Thursday, May 04, 2006

In Defense of Wandering Body Parts

"His eyes roamed around the room"

Guaranteed to set an agent/editor's hair on fire or have them stand on a chair and scream.

Seems it produces an image of dusty, dog-haired eyeballs rolling, bouncing, bounding, from furniture to furniture, along the baseboards, up the drapes to finally balance on top of the bookshelf.
Are they the only people who take the image literally?
Do they really think the reader is immediately jerked out of the story by what is basically a figure of speech?
Never ever bothered me.
This phrase seems to top the list of examples of what the writer MUST NOT DO.
"It's the GAZE that roams," they whimper, rage or sneer, aiming for the round file in profound irritation.
No personification of individual body parts allowed.
Characters may look, stare, regard, view or contemplate as alternatives, but those baby blues must stay in the head.
No short cuts. No condensation of act and image expressed in terms of the agent.
Thoughts may fly, memories can rummage and gazes may roam.
Sometimes, one reads that the above get pissy about other disembodied body parts too, like hands and mouths and... that occasionally roam about, wandering with abandon, seeking sensation and response. Some body parts do seem to have independent locomotion at times.
Dear me.
Some species of metaphor are frequently given names of their own.
In synecdoche, a part of something is used to signify the whole; such as "ten hands" to indicate ten helpers.
In metonymy, the name of one thing is applied to another thing with which it is closely related; so "crown" may stand for a king, a "sword" for a warrior, "eyes" for a ring of enemies.
Looked at literally, the critics may be right.
But maybe for the wrong reasons.


Ric said...

I agree with you. Allusions such as these don't bother me. I think those who point them out are being nit-picky.

That said, I pay more attention so as not to 'offend'

kmfrontain said...

"Some body parts do seem to have independent locomotion at times."

::Spits tea on screen laughing::

Ok, I'm guilty, no doubt, of using the eyes inappropriately, or whatever else. But I know I've also attributed the action to the gaze as well. I started noticing this during some of my recent edits, that eyes don't do these things, like pinning on a person; but then, most of us generally understand the intent of the sentence. So why fuss if the eyes occasionally do "pin"? Because they do "pin". They just stick to a thing and nothing else of a person moves. Sometimes the body part is more graphic then the noun made of the action of the body part (gaze). I guess it's a matter of overuse again.

S. W. Vaughn said...

LOL! Great post, Bernita.

I agree with you; I rarely notice these things when I'm reading--and yet I've had them pounced upon by critters in my writing, when I was sure they weren't intrusive. However, there is one phrase (and I've been guilty of using this one) that actually does jolt on occasion:

He dropped his eyes.

Ouch. A rather painful experience. And again, noticeable only when you're in a certain mood. :-) Besides, there's only so many times you can say "looked", "gazed", or "glanced" in one page. The eyes have to get moving at some point.

Bernita said...

Just to be safe, Ric, I try to , too.
We're not really in a position to argue with them.

Oh yea, KM!
If the critics had said it was a cliche or overuse, I would have no problem.
Eyes pinning(or nailing) someone to a wall is simply a metaphor after all.
One that still has visual life, I think.

Bernita said...

SW, that's another one that doesn't bother me in the slightest.
I know what the writer means and I'm not going to get all pissy literal all of a sudden.
I find the idea of someone thinking that the writer has suddenly gone dismembering more ridiculous.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

"Some body parts do seem to have independent locomotion at times."...LOL

I can picture a pair of lips chasing rolling eyeballs...LOL

It doesn't bother me but too many of them in a particular passage takes my focus from the story.

I was once reading a very sad and serious piece and by the time I was done these kind of references had me ROFLOL...people thought I was heartless!

Bernita said...

I gather that rather than sad it turned lugubrious, Bonnie.
Maybe the verbs were too active.
But you made me think of "her lips trailed slowly down the broad expanse of his heaving chest to..."

Rick said...

"His eyes dropped to the floor and rolled under the sofa."

On the one hand, I agree with you that I don't quite see why this is supposed to be so awful. (Minus the rolling under the sofa, of course.)

On the other hand, I once jarred a crit group reader this way, even though I wasn't actually referring to body parts. A ship's captain ordered a petty officer to "gather up some hands" to perform a shipboard task. Hands in this case was the well-established nautical synecdoche for "crewmen."

But this was in the immediate aftermath of a battle, and one reader pictured severed hands lying around on the deck. Once you get a mental image like that, it is too vivid to shake.

