Roaming Body Parts

Roaming Body Parts

I recently read a blog with a firm stance on how to deal with body parts. I don’t entirely agree. I don’t have trouble with figures of speech, and if I’m reading that a character ‘flew down the block to John’s house’ I don’t see her mid-air. If someone writes “a lump of ice settled in her belly” I’m not seeing actual ice.

How do you react when you read things like this?

Their eyes met from across the room.

His eyes raked her body from head to toe.

There seem to be two schools of thought on this one. I’m on the side that doesn’t mind. I understand that ‘eye’ can be used as a noun or a verb. “He eyed her” is acceptable. “He gave her the eye” is an idiom I have no trouble with. I don’t see him extracting an eyeball and handing it to her. So if a characters eyes move, I don’t get visions of eyeballs floating free. Others would substitute the word “gaze.” I’ll use either.

Which side are you on? Would the following pull you out of the story?

Her blue eyes, enlarged by her wire-rimmed glasses, rambled from Colleen’s head to her toes.

“What’s wrong with my face?” Her fingers flew to her cheeks.

Yet there are those for whom those would be book-tossing offenses. Me, I see the eye movement in the first example, but the eyes remain firmly set in their sockets. In the second, my brain assumes the fingers are still attached to the hand, and I don’t think about body parts floating in space.

If you give someone the eye, are you handing them an eyeball? Or if a character eyes the room as he enters, what’s he doing? Eye is a verb as well as a noun, after all. And as a verb, my Synonym Finder (great reference book, by the way) lists view, see, behold, catch sight of, look at. And what about all those expressions using ‘eye’? In a pig’s eye. Do we put things into the eye of that pig? Or, keep an eye out for. Do we take an eyeball out and hold it until someone comes for it?

Roaming body parts

Image by 272447 from Pixabay

If we took everything we read literally, a lot of the richness of the language would be lost. If his eyes are pools of molten chocolate, do we really think that he’s got Godiva eyeballs? Or just deep brown eyes?

(That’s a metaphor, I think – if his eyes look like pools of molten chocolate, that would be a simile, right?) I’ve never been good at remembering terminology. Metaphors, similes, idioms, hyperbole—they’re things I use, but I don’t worry about what they’re called when I’m writing them.



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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45 thoughts on “Roaming Body Parts

  1. This reminds me of the student who stood up in my class one day and said she would “never publish my work to ebooks.” When I asked why, she said she “hated” ebooks. I didn’t try to change her mind, but used that to explain to the others in the class that our personal preference as Readers has no bearing on our personas as Writers and Publishers. They got it.

    Likewise, what I personally find distracting or don’t find distracting As A Reader has no bearing on how I write. The only readers that matter (to me) are those on the other side of my keyboard. Seems to me, the fewer possible “book-tossing offenses” I provide the reader, the better. So if using any awkward construction might cause a reader to set my book aside, I simply don’t use it.

    If anyone is interested, I invite you to see other posts on the topic HERE and HERE.

    Oh, and “gave” is a whole other topic. I talk about it HERE.

    • Thanks for your input, Harvey. Nobody wants to create book-tossing moments. Trouble is, they’re different for every reader.

  2. I’m always torn on this topic, when I can use eyes and when I have to use gaze. That’s probably my biggest thing. The rest of the flying body parts I can generally avoid. 😉

    • I don’t go out of my way to avoid roaming body parts if I think they’re figures of speech and shouldn’t be taken literally. But if there’s a better way to say it, I’ll lean that way. (And do we physically lean or is that yet another figure of speech?) I tend to type sitting straight up.

  3. Godiva eyeballs.I like that. LOL!

    My guiding rule is–for whatever turn of phrase I use, is it clear or confusing? If it’s confusing, I change it. But in the examples above, I can’t imagine anyone being confused (though there could always be that *one* person). There may be times when you change it up to either avoid cliche or just avoid repetitive phrases. I know from making plenty of my own mistakes that if I get too gung-ho on a writing rule or certain advice, the writing can become stilted and dry.

