Writing Roving Body Parts

Avoid Laughable Gestures

Last post we discussed the need for originality and
character-depth when writing a character’s physical gestures. With all the bad
news and anxiety, I thought it would be fun to examine some of fiction’s most
laughable (and troublesome) gestures.

Writing Tip for Today: While we all want our readers to
experience a story through the senses, written gestures sometimes backfire.

Hand Me the Barf Bag

One of the hardest gestures to write without an unfortunate visual
picture is when a character is exasperated and “throws up his hands.” OK most
of us get what the writer is trying to show, but I for one just can’t envision
this gesture without feeling a bit queasy.

The remedy isn’t obvious. One might write, “His arms shot
up,” but this also brings a mental image of a wounded soldier or arms tied to a
slingshot. Silly? Yes, but remember that whatever breaks your reader’s “continuous
fictional dream,” could lead to a closed book.

Hands and feet often seem to have minds of their own. Fingers wiped away tears. Feet edged closer to the door. Her heart reached out. By making the body part a character, you divert attention away from the real POV character. Maybe the best advice is to steer clear of using body parts when you mean an action literally, and instead inserting the action into a character’s attitude and dialog.

The Eyes Have It

Eyes that drop, roll or otherwise travel are also
problematic. “He dropped his eyes,” makes me want to say, “Oops!” In the
bestselling novel, The Help, a character’s eyes “shot out the window.” Those
are some powerful eyes. Others include, “His eyes followed her around the room,”
“His eyes locked onto her lips,” (ugh!) or “Her eyes fell.”

Most of the time, substituting “gaze” for eyes will quell
the laughter. Or, instead of “her eyes went around the table,” you can write, “She
studied each face around the table,” or even, “Her gaze fell on each person
around the table.”

Fresh eyes can also seem as if someone has gone to the
market and brought home new eyeballs. “She saw him with fresh eyes” could
become, “She saw him then, for the first time, as if she hadn’t known the man
all her life.” Just don’t let your characters’ eyes go a’roaming.

Arms Race

I once had a student write, “He took her arm up the stairs.”
While I got a chuckle, it was a little disturbing and made me wonder if or when
the rest of her joined the arm. Another student wrote, “He left his hand on her
knee,” and yet another, “Her fingers flew to her cheeks.”

While I understand writers’ needs to change things up, by substituting a body part for the character doing something, readers may not consciously get why they’re unsettled, but they are likely to be uncomfortable.

Many times, readers don’t know why a story doesn’t work for them. By writing about roving body parts, you risk losing readers. If you have written some of these, have a laugh. But then revise—or else your fiction may suffer.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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