Home » Editing » Writing Fluid Fiction: Rolling Eyes, Turning Heads, and Other Autonomous Body Parts

Writing Fluid Fiction: Rolling Eyes, Turning Heads, and Other Autonomous Body Parts

Have you ever paused while reading a story because the character’s body has suddenly taken on a life of its own? You know what I’m talking about: the rolling eyes and the wandering hands that no longer have an actual person controlling them. You probably find yourself with a comical image in your head, too.

As with passive voice, dangling modifiers, and simultaneous action, this phenomenon — known as autonomous, disembodied, or even animate body parts — is an issue of writing craft.

What are autonomous body parts?

A body part is “disembodied” when it acts independently of the character: “Her fist pounded on the door.” The sentient body part becomes the subject of the sentence and thus completes/does the action of the verb.

Why are they bad?

Writing Fluid Fiction: Rolling Eyes, Turning Heads, and Other Autonomous Body Parts

Eyes should only be autonomous if they’re the kind you find rolling around Amanda’s office.

In reality, it’s not the body part that’s actually doing the action. We know that technically the character is the one making her fist hit the door. However, the ambiguous wording of the sentence makes it appear as if the “fist” has a mind of its own.

As with passive voice, autonomous body parts don’t emphasize the actual agents of the story: the characters themselves. By focusing on the parts of the character’s body, you’re — for lack of a better word — disembodying the reader, too, and drawing the attention away from the characters.

When a body part takes on a life of its own . . .

As with anything, I’ll start with an example I found in my own writing. (Edit: For context, please note that “engine” in the sample sentence refers to a train engine on a keychain, so it is small.)

Incorrect: “Her fingers closed around the metal casing of the engine, as if making a wish.”
Correct: “She closed her fingers around the metal casing of the engine, as if making a wish.”

The autonomous body parts in the first sentence are problematic in two ways. Firstly, her fingers are the subject of the sentence and are acting independently of the “she” character, which reads awkwardly. Secondly, the clause “as if making a wish” is now reflecting back to the subject of “her fingers,” so the reader doesn’t initially read it as the character making a wish, but rather as her fingers making the wish, which is technically impossible (and not the intended meaning of the sentence).

Incorrect: “Chronicler’s eyes opened to a confusing . . .”
Correct: “Chronicler opened his eyes to a confusing mass of dark shapes and firelight.” – from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

For an extensive list (broken down by body part), check out this excellent post by Brita Addams: Call Them Sentient, Autonomous, Floating, Or Disembodies, They Are Still Detached Body Parts

How can you fix it?

The good news is your sentence simply requires a bit of rewording. First things first, the subject needs to be the character, not his body. As for the object, well, that will be dependent on context. For example:

Incorrect: “His body fell to the ground with a thud.”
Correct: “He fell to the ground with a thud.”

Change the subject to the person doing the action (in this case “he”). Since the reader inherently knows that falling to the ground generally involves the body, you don’t need to say what falls. The corrected sentence is already doing a better job of “showing.”

Is it ever okay to use autonomous body parts?

As with most things in the writing/editing world, there are exceptions to the rule. If you can justify the use of a particular sentence that uses an autonomous body part, then you aren’t necessarily wrong. There are cases where it may work better within the context of the narrative.

For instance, I’d argue for keeping a sentence like this:

“Bast’s eyes widened, then narrowed.” – also from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Bast is reacting to whatever he’s just seen. It effectively shows what he’s feeling: surprise at first, then suspicion. Also, the alternative version would be rather clunky: “Bast widened his eyes, then narrowed them.”

In Conclusion

Even though autonomous body parts may give a feeling of variety to the paragraph (rather than just general he/she sentence), they are often working against the clarity of your prose. Keep in mind that your characters are the heroes of your story, not their bodies. Your characters (probably) aren’t zombies either, so keep their hands, eyes, fingers, and heads attached!

So what do you think? When is it okay to use autonomous body parts? Are you easily distracted by them?

Like this post? Check out my other editing posts:

Repetition, Repetition: The Don’ts of Repetitive Writing

Writing Fluid Fiction: How to Use Italics

A Bit of Grammar: Passive and Active Voice

A Bit of Grammar: Verb Tense and Aspect


12 thoughts on “Writing Fluid Fiction: Rolling Eyes, Turning Heads, and Other Autonomous Body Parts

  1. Pingback: A Bit of Grammar: Passive and Active Voice | The Sarcastic Muse

  2. I know they creep into my rough drafts for sure. I can’t get the image of eyeballs rolling around chasing someone, now. That should help me not write autonomous body parts as much lol.

    • Well, don’t worry. I think they creep into everyone’s drafts. 🙂 It’s definitely something to look out for in revision though.

  3. Great post and something to think about. I tend to find these in my drafts because they became a way to avoid over-use of pronoun sentence starts (like you mention, variety!). They can turn out to be very silly when removed from the author’s context.

    Do you know of any useful resources for providing a novel with varied and well-paced sentence starts (that maintains acceptable grammar)? I’m becoming more comfortable using pronouns, but I’ve been searching for other ideas.

    • Oh no, I’m sorry I overlooked your comment! Sometimes they seem to get lost in the oblivion of my alerts, so I apologize for just now getting back to you!

