“Wandering” body parts?

MichelleOn Writing3 Comments

Have your beta readers complained of “wandering” body parts in your manuscript? Do you have brows that furrow, eyes that dart, lips that purse, and legs walking independently of bodies? I’ve heard this complaint more and more lately, and it makes me wonder when and how the “rule” came to be that characters are always “in charge” of their bodies. What if they’re not? Are you?

More interestingly, what does it show when movement and expression happen on their accord?

In case you’re not sure what I’m talking about, here’s an example:

Character in charge: “Julia furrowed her brow.”
Wandering body part: “Her brow furrowed.”

The second example has fewer words, is more direct, and shows us that Julia’s reaction is compulsive, instinctual – not deliberate, forced, or contrived. (And wouldn’t you agree that most, if not all, of our nonverbal behaviors are not deliberate?) She’s not acting; she’s reacting. Naturally.

Does this bother readers? Contemporary readers who typically seek quick movement and fast reading? I don’t think so… Why does it bother your critique group, then?

In advising the authors who have asked me this question, I tell them this: Nobody cares. It does not matter. What does matter is that your syntax flows well, your characters respond in ways that feel natural, and you’re weaving originality and impact as you show.

Writers, what do you think? Are you “guilty” of wandering body parts? I’d love to hear from you.

Happy writing, y’all!
xo -MJ

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3 Comments on ““Wandering” body parts?”

  1. One’s implicit and the other explicit.

    I don’t think one is right over the other.

    I think it depends on what you want to convey…rather, what your character would feel/experience or do.

    Then again, I’m a terrible writer…

  2. I think it’s more a matter of identifying when this works and when it doesn’t. “Her brow furrowed” is a cliché, but for good reason: it works. It’s not… weird, like so many other examples we editors come across when working with new writers. I think that’s because it’s like you said: reflexes like this are involuntary = there is no agency; the character didn’t decide to furrow his brown. Since the body part is acting on its own, that’s the way we should write it. Another example:

    She said, “I’m pregnant.”
    His eyes widened. “What?”

    Another reflex. Nobody decides to widen their eyes when they get a shock. But too often, we see things like:

    Her head rested on his shoulder. (No. She rested her head on his shoulder.)

    His hand came to her back. (No. He touched her back.)

    Her eyes searched his for a clue to how he felt. (No. She searched his eyes for a clue…)

    Her fingertip traced a line along his jaw. (Nope, she did it. With her fingertip, if you feel such a degree of specificity is required.)

    To sum, I think the general objection out there is to awkward phrases that cast body parts as actors of their own accord when, as is almost always the case, those parts are just obeying orders.

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