Most Common Writing Mistakes: Animate Body Parts

You might be writing a horror story and not even know it. Picture this: body parts scattered all over the room. We’re talking a regular massacre. But it gets worse. These aren’t just any ol’ body parts. They’re . . . aliiiiive!

What’s that, you say? Not in your story? You might be surprised. “Animate” body parts can often rear their ugly heads (pun intended) without our even quite being aware of what’s happening.

When Body Parts Attack

The problem occurs when we put the emphasis on our characters’ bodies, rather than the characters themselves. We give their bodies a seeming sentience and the ability to act independently of the character. In short, we associate our action verbs not with our autonomous characters, but with their dependent body parts.

Check it out:

Elle got into her Subaru. Her hand reached for the ignition, and her fingers wrapped themselves around her glow-in-the-dark Frankenweenie keychain. This was the last time she was ever letting Jake talk her into noodling.

His fist pounded on the passenger window. “You have to come back! This is the best way to catch catfish!”

The engine revved and drowned out his voice.

His lips kept moving. His eyes pled with her to come back.

The Problem With Animate Body Parts

What do we get out of this exchange, other than Elle’s stubborn resistance to having a catfish chew on her arm? To start with, what we don’t get is a whole lot of Elle or Jake. Their hands, fingers, fists, lips, and eyes get a whole lot more screen time than the characters themselves.

Why is this a problem? After all, it might even seem like this approach is smart, since it can present a nice variation of subjects within a scene. Instead of beginning every sentence with “Elle” or “she,” wouldn’t it be a good idea to mix things up a little?

The problem with animate body parts is two-fold:

  1. Animate body parts can create ludicrous or even confusing images. When we write “Jake’s eyes rolled,” readers might just as easily end up visualizing poor Jake’s eyeballs rolling across the floor.
  2. Animate body parts remove the emphasis from the primary actor. We want the spotlight on our characters. They’re the ones whose actions are powering this story. They’re turning on the car engine, banging on the window, and pleading with their facial expressions. Their body parts are just props.

Keeping Body Parts Where They Belong

Let’s rewrite our original scene to put the emphasis back where it belongs: on the characters.

Elle got into her Subaru. She reached for the ignition and wrapped her fingers around her glow-in-the-dark Frankenweenie keychain. This was the last time she was ever letting Jake talk her into noodling.

He pounded on the passenger window. “You have to come back! This is the best way to catch catfish!”

She revved the engine and drowned out his voice.

He kept moving his lips. His eyes pled with her to come back.

Fixing the animate-body-part problem is easy enough. All we have to do is switch around the subjects in our sentences and make sure our action verbs are being enacted by the characters themselves. The result is a punchier scene that does a much better job of showing readers what the characters are doing.

Are There Exceptions to This Rule?

Let’s consider a few exceptions:

  1. Sometimes we’re going to want to emphasize the body part over the actor, for whatever reason. You’ll notice that in the amended example, I left the last sentence (“His eyes pled with her to come back”) alone. I could have written “He pled with her with his eyes,” but that’s just clunky. Or “The look in his eyes pled with her,” but that’s unnecessarily wordy.
  2. To circle back to our original argument, we might also want to occasionally let a body part take center stage to vary sentence structure. But this should be a last resort. You’re almost always going to be able to rewrite sentences in different ways to keep constructions properly varied, while still avoiding an animate body part.

As always, you have to use your best judgment. But always be aware that these lively body parts might be sneaking into your story and turning it into an unintended horrorfest.

Tell me your opinion: When do you think it’s acceptable to use animate body parts?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 24

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Ha. My writing partner likes to nail me for floating body parts. I do find them acceptable, though, when the character feels detached. Maybe he’s just received tragic news. “The captain’s voice still expressed sympathy from some distant place as Bill’s hand set the phone on the desk and his eyes drifted toward the photo of his son in his crisp Marine uniform.” For me, that works, though I probably wouldn’t really use two floaters in one sentence, because it shows the stunned, surreal moment my character is experiencing.

    • I tend to be forgiving of animate body parts in situations like that as well. Sometimes, in real life, certain situations can make us feel as if our body parts aren’t quite attached. Allowing the body part to take on a life of its own, in these instances, can end up creating exactly the right effect.

