Updated: Aug 23, 2019
Attack of the floating body parts . . . it sounds like a pulp science fiction book from the 1950s. What it is, however, is a very common type of defect in a story’s description. (It is also known as “flying body parts,” FYI.) It happens when a character’s body starts acting on its own volition, with a power it doesn’t have in real life. In other words, the emphasis of the action is put on the body part and not the character himself, herself, or themself.
Here’s an example:
Violet's eyes flew to him.
Did Violet’s eyes earn an aviation degree and were thus licensed to fly? A better rendition would place the emphasis on Violet, rather than her eyes.
Violet quickly set her gaze on him.
“Eyes flew” and “quickly set her gaze” are akin to each other. However, in the second version, the character is in control of the action directly and not by proxy (her eyes).
His face fell. (Ouch. Did it hit the sidewalk on the way down?)
Their feet hit the floor. (What did the floor ever do to their feet?)
His eyes scanned her body. (His eyes purchased some sort of scanning device?)
Her jaw dropped. (What did it drop? Saliva?)
Why should writers avoid floating body parts?
As you can tell from my (hopefully) funny parentheticals, floating body parts can lead readers to picture some humorous images. You don’t want readers to think about a character’s eyes literally floating to the ceiling instead of their motivation behind that action, for example.
In addition, this type of writing can be considered weak. By using clichéd actions, the writer can be viewed as taking a shortcut to expressing an emotion, rather than taking the time to precisely explain how a character is feeling or acting.
Perhaps most importantly, as writers, we spend so much time crafting our characters. After all, the story is about them—their experiences, their lives, their interactions with other characters. So the focus should be on them and not their appendages. Think of their body parts as props (like umbrellas or glassware) instead.
Stop the Presses!
However—and not to undo everything I just wrote—you don’t have to follow this rule 100 percent of the time. Sometimes floating body parts just sound better. They are short, quick, and to the point. Think of an action scene, such as bank robbers in a getaway car. The action is fast paced. When the police sirens go off in the car behind them, maybe the reader doesn’t need you to explain in great detail the motivation and action of the character in the getaway car because it will slow down the pace. It’s likely showing the robber’s “head swung to the back window” will suffice. When you consider using a floating body part in your writing, take time to think about whether it’s the best option for your scene's pace. A good editor (like me, wink wink) will also be able to tell you when it’s okay to use one and when another choice is better.
Remember the fix to floating body parts is to make the character do the action directly instead of the character's body part. For example, Her eyes dropped to the floor could be instead She studied the linoleum floor. This puts the focus back on the character instead of her eyes.
A Quick & Funny Read
You can find a funny example of what can go wrong when readers read about floating body parts in Philip K. Dick’s story The Eyes Have It. Without giving away spoilers, I’ll just say that someone took floating body parts literally and came up with a surprising and otherworldly explanation for them. It’s really short and worth a read. Get it here for free.
Hey there! I write a grammar blog, too, called Grammar Party.