BODY PARTS DON’T DO STUFF, PEOPLE DO

Lately I’ve been seeing more sentences like this:

Bronwyn’s fist punched Galen in the eye.

I might call this “passive,” but I’m not sure that’s technically correct, so can we just call it “bad writing”?

This goes back again to the idea of emotional distance. The more layers you put between your characters and your readers, the more distant from the story your readers will feel. And please tell me you understand that you want your readers to be as close to your characters—your point-of-view (POV) character, that is—as possible.

Even when writing in the third person, stay tightly in one character’s POV, following the simple rule: one scene, one POV. Want to switch to another character’s POV? Fine, just insert a scene break to signal that and go. But absent that, we (your readers) should only be experiencing what that POV character is experiencing, and as we talked about in terms of what that character can see, hear, etc., the basic default assumption is that that character is also in control of his or her body.

If we all accept that premise, why, then, is this bad?

Bronwyn’s fist punched Galen in the eye.

Let’s look at that single out of context sentence in a few slightly larger contexts

 

From Bronwyn’s POV

If Bronwyn is the POV character in this scene, let Bronwyn do stuff. We’d call this active writing—I do, anyway—and most of the time that’s the goal, keeping our characters active. Let Bronwyn be responsible for her own actions. Her fist isn’t making the decision—good or bad—to punch Galen in the eye, she is. That being the case, a simple fix:

Bronwyn punched Galen in the eye.

 

From Galen’s POV

If Galen is the POV character in this scene, he still experiences the punch even if he isn’t making any decisions. And like most of us, Galen isn’t working under any reasonable assumption that Bronwyn isn’t in control of her own fists, so he would experience being hit in the eye by Bronwyn, even if the specific body part in question was her fist. And if the specific body part was anything else, he wouldn’t have been punched in the eye anyway but kicked, slapped, etc. Sometimes, the action requires some extra explanation, sometimes it doesn’t. You only kick people with your legs/feet, so this is fine:

Bronwyn kicked Galen in the eye.

Unless some specific variation is called for:

Bronwyn kicked Galen in the eye with her heel.

She might poke him in the eye with any number of things, so in that and similar cases we need more information:

Bronwyn poked Galen in the eye with her middle finger.

But back to the main point . . .

Think of it from the angle of the aftermath, if that helps. If Galen were later questioned by the city watch and was asked, “Who punched you in the eye?” Would he reply, “Bronwyn’s fist.” or just “Bronwyn.”?

That being the case, the same simple fix:

Bronwyn punched Galen in the eye.

 

A Third POV

If the POV character is someone else in the scene, watching Bronwyn punch Galen in the eye, the same holds true. Thinking once more in terms of the aftermath, this third person would still report to the city watch not that Bronwyn’s fist punched Galen in the eye, but with the same simple fix:

Bronwyn punched Galen in the eye.

 

The SF/Fantasy Context

But then we are writing fantasy, science fiction, or horror, aren’t we? Those genres allow for the possibility that Bronwyn’s fist is actually making decisions, that it, not she, decides to punch Galen in the eye. This would seem to validate the original sentence:

Bronwyn’s fist punched Galen in the eye.

Still, context is king and you have to be very careful to balance POV, thinking carefully about which character knows what. So if this is from Bronwyn’s POV and she either knows or is surprised by the fact that her fist now has independent agency, you’re okay with:

Bronwyn’s fist punched Galen in the eye.

But if the POV character—whoever that may be (especially Galen or the third person)—has no idea she’s lost control of her fist, we’ll still experience the act itself, then will need you to shore that up with the rest of the story about Bronwyn’s loss of control, etc. From Galen’s POV he’d still have been punched in the eye by Bronwyn, even if he later learns it was her fist who made the decision, and the same holds true for the third POV character. If either observer knows Bronwyn isn’t in control of her fist—and you’ve previously established that for your readers—then yes, it is her fist doing the punching . . . essentially a character named: Bronwyn’s fist.

 

How to Stop Making This Mistake

This is one of those weird little tweaks that can be impossible to find in your own writing, but here’s one tip, however laborious it might be, that can help you find it in your work in progress as you begin to sensitize yourself not to write like that from here on.

Do a search for the possessive form of each character’s name: Bronwyn’s, Galen’s, Phil’s, etc.

Don’t replace it with anything, just let your word processor find it for you, then read that sentence. If you end up with:

Bronwyn’s fist punched Galen in the eye.

. . . think about it and change it as necessary, looking at the text around it to make sure things are happening not just in an active fashion, but in the proper context so your readers have some sense of what’s going on. But of course not all mentions of a character’s body part is a bad thing. If you find with something like:

Bronwyn’s hand hurt after she punched Galen in the eye.

. . . leave it alone. Here, being specific about the source of pain makes sense—Bronwyn wouldn’t tell you, “I hurt,” she would say, “My hand hurts,” and might admit why. That will depend on the degree to which Galen deserved it.

He might have. He can be kind of a prick.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, characters, horror novels, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, intellectual property development, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to BODY PARTS DON’T DO STUFF, PEOPLE DO

  1. Deborah Jay says:

    That’s an interesting tip to try that search – I hadn’t thought of that. It is now added to my list o editing searches, thank you.

  2. Pingback: Links to Blog Posts on Writing – June 2016 | Anna Butler

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