As a fiction editor, I flag many issues for revision and rewriting. One common problem is what I call “autonomous body parts.” Sounds ominous. What are autonomous body parts? Read on if you’re brave and want to improve your fiction…
Autonomous body parts are any body parts—eyes, eyebrows, limbs, hands, feet, internal organs, and so on—that an author empowers as if they have minds of their own.
What’s the issue here? Arms flailing is an acceptable response or result of being shoved across an icy surface.
The problem is that arms don’t flail of their own accord. The real question here is, where does the action spring from?
More to the point, who is performing the action? Who has agency? The rule here is:
Body parts do not have agency; characters do.
Unless you’re writing horror and disembodied body parts actually do have minds of their own, you correct this issue by transferring agency from the body part to the character. In other words, make the character the subject of the sentence—the subject with agency who performs the action verb—with the body part/s as the object:
Marcy shoved Oswald backward, and he flailed his arms, trying to keep his balance.
Recasting the sentence to give Oswald agency also solves the problem of his arms trying to keep his balance. Oswald does something to keep his balance, not his arms.
Gary’s frantic hands groped for purchase along the bridge girder.
Beware those spastic body parts! How would you fix this one? To avoid using an adverb (frantically), you’ll need to rewrite a bit:
Gary groped for purchase along the bridge girder, his fingers slipping on the rusted surface.
Another culprit is disembodied eyes that fly around the room.
When the news anchor mentioned last night’s murder, Winnie’s eyes flew to the television.
Jeepers creepers, did her peepers pop out of her head, zoom across the room, and splat the TV screen? (An “eye-catching” horror idea, but…) Better to state it this way:
When the news anchor mentioned last night’s murder, Winnie’s gaze flew to the television.
Instead of allowing a character’s eyes to rove around like that murder ball in Phantasm, use gaze.
Remember: body parts don’t have agency; characters do. Scan your work for instances of autonomous body parts and transfer agency from the body part to the character. Your readers will appreciate it.