Loose Body Parts and How to Keep Them Attached

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 he 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.

For the first topic in my new Cultivate Your Prose with Rose series, I will show you examples of what loose body parts exactly are and how to fix them. I’ll also let your eyes drop by sharing my own story about how I first learned about loose body parts.

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 the movements of your characters. 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 is body parts 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 kinda funny.)

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

He coughed up a lung.
(Ewwww, 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 falling eyes and tossed chins?

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 of 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 this 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.

Don’t forget to catch your eyes on the way out!

I hope this post helps you identify any zombiefied characters in your writing so you can bring them back to life and make them whole again.

If you need any help with editing, feel free to join us at @thewritersblock (just click on the blocks below). We have a team of volunteer editors and reviewers willing to help make your writing shine, whether you write fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. In fact, this post was workshopped there, and I wouldn’t have been able to turn it into what you just read without their help.

This concludes my first Cultivate Your Prose with Rose post. Thank you for stopping by and reading!

You can read about the process I went through writing this article: My First Writing Tip Article

Leave a Reply