View Full Version : Turning Heads...And Other Disembodied Body Parts

10-04-2014, 12:05 AM
I'm curious (and if there is a previous thread that discusses this topic please point me to it; I "searched" but only got topics that touched on the subject).

When did disembodied body parts become an absolute no-no? The book I am currently reading (pub 1962, the Viking Press) has two examples on one page:

His head turned.

Lucy's lips formed a "No," but there was almost no sound where I sat.

I suspect this new eschewing of nonstandard subjects and sentence structure arises out of the modern obsession with ACTIVE voice (vs. passive) but do worry about the outcome (especially re variations in rhythm and voice).

I think my problem is that I read mostly older works and most of the current stuff I read tends to be something of a novelty (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, e.g.).

Any thoughts?

10-04-2014, 01:46 AM
Probably someone's quirky peeve you're over-thinking?

The English language isn't that logical; and if someone is bothered by head-turning I'd hate for them to try parsing older idioms...

10-04-2014, 11:37 AM
So, is it really not a thing?

I seem to hear about it a lot.

Here (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=254306&page=6), for instance (starting about Post #131)

And here (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=41201), though the discussion seems a bit tongue in cheek.

Or, most stridently, here (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=204209).

Somewhere in there someone points out how making a body part the subject of a sentence can break up the repetition of every sentence starting with He or She (or It or They). That's my main interest. As well as the fact that it (editors saying NO to disembodied body parts) seems to be a wholly recent phenomenon.

10-04-2014, 01:26 PM
Such a phrase may well work in context but if overused may stand out and draw attention to the phrase itself rather than create an image that is absorbed into the narrative flow.

10-04-2014, 02:24 PM
I don't think it's an absolute no-no. The point is that, if you are not careful, it can sound as if the disembodied body part has a life of its own.

As a general rule, body parts are attached to people. People do actions using their body parts. But there are times when a body can take centre stage. My knee still hurts from that old war wound. My head hurts. Or in comedy - my nose assaulted his fist.

Perhaps it's a thing. But it's a very small and occasional thing. A thingette, a thingling. Like a few other things we could mention, it's okay to do it from time to time, but not all of the time.

10-04-2014, 02:36 PM
It is absolutely jarring if it's the POV characters body parts: e.g. "My head turned" sounds distinctly odd compared to "I turned my head". But then again, it depends on context. Something involuntary - "my stomach turned" - would NOT work with the other structure ("I turned my stomach"? No.)

When it's someone else's body parts it's less jarring.

So overall, this is another thing that is about feel, and style, and knowing what works and what doesn't.

10-04-2014, 05:16 PM
I think it all has to do with context. If it sounds right, it probably is.

Probably, not absolutely.

10-04-2014, 06:21 PM
I think the literary terms are metonymy (her liver spots told her age) or synecdoche (the ship sank with 1157 souls). Anyway, a part standing for the whole.

I agree with Bufty that multiple uses of the same phrase can draw attention to itself, and therein, I'd guess, lies the complaint Johnny perceives.

My pet peeve is she rolled her eyes:rolleyes. Once is a cute effect. A half dozen eye-rolls hurts my eyes. :D

10-04-2014, 06:27 PM

She threw the dice, rolled her eyes, and scored three sixes. :snoopy:

10-04-2014, 07:38 PM
I judged a short story competition, and one of the entries had the line

"She nodded her head and it fell off."

10-04-2014, 09:41 PM
I remember one that we found amusing...

"Jaws dropped at her wardrobe malfunction; enthusiastic cheering ensued."

10-04-2014, 10:14 PM
It can get amusing when combined with zombies. "My jaw dropped" takes on a whole new meaning.

I remember reading some bad erotica where the author kept on talking about penises as if they had lives of their own. Something like "his doodah thrust into me." And I could help wondering whether there was anyone attached to said member or whether it was a particularly exotic form of taxidermy.

10-05-2014, 12:22 AM
"His head turned" doesn't suggest, to me as reader, a disembodied part. You can turn your head, physically; it's why God gave you a neck.

Now, something like "His eyes fell upon her" I have more issue with.


10-05-2014, 12:54 AM
I think it's often fine. There are times when it's awkward, but overall it just seems to be a trend to get rid of it ALL the time, which is too bad.

"I held her hand" is different from "My hand found hers." There are times for both sentences to be used.

10-08-2014, 09:50 PM
I think the web has made it so people's pet peeves take on a weight of authority that can be confusing (and sometimes terrifying for writers). There's some oft-stated guideline or another that states that body parts shouldn't act on their own, such as in a sentence like this:

Her hand reached out and stroked the cat.

Because, OMG THE HAND, THE HAND. It's alive! It's detached and is crawling across the floor towards the cat.

This ignores the whole point of using this kind of construct, which is to emphasize how actions can sometimes feel involuntary or semi conscious.

I suppose you could write:

Her hand reached out, as if on its own accord, and stroked the cat.

But that's another voice and style. It feels more formal and self conscious to me, so whether it works better or not depends on what you're shooting for.

If you have a story where body parts act on their own, sentence after sentence, it would get annoying. Some newer writers do this as a way to get around starting every sentence with a pronoun. But now and again, to emphasize the perception of an involuntary action? I've seen it used occasionally in most of the novels I've read recently.

10-08-2014, 11:48 PM
FWIW, there are publishers who absolutely will not allow the body parts to act. I had dozens of revisions to make, and I sometimes thought they made it a little worse, but not enough to fight for it.

I don't have a problem with "Her hands explored the wall until she found the light switch" or "His eyes roamed the crowded lobby until he spotted his wife." I suspect most readers would be okay with such lines, too. They know these actions were willed by the person who owns and controls the hands and eyes.

Maryn, just sayin'

Hapax Legomenon
10-10-2014, 08:44 AM
I kind of feel like this may be a viewpoint issue. Like "His head turned" is okay for someone who is not a viewpoint, but for a viewpoint (close 3rd person) would not be okay. Because we are attributing independent action to the head. If it's far away, that's okay because we cannot actually attribute much to it beyond what we see (i.e. this person may be a philosophical zombie? we just don't know) but if it is from the POV we are experiencing, we absolutely cannot attribute agency to the head and must attribute it to the person owning the head (he turned his head).

Because of the whole agency thing, actions that are involuntary would be attributed to the thing doing the action and not the person (his stomach turned, his jaw dropped etc). Also by using a disembodied body part in a sentence you are drawing attention away from the person who has agency over it and to that body part, which may be good or bad, depending on what you're doing.

So yeah, I would say it depends on the situation, though there are definitely people for whom this is just a major pet peeve. These may or may not be the same people who hate the idea of philosophical zombies.