If you've been writing fiction for more than, oh, about…
Few things pull me out of a story faster than body parts functioning autonomously or self-consciously. Every writer has written them at one time or other, and every reader has encountered them. They even occasionally appear in traditionally published fiction. But they almost invariably weaken the writing. I’ve learned to avoid them in my own writing, and almost invariably change them when I edit other people’s writing.
Autonomy: the ability to function independently
Autonomous body parts act independently of the person to whom they belong, e.g.,
The teacher asked a question and Susan’s hand quickly went up in response. She knew this!
Mr. Chalk’s eyes wandered around the room, skipping over the students in the first three rows before landing on Susan. His finger pointed right at her.
“a2 + b2 = c2,” she said. Her throat tightened and her voice squeaked as she finished. Her fingers tightened around her pencil.
Why is this a problem?
Body parts operating independently can create confusing, and potentially ridiculous, images in the mind of the reader. If Mr. Chalk is looking around for someone to call on, your reader shouldn’t be imagining his eyeballs caroming around the room.
Autonomous body parts also take the focus of the action away from the actor–the character. Characters are what makes a story move. They are what the reader invests in and cares about. Keep the focus on the characters, and keep their body parts where they belong.
Here’s one way to rewrite the above example to keep the focus on the characters:
The teacher asked a question and Susan quickly raised her hand. She knew this!
Mr. Chalk glanced around the room, over the heads of the students in the first three rows, and stopped at Susan. He pointed right at her.
“a2 + b2 = c2,” she said. Her throat tightened and her voice squeaked as she finished. She gripped her pencil tightly.
Bodily autonomy is not always wrong
I left “her throat tightened and her voice squeaked” alone in the corrected example. The squeaky voice is a result of the tight throat, which is itself an autonomous, unconscious response to stress, rather than a conscious and deliberate action. Other autonomous, unconscious bodily responses include hearts racing or pounding, eyes filling with tears, bodies sweating, and so on.
Sometimes our bodies react in ways we cannot control, and autonomous bodily reactions have quite different meanings from similar, deliberate ones. A roll of the eyes means one thing from a teenager being lectured by a parent and another from a semi-conscious accident victim.
Be aware of the differences and choose your character’s actions accordingly.
Self-Conscious Body Parts
Self-conscious body parts call attention to their actions, like this:
He shrugged his shoulders.
She blinked her eyes.
A shrug is a slight and momentary lift of the shoulders; shoulders are, by definition, the only body part that can be shrugged. A blink is a quick open-and-close of the eyes; only eyes can blink. Unless there’s something particular about a single-definition body part motion, there’s no need to mention the body part.
But, He shrugged one shoulder.
You would hardly write “she thought with her brain” or “she said with her mouth”, so there’s no need to specify what anatomical structure she blinks or shrugs.
These are hardly hard-and-fast rules, of course. When would you use autonomous body parts? What’s the funniest example of bodily autonomy you’ve encountered (or written)? What about self-conscious ones?