So the risk here may be a real one, not just confined to agents and editors. Probably - like every rule - it is all a matter of context. But if there's a risk that the reader may take it literally, don't do it.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Rick, that IS a vivid example of unexpected peril.
Your battle description must have been extremely visual.
Hope you didn't also have an authenticity nazi breathing down your neck like a Charybdis demanding that "hands" was preferrable to "men" or crew."
Am afraid thought, my reaction, possibly unwise, would have been to damn the torpedoes on that one and stet "hands."
I wqould say there's a risk everytime one uses figurative language.

Rick said...

Yet another factor is that the reader who got the unfortunate image was not someone who'd normally read about seafights - so her reaction probably wouldn't be shared by readers of sea adventures.

On the third hand (ahem!), although the Catherine books involve fighting, they aren't primarily about it, and my likely readership might form similar mis-images.

Bernita said...

I don't think that flies as her excuse.
The expression is so ubiquitous that it is not limited arcanely to select readers of sea stories. One runs across it routinely in the process of a normal education.It is a very common expression.
~harumping here~

December Quinn said...

I do find this nitpicky, and confess to being irritated when I'm edited in such a fashion. Phrases like those, used jusiciously, don't bother me a bit.

But I did giggle at the mental picture of somebody running around a boat picking up disembodied hands so he could get some work done.

Gabriele C. said...

I'm so with you, Bernita. Some phrases are metaphors that have worked for generations of writers, and I don't see a reason why our generation suddenly shan't use them any more.

Nitpicky nazis bereft of creativity of their own who look for downcast eyes, saidisms other than said, POV shifts; who chase the poor was all over the place and want to kill every adverb.

I agree that some things can be overdone or used in a clumsy way, but there's no reason to ban everyting writers have used in former times as 'that doesn't work now because readers watch TV a lot'.

Bernita said...

Oh well SAID, Gabriele.
You sum it up perfectly!

I expect to see any time, someone to sniff and ban "he walked through the door" - because, yanno, some idiot might think he was walking through solid wood instead of the doorway.

As you see, December, I feel it's more than nitpicky, I think it's screwy.

alexandra said...

Ah! Bernita...would that were all so perceptive. While Editors and Agents 'roll' their eyes in the sockets, the rest of the reading public are not alway so discerning.

And, as we all know, our body parts are best left where we found them on being born into this world.

I have to say, my favourite has always been 'wandering hands' hmm... ;-)

Okay, I surfaced, now, I'm going back under, as always thank you for your continued support.

Bernita said...

Ah, Alexandra, one's heart must never leave one's breast, nor be laid at another's feet.
Somehow, his gaze stripped her doesn't have quite the same style as "his eyes stripped her."
I do like those rotating eyeballs, spinning round and round like a bubble gum machine.

Dennie McDonald said...

maybe becasue I have 4 little things that listen to me and take me too literally too often "You said not to hit him on the arm, Mom. You didn't say anything about the leg..." - I tend to stay away from those.

Dennie McDonald said...

I realize not quite the same thing - but I just meant I am careful what I write - now if I could just watch what comes out of my mouth - shee-it!

Bernita said...

Kids take full advantage of the Western philosophy that anything is allowed that is not expressly forbidden - the little buggers.

Dakota Knight said...

Okay Bernita, I'm so guilty of this. I'm especially bad when I use the "rolling eyes" and in my work, mouths have dropped and hands have wandered. I think I'm getting better though...maybe.

Bernita said...

See what they've done, Dakota?

They've made us paranoid about perfectly proper, active and descriptive verbs.
Are we to be reduced to "he put/placed his hands?"
Her hands can't "fuss over the dressing table?"

December Quinn said...

I have to say, my favourite has always been 'wandering hands' hmm... ;-)

Alexandra, if "wandering hands" were good enough for John Donne, I think they should be good enouggh for all of us. (Or did his roam? Either way.)

S. W. Vaughn said...

I drop my eyes and retract my statement. :-)

You're right, Bernita. Sorry. The critics got to me too... people pounce on my dropping eyes all the time.

Splat. :-)

I feel liberated! Bring back the wandering body parts!

Just for kicks, I just ran a check on my current WIP. Seems I don't subscribe to the "banish mobile body parts" theory as strongly as I thought. The count thus far (in 351 pages):

gaze -- 49
eyes -- 160

Ha! They can't get me! I'll drop as many eyes as I want!

Bernita said...

Liberate the Eyes, SW!
They have been unfairly imprisoned!

As long as they "wander" with intent, December!

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