, but I read that list of cliches and and had to laugh because so many of them are a normal part of this Texan’s vocabulary. The majority of my stories take place in Texas and I write the dialogue the way I talk as a Texas gal and an old one at that. I guess what they’re trying to say is maybe it’s okay in dialogue but avoid them in the narrative sections. If you’re in deep point of view, those will pop up because it’s the way the character thinks. Of course, too many of them would take away from the creativity of writing.
So, I hope I’m understanding that it’s okay in dialogue if it’s true to the character and not over used, but it’s better to avoid them in narrative.
Still a great reminder as we edit and revise those rough drafts.
Martha, absolutely it’s fine in dialogue! One good reason for narrative to be more formal is to help the reader quickly realize when the author is conveying information and when the characters are speaking.
This was a really interesting post!
I’m wondering if floating body parts are acceptable in a first person POV young adult novel? Since the narrator is a teenager, does this voice work as an exception from the statement, “narrative should be more formal?”
(With the understanding that they’re not distracting/excessive?)
Yes, cliches are fine in first person POV. You can even have a character use a favorite one a lot, even it’s a wee bit tiresome to read — if that works for the story and character. Happy writing!
Sorry I didn’t see this sooner.
Thanks for the response!
Many years ago, I read a science fiction novel featuring an alien species who could take their heads off their bodies. The youth used to play a version of basketball where they’d throw up their heads, catch another head, then put that on their body (the adults didn’t approve. Your head should only go on your own body).
Anyway, whenever I see a line like “he threw his head back and laughed” then I remember this novel. I wish I remembered the title or author!
Stacy T. Simmons
Thank you for the insight, I once was guilty in my crit group of placing a “throwing my character’s arm” in a scene.
Needless to say that night, this particular offender (my MC) was the recipient of some literary surgery!
For me, the former English teacher, it’s the split infinitive. Apologies to Captain Kirk, but I want him to go boldly. Or could we find a more substantive verb that doesn’t need the adverb to prop it up?
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Tamela, one of my good friends has been writing a book about triplets who have an uncle who uses bromides as his means of communicating….it was quite effective, though I did ask her about a few times when other characters used them….It didn’t work as well with other folks.