LOOSE BODY PARTS: HOW TO KEEP THEM ATTACHED IN FICTION

by CONSTANCE WATSON

Who here loves zombies? I know I do! Zombie stories are by far one of my favorite genres. But no matter how much you love zombies, that doesn’t mean that every character should be one, which unfortunately is what tends to happen. Unintended zombification can be a huge problem. Why, you ask?

It’s not easy to turn the pictures in your head into words, especially when it comes to how your characters move. How does your character run? How do you make your readers believe she is picking up an object? How do you describe how she looks at something? One pitfall for a lot of authors – especially new ones – is the description of loose body parts. Other terms for this are wandering body parts and autonomous body parts. Basically, we’re dealing with a character whose body parts are moving on their own. Personally, I prefer the term loose body parts, as it relates to my fascination with zombies.

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH LOOSE BODY PARTS?

Unless your characters are all zombies with decomposing bodies and decayed limbs, you want to be careful in how you word their movements. As the audience is reading your words, a picture is forming in their mind painted by the words on the page. If your story has loose body parts, the image the reader sees might be parts of them literally falling to the ground or flying across the room. Here are a few examples:

● His feet raced down the stairs.
(I actually find the image of feet racing down the stairs without the body attached kind of funny.)

● She tossed her chin over her shoulder. (From Theresa Stevens’ Wandering body parts, oh my!).
(She pulled her chin off her face, and then tossed it?)

● He coughed up a lung.
(Eww, his lung just flew out of his mouth. Doesn’t he need that?)

● Her body stood up.
(Is her body possessed? Did her body just become sentient?)

● His eyes fell. His mother sat down beside him and caught his eyes.
(So, his eyes fell out of his head. Good thing his mother was there to catch them. Phew! Otherwise they’d be rolling around on the floor!)

Of course, we might understand what the author means when they write sentences like these. But it is the author’s job (our job!) to not leave any ambiguities like falling eyeballs or chins flying around.

HOW DO WE AVOID EYES FALLING AND CHIN TOSSING?

The problem with these examples is that they’re usually written as though the body parts are doing the movement instead of the character. The action that is attributed to the body part is something that cannot be logically done.

Let’s rewrite the above examples so that the character is performing the action.

● His feet raced down the stairs.
● He raced down the stairs.

● She tossed her chin over her shoulder.
● She turned her head.

● He coughed up a lung.
● His body shook with spasms as he coughed, gasping for breath between fits.

● Her body stood up.
● She stood up.

● His eyes fell, and his mother caught them.
● Ned’s gaze faltered. His mother cupped his chin with a finger, lifting it till their eyes met.

Most times things like this may not be thought of or caught till the editing stage, and that’s fine. When you come across a body movement that feels weird, just try working out different ways of wording it to make it sound more realistic. If you’re not sure, look at it as if you’re the reader and picture it in your mind. If the image in your head has body parts flying off your character, you may need to rewrite that sentence.

Another benefit you’ll find by fixing these types of issues is that you’ll wind up adding more context to your story. By changing your words so that your character does the action instead of the body parts, you inject more “show” into your story. What do I mean by show? Here’s a great article to read on that topic: Show Versus Tell In Writing Fiction by K.M. Weiland.

WHERE DID MY EYES GO?

I first learned about loose body parts from a dear friend of mine and an author I highly respect: Bryan Davis. I attended a creative writing class he taught at the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference towards the end of February 2007. In the evenings he hosted a critique session where students could have their stories reviewed by Bryan and other students in the class. It was a great way to unwind while working on the lessons Bryan was teaching during the day.

I submitted a story I had written years before. In one particular scene that Bryan read to the group, I had written that the main character’s “eyes fell,” and then his mother “caught his eyes.”

What ensued became an ongoing joke in further critique sessions about eyes rolling and other characters catching them. Bryan soon brought plastic eyeballs as props to his critique sessions, and I believe still does to this day.

I hope this article helps you identify any zombiefied characters in your own writing so you can bring them back to life and make them whole again. Thanks for taking the time to read this, and don’t forget to catch your eyes on the way out!

“Wife, mother, writer, nerd” is Constance Watson’s tagline. Her husband and daughter are important to her and will always come first. Following that, she enjoys sharing with the world her love for writing and all things nerdy. Constance writes micro fiction and short stories, dabbles in poetry, and is currently working on a children’s book series and a fantasy novel. She also writes non-fiction articles spanning the topics of writing, parenting, and child loss.

Find out more about Constance at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.