Leaving the Body

This has nothing to do with astral projection or any other form of out-of-body experience…but, inspired by a recent article in Discover magazine, here are five ways for writers to “leave the body.”

  1. Kick with your feet.
  2. Listen with your ears.
  3. Look with your eyes.
  4. Smell with your nose.
  5. Think with your mind.

All five of these verbs describe actions performed with, or processes involving, a certain part (or parts) of the body. The crossed-out part goes without saying. So don’t say it! This is what I mean by leaving the body: if the body part that’s doing the action is self-evident or can be guessed at with a bit of common sense, leave it out of your writing.This recommendation, which I make strongly, is not just in the interest of conserving words; it serves to keep the reader focused on what’s happening.

She saw an opening and kicked him in the back of the head. He toppled and landed on his face. The spectators cringed at the sound of his nose breaking. ‘Victory is mine!’ she thought. Then she smelled blood. Her shirt felt wet. She touched it briefly and looked down at her fingers…

…Simple and direct. Includes everything important to the story. Yet here’s how the same passage might turn out, if you’re not careful to leave the body.

Her eyes saw an opening and she kicked him in the back of the head with her foot. His body toppled and he landed on his face. The spectators who were watching cringed when the sound of his nose breaking reached their ears. The thought “Victory is mine!” flashed through her mind. Then her nose picked up the scent of blood. Her shirt felt wet on her chest. She touched it briefly with her hand and looked down with her eyes at her fingers…

…Tangled, inelegant, amateurish. And it sometimes sounds as though various body parts (her eyes, his body, her nose) are capable of action independent of their owners.

Perhaps you think the second example sounds more poetic or descriptive. However, poetry intended for adults provides no excuse for this sort of writing—unless employed with a clear purpose (e.g., to serve a theme or somehow build connections), but even then it might sound awful. If you write lines like “The stars are far away / I can see them with my eyes” (VAST, “Desert Garden”), think of how what you’re trying to convey might be said in a “painterly” fashion, or risk your audience feeling as if you’re largely wasting their time. (If you know of or find a well-known poem that mentions body parts acting in their usual roles, please do post about it here.)

Leaving the body behind also keeps readers prone to flights of fancy from imagining anyone kicking, listening, looking, smelling, or thinking with his or her butt, for instance. Ridiculous, you say? Yet the specification of a body part for any of these verbs implies that there are such other options.

You should only include the body in order to point out when someone is doing something using a part of the body not normally used for that purpose. Or to be colorful or metaphorical. You can think with your heart, for example. Or you can slap someone with your instep (instead of your hand), if you’re lightly roundhouse-kicking them.

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