I sometimes write articles for I hope are helpful to writers. Here’s one of my favorites:
the Rules: In Defense of Flying Body Parts
I once attended a workshop that focused on sharper,
clearer writing. The speaker discussed many common grammatical and word
misuses, and offered lots of strong advice to improve writing. But there
was one bit of advice to which I took exception, even though this advice
has practically become a mantra among romance writers.
It had to do with the dreaded flying body parts.
I can’t count the number of times I have heard
speakers tell a roomful of nodding writers “Eyes don’t drop,
they don’t meet, they don’t fly across the room. Gazes drop,
meet, fly, etc.” Everyone gets a good (embarrassed) chuckle at the
exaggerated images painted by the speakers, and rushes home to removed
the offending phrases from their own work.
Now, literally, these speakers, and their agreeable
audiences, are correct. These things don’t really happen. Or, if
they do, we certainly don’t want to be there to see it.
But why do we care about literal meanings? We write
in the English language – why shouldn’t we use it in its entirety?
In the English idiom, eyes DO meet. They do drop. They fly, dart and shoot
across rooms, and sometimes even bug out of heads. What’s more,
other body parts fly, rove, wander, and so forth, metaphorically, if not
According to Merriam-Webster, an idiom is “an
expression that cannot be understood from the means of its separate words.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with using one. Or even, in moderation,
more than one. In fact, writers who write in English ought to have command
of the language in all its richness.
We use many idioms in our speech and in our writing,
with nary an objection from our zealous critique partners. For example,
I have never literally “taken” a walk down the street –
that would require me to somehow pick up a walk and transport it. But
no one objects if my heroine takes a walk or ride across town. If my hero
takes a plane to New York, I am not chastised for having my hero steal
things that don’t belong to him. But just let me mention that his
eyes traveling up the heroine’s legs, and boy, oh boy, will I get
pounded by some well-meaning critiquer.
Sorry, folks, but the flying body part rule is one
of those rules that really isn’t a rule – because frankly,
it doesn’t make any sense. These expressions would make it past
any grammar teacher, and, more importantly, past any reader who hasn’t
been tainted by having someone sneeringly point out the literal meaning
of the words.
Don’t believe me? Okay, I can understand your
not wanting to take my word on this. But how about taking Susan Elizabeth
Phillips’s words? Here’s a line from one of my favorites of
her books, Nobody’s Baby But Mine: “He saw that Jane’s
eyes were glued to his mother’s face, and he took in her stunned,
happy expression.” (p. 322) When I read this story, I was caught
up in the emotion of the moment. A horrific vision of the heroine’s
eyes being removed her head and pasted to the face of the hero’s
mother just did not enter my mind. And that’s true even though I
read that book after my mind had been polluted by the dreadful flying
body part rule.
Still unconvinced? Maybe Nora Roberts will be more
persuasive. Here’s a line of hers from Homeport: “His
eyes held hers, and were a dark, rich brown that took little drifts of
gold from the sunlight.” (p. 70). You don’t really think anyone
is going to read that and imagine one pair of eyeballs clutching another
pair, do you?
If bestselling authors can having flying body parts,
so can the rest of us. In fact, I am sure one reason (out of many!) that
Susan and Nora are bestsellers is because they employ our language in
all its rich forms.
When self-editing for clarity, the question to ask
yourself is this – “will my reader misunderstand my words?”
If the answer is yes, then change what you’ve written. But if there
won’t be a misunderstanding, don’t change your words just
because you worry that other writers will laugh at the literal image.
After all, you are writing for readers, not writers.
So, in future, if you discover the line “their
eyes met across the crowded room” in your work, go ahead and flinch
at the cliché, but don’t worry that readers will imagine
two pairs of eyeballs hovering just under the ceiling. That only happens
when you’ve had the idea pointed out to you at a writing workshop.
Most readers haven’t had that experience.
Check Articles for more writing tips. Writer's Bookshelf lists the books I've found helpful in my own work.
If you are looking for archetype information, check the archetypes section of my website.