By Lisa Hall-Wilson
Ever had an editor or beta reader flag the moving or disembodied body parts in your fiction?
Now, I get it. It feels like editors are just splitting hairs and camping out on semantics because the reader will understand what you meant. Let’s look at 4 reasons why we want to avoid these autonomous body parts in fiction – and because I’m always about deep POV geekery, we’ll look at this topic from that angle.
First, let’s keep in mind that you won’t be sitting next to the reader as they’re turning pages and stumbling over phrases. You won’t be there to explain things, or shrug, “You know what I meant.” If you’re justifying these phrases by saying "they’ll figure it out," you’re not doing your job. Your job is to articulate how the character feels and (in deep POV) create an immersive emotional experience for the reader.
Specificity and particularities enable you – the writer – to really focus on the emotions (the WHY) behind the character’s thoughts and actions. Often, in my experience, these phrases are used as a way to skim over the emotions in a scene instead of going deeper.
(Female is POV Character)
His eyes roamed over her body and she folded her arms over her chest.
His gaze started at her feet and worked its way up her body, pausing over each imperfection as if gauging whether he could overlook what she couldn’t change or conceal.
By being particular and specific, there’s more emotion conveyed. The first version the POV character could be coy, embarrassed, shy or feel vulnerable, the WHY behind her action is unclear. The second version (I hope – because this was just off the top of my head), conveys a sense of violation, of judgment, and even a hint of shame. The reader knows what her insecurities are without having to be told.
When the body parts are doing all the moving, what often happens is the character becomes passive. Writers can rely too heavily on these expressions and the reader is left trying to discern how these body parts all became autonomous. Reminds me of Thing from The Addams Family. *body shiver*
Make sure the character has agency, not their body parts. If deep POV is your goal, remember to avoid drawing conclusions for the reader with the author/narrator voice. Often, these expressions are “telling” instead of showing.
Don’t roll your eyes at this advice, it’s valuable. (See what I did there? *grin*) In deep POV, the goal is to remove the author/narrator voice. These phrases aren’t the POV character observing/describing this about themselves, it’s the observation of an outside entity filtering what they see and stepping into the story to share that with the reader.
By drawing conclusions for the reader, the emotions and the WHY are garbled.
Steve’s fingers flew across the keyboard.
What emotion is being conveyed there? Could be nervous, anxious, hurried/rushed, concentrating, angry… We don’t know. To the writer, their intent is obvious. Steve is <insert emotion>. But in reality, the emotion (the WHY behind the quick typing) is unclear.
Steve tapped out the email, checking his watch every two minutes, before hitting send and heading for the door.
Steve banged on each key, typing as fast as he could think, each stroke more pronounced and sharper than the last.
There’s lots of things you could do with that, but the rewrites (hopefully) convey more emotion through subtext and connotation than “his fingers flew.” The emotion that’s powering the action (the quick typing) is much clearer.
Janice Hardy makes a really great point on her blog that you likely don’t want to eliminate every moving body part. She writes:
“My heart reached farther than my hands ever could.
“I think the difference between this sentence and say, "My eyes darted over the fruit stand," is the intention of the sentence. If you're trying to be metaphorical, or lyrical, or poetic, then a disembodied body part can work. It's clear you don't mean it literally.” (source here)
Deep POV still makes room for metaphor and poetic language, if it suits the character you’re writing. Remember, in deep POV, you are not telling the story, the character is living out the story and the reader is a fly on the wall inside their heads. That’s why the specificity and particularity is so important in conveying the character’s emotions and the WHY behind their thoughts and decisions.
If your POV character is observing another character, for instance, it may be appropriate for them to describe what they see as “fingers flying across the keyboard” but when describing their own actions, you’re better to show and not tell.
How would your character describing an elevated heart rate? Would they feel their heart is pounding? Is it trying to escape their chest? Does it beat against their ribs like a wrongly convicted man? Maybe they check their smart watch and note their heartrate is up over 100. It’s more about how your character would observe and absorb the information they take in, than about you being poetic in deep POV.
Do you find yourself writing disembodied body parts? Do you think there’s a place for them in deep POV?
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Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog Beyond Basics For Writers explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers.
She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view.
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