By Tami Cowden
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 literally.
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.
Like this stuff? Read more of Tami’s articles on her blog!