  2. Honestly, I think if it’s a chronic problem, then you’ve got issues. If it’s once in a while, or you’re doing it for effect (as you said) then it’s acceptable. Also, I think in many instances, chiding this trick of storytelling can insult the reader’s intelligence. Most of the time, they’ll understand what you’re saying, even if it’s said in a funny way.

    An example of when I definitely think it’s acceptable is when you’re showing uncertainty with a character. For instance:

    I was tired. Three hours of sleep and me don’t mix. Despite the fact I’d already had three Diet Pepsi’s since breakfast, my hand reached for my fourth. I really shouldn’t have another, but the thought of caffeine was too much to resist.

  3. Yet again an interesting post. Your website is helping me with my daily creative pieces and i have started a new blog. Thakyou so much, K.M.

    Your regular reader
    Shilpi,
    shilpispages.blogspot.com

  4. I write fantasy, and one character is mentally shielded, to a degree, from everyone else. I almost never actually state that he does something, simply because most of the characters rarely actually see/notice when he does something, and when they do, it feels so extremely impersonal that it could just as well be an isolated hand or arm or eye.

    So, yes…animate body parts are a very good thing to be cautious of, but they have their uses at times. 🙂 Good post.

  5. Oh boy! I’m notorious for moving body parts. I caught myself just last night while I was editing my latest wip. Personally, I’m trying to leave moving body parts out of my books completely. 🙂

    • This is one of those things it’s difficult (and, perhaps, even detrimental) to eliminate completely. As we’ve discussed in the earlier comments, there are absolutely places and uses for animate body parts. But they’re definitely a “less is more” proposition.

  6. Hi K.M.!

    Thank you for providing all the great training. I’m trying to soak up as much as I can.

    I would say GO FOR using moving body parts when writing in the horror/zombie/apocalyptic genre. Very apropos when body parts have been cut, slashed, or hacked off, and they are still moving and/or twitching!

  7. Well, maybe when the character is not thinking and just notices whta the body part is doing? (specially hands, here)

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      That would definitely be a legitimate exception. Whenever the character’s body is acting involuntarily, it does take on a certain sentience of its own.

  8. This article reminded me of Philip K Dick’s short, The Eyes Have It, in which he used this phenomenon to great effect. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31516/31516-h/31516-h.htm

  9. I have been working on an interesting plot twist. Since one of my characters is a cyborg, a mechanic has hacked her robotic systems, causing her body to act in a very different way than intended. If done properly, animate body parts can be creepy cool!

  10. James Ross says:

    Sometimes I have that experience in my real life. Not to a psychotic extreme, but where there’s a general split and it doesn’t feel like I’m operating my hands, legs. Like when I’m walking home and I’m bone tired emotionally. I could not force myself to walk, but my legs have plenty of energy so they take me where I want to go. Another time is the mouth- sometimes things pop out.

    In short, make sure the reader knows that the weirdness represents actual weirdness, and your reader will probably love it. There aren’t so many FX that are that special, in writing, you know?

  11. I’m just beginning to learn about this, so thank you for the information. However, under almost no circumstance would I ever read “Jake’s eyes rolled” and think his eyes were literally rolling. That’s just silly. Well, unless Jake had glass eyes or if he’s being attacked by psycho with a melon baller, I guess.

    But in general, this is great information. I think one has to ask “who or what is performing the action”. Sometimes it truly is a body part “Jake’s legs trembled with fever.” In this case, “Jake trembled his legs with fever.” So, sometimes body parts ARE autonomous. You just have to use common sense.

    In any case…thanks again. Interesting concepts.

    • Good point, you wouldn’t. I think there’s a place in there where you are asking questions that you shouldn’t have to, though. The writer doesn’t want your unconscious asking ‘who is rolling Jack’s eyes’ or coming up with alternative answers that don’t fit. In a horror, now, that might not be the case. That added confusion, however subtle, might add to the ambiance. This of course is the key to vetting any writer’s advice: figure out what happens if you follow or ignore it, then use whichever takes you where you want to go.

      It’s like cooking. I tell you don’t burn the food, but a Cajun cook will deliberately do so and some will deliberately set it on fire. In fact, I think that the cooking metaphor might make for a nice, if somewhat homespun, article on writing.

  12. Sparksofember says:

    My favorite (i.e. most hated) animated body part is: his arm snaked around her waist. Ew!!

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