    One of the best tools a writer has in their kit is to put their work aside for a certain period of time and come back to it with fresh eyes–then you can more easily spot when it works and when it doesn’t.

    • Confusion is to be avoided at all costs, but there are some who absolutely can’t accept “roaming body parts.” I’d hoped some who see things this way might explain why these figures of speech bother them so much.

  4. Terry,

    My nose turned up at rambling eyeballs. Then I dropped my eyes in embarrassment b/c I, too, fall into that habit. Thanks for giving me a hand.

  5. I had an editor who hated things like “their eyes met.” Since I’ve had the gaze vs eyes advice drilled into my brain, I envision eyeballs literally touching. My preference is gaze, but I wouldn’t put the book down if I ran across it.

    • Good point, Sue. How much do we change based on editorial input? My take has been, ‘if it’s no big deal, go with the suggestion.’ But I will stand my ground when they want to change words for their own personal preference rather than better writing.

  6. Thanks, Terry. I’ve often felt that it was excessively literal to object to someone’s eye wandering around the room. Maybe it’s only writers who have been indoctrinated by some column or book on writing who object.

    Certainly there’s good precedent in the history of English. My mind always comes back to the hymn line, “His eye is on the sparrow.” Without checking, I can’t affirm that it’s actually a Biblical line, but I think it or something close to it is.

    (Of course we could really confuse the issue if we say that this line doesn’t count as authoritative on this issue, since the entire line is metaphorical, since, at least in the Judeo-Muslim-Christian tradition God doesn’t have eyes anyway…

    • Thanks for chiming in, Eric. What about “The Eyes of Texas are Upon You”? 🙂

  7. Oh my gosh, Terry, I’m so with you on this!

    I don’t claim a huge expertise in authoring…yet, but it always irritates me when I’m told (by my wonderful editor, no less) to change those expressions. My opinion is, if we commonly use them in everyday speech and no one gets all frothy about it, why can’t we make use of them in stories? These idioms (correct terminology?) are part of normal speech.

    I’ve never said, “Wow! Look at that guy flying around the track!”, and had anyone correct me and say, “I don’t see any wings.” Or to an ogling guy, “Put your eyes back in your head, mister,” and had…well, you get the point.

    I might have to organize a protest over this…it’s all the rage now, ya know! 🙂

    • Sometimes (as I mentioned to Sue above) editors have their own personal word/phrase preferences, and they love pointing them out. Luckily, I’ve yet to have an editor tell me I had to accept their changes. I thing the worse was an editor who didn’t like the word “crap.” My character did, though, and he won. I’m sure he’ll join your protest.
      As was pointed out in an earlier comment, it’s also a matter of not overusing any of them.

    • “I might have to organize a protest over this…it’s all the rage now, ya know!”

      That line made me laugh so hard! That made my day.

  8. Hi Terry,

    I come out of writing fantasy and science fiction, so leaned toward being a literalist with these expressions, in part because I had it pounded into me to that a fantasy or sci-fi reader might easily take an expression like “his eyes roamed over her” literally given that all sorts of things are possible in “speculative fiction.” At the very least, it might bring the reader up short for a moment, and you don’t want to break the spell.

    These days, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much, especially when reading, though I’d substitute “his gaze raked her,” for the above example.

    “Roaming body parts” is another example of how you’ll never please every reader. Years ago I took a critique class with Nancy Kress, and she emphasized this regarding description–writers need to find the level of description that works for them and hone that. I think that approach is very true with the topic of your post today. Some readers might be put off by “his eyes roamed the room,” but others will be fine with it, and those are the folks you’re writing for 🙂

    • Thanks, Dale. I hadn’t thought about fantasy/sci-fi. Personally, as I mentioned, I’m in the “accept it as a figure of speech and move on” camp, but I was surprised to see how adamant the comments were on the blog that triggered this post.

      I agree that gaze is often a better word choice to avoid getting readers’ hackles up, but you can fall into the pit of overusing that word, too.