      Ah, yes, I know what you mean in terms of the pronoun starts. Here is a post that’s pretty good–maybe it will be of use to you: http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/2013/03/tips-for-creating-sentences-that-flow.html

      Also there is a series of posts on sentence structure here, and she’s quite clear in her descriptions: https://rewriterewordrework.wordpress.com/category/writing-tips/prose-writing-tips/sentence-structure/

      If I can think of any others, I’ll be sure to let you know. Some possibilities, too, are to try and use the setting to your advantage. While the characters are doing whatever they’re doing, they are still grounded in their environments, and you can simultaneously show both to your reader (and also this will change up the sentence structure). Depending on the PoV of your story, you may also have many possibilities. Third-person limited, for example, allows for close interaction with the character, and your sentence structure can reflect a character’s perceptions of the world. Those are just ideas of how to use the content of the story. In terms of structure, though, you could try using fragments (if they fit the context of what you’re trying to do) or starting sentences with conjunctions. But be wary of how you use those. They can do more harm than good if used too much or in the wrong places. Varying sentence length will also help–you can switch between complex and simple sentence structures, and that will force you to break away from the he/she pattern.

      Hope this helps you! If you have any questions, please ask! Thank you for stopping by!

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  7. The sentence, ‘His eyes followed her around the room’ isn’t that much of a grievous error. For example, say someone has entered a room you are currently inhabiting, and they are quite exceptional in their clothing and their charisma. You cannot help but watch them. What do you do? You follow their actions – with your head and your eyes. Does that mean the head is coming off your body and your eyes out of your head? No. If you take a field sobriety test, one of them involves shining a light in your eyes. The police officer asks you to follow it – with your eyes. The eye – as it reacts to new images or objects – will follow the new object. Your pupils dilate as well, and it has been proven that they dilate when they encounter a pleasing image. By this logic, all of these would be impossible because they are not outside of the physical body. Heads can turn because they are on someone’s neck – you turn your head both ways to make sure a road is clear before you cross it – knuckles crack because of air bubbles popping in the body, and the stomach grumbles because of chemical reactions. Does it mean the stomach’s going to have a John Cena WWE tournament? No, they are words to describe actions.

    By the way, why would you close your fingers around an engine to make a wish? With stones or some other small thing, I can understand, because of its size, but a metal casing of an engine? She must have huge fingers, then. You see? You just committed an error – this one of proportion.

    As for ‘fists pounding on the door.’ Say you are in your house and you are upstairs. You hear someone knocking at your door. But they aren’t just knocking – they are pounding on it. What are they pounding with? Their fists – or knuckles, if you prefer. You do not know if the subject is a man or a woman. You would write: ‘There was a loud noise at my door; a fist was pounding impatiently against it.’ We are quite aware fists do not operate of their own accord; what are they attached to? An arm. An arm with muscles and nerves that deliver messages to the brain, which directs the action. Likewise, if someone feels an emotion, we can’t really describe it in colours and whatnot, because unless someone has an MRI machine ready, there’s no way we can physically see the colours of someone’s emotion (ex. Her sorrow was as black as charcoal.)

    It is context, as you’ve said, but most people are going to realize that fingers, hands, and arms are all attached to someone’s body and that the action described is using a particular adjective. I suspect you use it in your writing, as do your favourite authors.

    Now, dear, you think you’re being sarcastic? There’s a thing that readers also possess: reading between the lines. Not many have it, but I do. And I can tell that you do not have any sarcasm whatever, but snark. I’m giving you sarcasm right now, dearest. You probably wouldn’t be able to tell had I not told you.

    • You’ve given good examples and made some sound arguments for when to use autonomous body parts, so I welcome your counterpoint to my own arguments.

      Involuntary responses to a stimulus, such as pupils dilating, a sudden intake of breath, widening eyes — I agree that these are occurring without the explicit knowledge of the person to whom those pupils, breaths, or eyes belong, and could be autonomous.

      In cases where the subject is ambiguous, as in your example with the unidentified person behind the door, then I agree it makes sense to identify the person by the fist, as the sound of it striking the door would be the most immediate thing registered to the POV character; in fact, I’d argue that because the person behind the door is NOT the POV character, he/she/it is — from a narrative standpoint — disembodied by default. Fictional characters have a deictic center (I, here, now): they stand at the center of their own worlds, just as we stand at the center of ours. Everything else references back to this center. In this case, whatever stands outside the door is outside of the POV character’s spatial origo, and the fist could represent the distance between the POV character’s “I” and this other entity beyond the door, as it has no face, no name, no gender; this ambiguity would strengthen the prose, heighten the emotion of the scene, and, therefore, is entirely justified.

      I find it amusing that even in arguing against my example about the eyes following someone around the room (the idea of someone being so taken by someone that they are, in a way, momentarily separated from themselves is a relevant point), you still chose to use a personal pronoun as the subject, not “eyes,” and therefore avoided using autonomous body parts even while arguing for them:

      “You follow their actions – with your head and your eyes.”

      Whereas, in defense of ATBs, you could have written: “Your eyes and your head follow their actions.”

      I get why you chose the (arguably) more correct sentence structure that you did, as it has more impact, but, still, I enjoy the irony of it.

      Edit: I forgot to address your concern regarding the engine in my sample sentence: This sentence was taken from one of my own stories. The “engine” here is a small toy train engine, which you would not know without the context of all the other sentences that came before it in the story. I feel fortunate to inform you that my character managed with normal-sized hands.

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