Today, I have an unusual writing tip for you.
See if these sound familiar:
- A hand passed through my hair.
- A foot slid past the puddle.
- Her eyes flew across the kitchen.
Each of these shares the same problem: a severed body part stole the lead.
Who Is Your Subject?
This is an easy trap to fall into because we’re trying to write well, and we know writing well means showing instead of telling. Unfortunately, this isn’t the way to do that.
When we say a hand slid through my hair, we’re actually saying a random, disconnected hand just popped your personal-space bubble and latched onto your scalp.
When we say a foot slid past the puddle, we’re saying that we watched in awe as a disembodied foot maneuvered its way past that muddy hole, likely leaving a really weird trail in its wake.
Do I even need to explain eyeballs flying across kitchens all by themselves?
Why This Matters
Will you see this in published books? Yep, quite often.
Will most readers consciously even notice this weird little quirk? Well, you will now that I’ve pointed it out, but no, most won’t.
So why does it matter? Because it does the worst possible thing your writing can do: it disconnects your readers from your characters by taking the spotlight away.
Readers enjoy stories they empathize with. They have to be able to relate to your characters in order to love your world. When you take action and emotion away from your characters and give them to things (a hand, an eye, a mouth), you’ve unplugged your reader from whatever emotion you were building in the scene.
It doesn’t matter if you say His lips moved, filled with avarice. You’ve just said the character does not feel avarice, but that his lips—who are unnamed and not really interesting—feel all the things.
Your reader will not see this consciously, but they will be aware of it on a deeper level. This is the kind of detail that makes the difference between the book was okay and I want to go live in that world.
Clarity Is Key
Part of our job as writers is to create clear images in readers’ heads. Yes, I know that some of you want to shout, the reader knows what I mean! The reader knows when you mean when you misspell words, too, but is that how you want to write?
The goal here is to ensure your character is the one doing and saying things. Instead of His eyes told the whole tale, you could say, His eyes darkened as he told his tale. That works because the character remains in focus, while his eyeballs stay where they belong—in his face.
Let’s try those first three examples again, only this time, we’ll show instead of telling, expanding each one just enough to make them fun.
- A hand passed through my hair. I ran my hand through my hair, getting it sticky with engine oil.
- A foot slid past the puddle. He slid past the puddle, leading with his feet as though afraid of being bitten.
- Her eyes flew across the kitchen. She stared across the kitchen, frozen.
Let’s try a few more.
Her eyes followed me with hate across the room. Probably picking up lint as they went, am I right? Instead, try, She glared daggers at me from across the room.
His eyes locked onto my lips, hungry. These eyes are so evolved they have their own gastronomical system! Instead, try, He stared at my lips like he was starving and I was a feast.
A frown crept angrily onto his face. Ew, squish it! Instead, try, He frowned, anger twisting his lips like a devil’s.
Of course, I elaborated here. You could also go super-simple. She glared at me with hate across the room. He stared at my lips, hungry. He frowned, angry.
Avoid Disembodied Thieves
All these changes keep the character in the spotlight, which is what you want. They also keep your reader engaged. If you want your readers to remain plugged into your characters, then apply this writing tip. Avoid disembodied thieves.
Can you think of other examples where body parts stole the show? Let us know in the comments!