      For me, it’s like my romances with love scenes. My editors call them sensual. Some readers shout they’re porn. I’m not writing for those people.

    • The way I see it, when the description is impoverished, the reader has no choice but to clutch at whatever straws are on offer. Unconventional settings don’t lend themselves to instant comprehension, and vague or missing description here sends the reader on an endless snipe hunt. In fantasy, I figure this is compounded by what I call floury description, which is like flowery description, but half-baked.

      On the other hand, I assume that when the reader is confident in their understanding of the scene, they’ll recognize figures of speech effortlessly. It’s not like they go catatonic from the figures of speech in everyday conversation (or they wouldn’t have money for books).

  9. I guess I don’t understand the problem. Seems to me that as long as the reader understands what the writer is trying to convey, then the reader will go on to the next part of the story.

    Probably the reason I feel that way is because my fiction professor taught a theory that writing is a highly-stylized form of drawing–that the same principles of light, shading, colors and coloring, movement (what was the Mona Lisa doing just before she froze for the portrait?), and so forth that govern the visual art(s) also govern the perception of the reader. He noted that we see it all the time in the movies, and the movement of body parts do not pull us away from the story. The movement of body parts, he said, is an integral part of fiction writing:

    Little Benny Torres caught the Colonel’s nod. The tiny bugler rescued from the Chihuahuas at Dry Springs, smiled. Now Red Sleeves was going to pay for his Mami and Papi and his little pobrecita, María Guadalupe. Benny licked his lips, squinted against the sun, and breathed deep as he sounded Charge. He raised his shoulders as he waited for the Colonel’s command. He lowered the bugle, wiped his right eye. He frowned and moved his lips as if to roar. He knew he might see Maria Guadalupe before the end of this fight.

    “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” he prayed, glancing up. He squeezed his bugle. Hard.

    He was ready.

    In theory, the writer is glancing around the body of Benny Torres as he or she, the writer, watches him prepare for great battle at a great moment in his life. The movement of his body parts give us strong measure as to his resolve, his mood, and his dedication, I think.

    (I made this up without regard to strict adherence to point-of-view.)

    • Thanks, Jim. I, too, don’t see what the big deal is about using figures of speech, (and so far, most of the readers here at TKZ have agreed), but apparently it’s a major issue for some.

  10. I’m firmly in your camp, Terry, though on a level I can understand people’s issue with roaming or raking eyes. I’ve read enough comments on first page critiques here to get the “eew” factor some people have even if I don’t agree with it.

    The “hand reaching out” and “fingers flying to the face” issues I don’t understand at all. Because you literally reach out with your hand; your fingers literally do fly even if they don’t have wings. There should be nothing confusing with that.

    And one last thing, if your characters eyeballs rake someone’s body, that’s eew, but “eyes” should only mean the front part of the eye that allows a person to see.

    • Thanks, AZAli, and good point about the difference between eyes and eyeballs.

  11. On the other hand, I love it when you can play around with the literal and figurative meanings of phrases, as in, “Driving up the river canyon, he followed the rising gorge to his mother-in-law’s house.”

  12. Unattached eye and body parts have never been acceptable. If there’s a Ten Commandments of Narrative dictated by the One True NYC Editor God, it’s there. So, if you work with a classically-trained copy editor, they will use the dreaded Red Pencil of Humiliation upon your wandering eyeballs and hands.

    However, many writers now prefer, “His hand ran up and down her back,” because they see this as a close-up in their mental video of the action, and it is beginning to creep into mainstream published writing because of overworked, poorly trained, or nonexistent copy editors.

    • I’ve never allowed myself to be humiliated by a red pencil. Nor have I been subjected to any NYC editors.
      You’re stating a ‘rule’ here, but how does that rule fit with the myriad figures of speech we’re accustomed to? (Or, if you prefer, to which we are accustomed.) I learned grammar in school, but I play fast and loose with a lot of the rules in fiction, most specifically in dialogue.
      What’s your take on ‘alright’ and the addition of irregardless into the dictionary. Off topic from roaming body parts, but I’m curious how the NYC Editor God will react.

      • Figures of speech and roaming body parts are totally different things. No editor with a modicum of training would confuse them.

        Grammar and spelling aren’t evil destroyers of creativity. They are the tools we use to communicate, and, when we misuse them, we can often fail to connect with the reader. Example, the vocative comma.

        EXAMPLES: Let’s eat Ralph. Let’s eat, Ralph.

        In the first sentence Ralph will be the meal. In the second, Ralph is being invited to eat.

        Playing with grammar by writing viewpoint narrative in the voice of an uneducated person or in their dialog is perfectly fine, but, these days, it should be used with great care and sparsely at best. A page of narrative and dialog in HUCK FINN would stop most modern readers in their tracks because of the sheer amount of mental translation, but, also, because many people would find it either insensitive or patronizing, particularly in the case of Jim the slave.

        A careful sprinkling of expressions and bits of dialect to remind the reader of the character’s voice is a much better choice. “Alright” is common enough to use in dialog although you risk the reader hearing Matthew McConaughey’s voice saying it. “Irregardless” sounds like lawyer speak so I wouldn’t use it unless your character is a lawyer or pedantic as heck.

  13. So do these sensitive types think that if A gives B the stink eye that A has a flatulent eye (or eyes)? Because that would be an interesting talent to develop.

  14. I’m right there with you. I’m a young writer, so any good metaphors, idioms, or similes I can think of are as valuable to me as the treasure Edmond Dantes found in The Count of Monte Cristo. I would be crazy to erase an idioms because a handful of people took it too literal. If Dumas believed in tossing metaphors, similes, idioms, hyperbole that confuse a few people, then The Count of Monte Cristo wouldn’t exist.

    Also, I enjoy your posts Terry, you’re a very talented writer.

    • Aw, thanks, Zachary. And good luck with the writing. I’m not huge on any figures of speech (science background, probably) but I’m learning to use them … sparingly. If I try too hard, my editor cuts them as ‘purple prose.’

  15. Terry, one that I keep seeing is “He cut his eyes over…” Argh. One author in particular used the phrase in several books and several times in the same book. Maybe I am a delicate flower, but I kept seeing Julia Child standing over a cutting board loaded with eyeballs with various sharp instruments on either side. “Oh yes!”

  16. I recall the first time I encountered that phrase, Joe, and it creeped me out, but it seemed to be a ‘go to’ expression of that author. I got used to it, though. I guess years living with a marine mammal scientist who performed countless necropsies toughened me up. I’ve been know to have characters cut gazes, but prefer the knives stay away from the eyeballs.

  17. And then there’s Shakespeare’s, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, LEND ME YOUR EARS…”, and where would country music be without BENDING THE BARTENDER’S EAR, or getting the COLD SHOULDER, PUTTING ONE’S FOOT IN ONE’S MOUTH… and of course there’s the current football uproar over TAKING A KNEE…

    Of course, shouldn’t we use our MIND’S EYES to see better ways to say what’s ON THE TIPS OF OUR TONGUES?

    (Oh, and I’m with all y’all ~ this doesn’t really bother me – though my youngest son, the law student likes to argue the literal meaning of EVERYTHING these days.)

    • Thanks, George. I agree that if it’s written as a figure of speech and not a poorly executed roaming body parts, people shouldn’t have issues.

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  19. It depends on the sentence. Suppose I write: “He felt her up and down with his eyes.” I don’t think anyone is thinking that the eye leaves the socket. If you’re trying to be lyrical or poetic, it’s fine to write something as above.

    However, there are times when the writer uses phrases with body parts that just sound odd. You have to be sure the sentence won’t be taken the wrong way. Janice Hardy did a nice post on this here: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2012/09/breakaway-body-parts-are-your.html

    I’ll go through my files and see if I can find some good examples of bad body part sentences… lol

    Great post!

    • Thanks, Joanne. As with everything in writing (and much of the rest of life), it depends is the key factor.

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