Monday, August 27, 2012

It’s a Story, Not an Instruction Manual!

So don’t have body parts or eyes doing disembodied things.

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker
Fiction writing is all about sucking your readers in and keeping them eagerly turning the pages to find out what happens next. Don’t put any roadblocks or speed bumps in their way. Here are some tips for keeping the story flowing, rather than bumping readers out of it by frustrating them, even subliminally.

Don’t get too technical about which hand or foot or….

Whether you’re writing an action scene or a love scene, it’s best not to get too technical or clinical about which hand or leg or finger or foot is doing what, unless it’s relevant or necessary for understanding.

Getting bogged down in details is distracting to the reader and can even be laughable or annoying. Of course we want to know what’s going on and how the characters are feeling, but we don’t need a highly detailed, anatomical description of every little gesture and movement.

Without getting too far into the bedroom, here’s kind of an extreme example of way too much detail, off the top of my head:

“He stroked her left forearm and wrist with his right index finger, while his left thumb brushed aside a strand of hair from her right eye and tucked it behind her right ear.” Barf! Gives a new meaning to TMI, doesn’t it? And if we were to move into the bedroom, there’s nothing that kills a love scene faster than detailed, clinical descriptions of exactly which of various appendages and other body parts are doing what, in what order, and how. Keep the instruction manuals out of the bedroom!

Similarly, in an action scene or a fight, unless we really need to know, for logistic reasons, which hand, arm, or leg is doing what, don’t bother specifying, as it slows down the action and can be distracting, even annoying.

And you don’t need to say that someone’s hand or finger pointed in a direction—what else do people normally point with? Instead of “She pointed her finger at the car,” Just say, “She pointed at the car.” And no need to write, “He gave her the paper he held in his hand.” Just make it, “He gave her the paper,” or “He handed her the paper.”

Here are some examples, altered and disguised, from various stories I’ve edited:

Before: “Look, Matt, take that left and we can come at them from the other side.” His partner's hands indicated a street off to the left. Officer McLeod turned the vehicle left and took off down the street.

After: “Look, Matt, take that left and we can come at them from the other side.” His partner pointed to a street off to the left. Officer McLeod turned left and took off down the street.


Before: His father yanked the earbuds out of Jeff’s ears with his left hand and grabbed his iPod with his right hand. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you!”

We don’t really need to know which hand is doing each action. Take out the unnecessary details and what is left is stronger:

After: His father yanked the earbuds out Jeff’s ears and grabbed his iPod. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you!”

Here’s another example:

Before: Andrew used his hands to frantically push the boxes away from the opening, then clambered through it.

There’s no need to specify that he used his hands – what else would he push the boxes away with?

After: Andrew frantically pushed the boxes away from the opening, then clambered through it.

Or this one:

Before: He looked quickly at Jack, who dropped his arm holding the gun and gave a purposeful glance first to his left and then his right. He looked back in their direction, stared fiercely for a moment, and began walking calmly, slowly, towards them.

After: He looked at Jack, who lowered the gun and glanced both ways. He glared back at them for a moment, then began walking slowly towards them.

And a final example:

Before: He had arrived at the vending machine and was punching the buttons on its front with an outstretched index finger when a voice from behind him broke him away from his thoughts.

Here we have way too much minute detail. What else would he be punching the buttons with besides his finger? And we don’t need to know which finger or that it’s outstretched, as everybody does it pretty much the same. And it’s a given that the buttons are on the front of the vending machine.

After: He was punching the buttons on the vending machine when a voice behind him broke into his thoughts.

It’s best to avoid having unnecessary details that just clutter up your prose.

And lastly, don’t have eyes doing impossible things:

These days, agents, editors and readers frown on oddly phrased sentences to express how someone is looking at someone else, like in these examples:

“His eyes bounced back and forth between them.” (boing, boing, boing)

“Her eyes shot daggers at him.” (Ow! Ow!)

“She dropped her eyes to the floor.” (splat!)

“Her eyes clung to his.” (like Velcro)

“He devoured her with his eyes.” (munch, munch)

“Her eyes darted across the room.” (speedy)

“His eyes followed her across the room.” (rolling?)

“Her eyes fell to her lap.” (cushioned fall)

It’s too easy for readers to form a comical mental picture of eyeballs popping out of someone’s head and doing strange things, and start thinking it’s some kind of parody. So it’s best to do a search for the words “eyes” in your story, and if they’re doing weird things, see if you can find a more subtle, natural way of expressing how the characters are looking at each other.

Readers and writers – do you have anything to add? Any awkward or comical phrases or expressions to share?
Copyright Jodie Renner, August 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Great advice, Jodie! I think I've finally learned to edit most of this out before I send it anywhere, but you never know. Your last section about eyes made laugh. So now I'm searching my manuscript for the word eyes.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about characters who can do tricks with their eyes, Jodie. I remember reading about one whose eyes popped out of his head. It wasn't a pretty visual for me. And it's not all just in the eyes. I've read about other body parts doing strange things. I always get a little nervous when ears perk or heads fly in someone's direction. Another thing that bothers me is when someone shrugs his shoulders. What else would he shrug? These are all things we need to keep in mind when we write.

  3. FBPs. Floating Body Parts. I've been guilty of those myself from time to time. I think I'm much better now, but that eye thing has me wondering….

    Oh, how about when his eyes flew to hers?

    Hands can do strange things too, although I need another cup of coffee to think of an example.

  4. Thanks, Drew and Peg for your comments and examples. Drew, another one is "She nodded her head." What else would she nod?

  5. I was thinking the "nod the head" part all the way through while I read this. Great post and funny. I like "she tossed her chin in the air." Clever. I hope she caught it.

  6. Jenny, I love your example, "She tossed her chin in the air"! Was the head attached, I wonder? LOL

  7. Great post, Jodie! Perfect tips for new writers as well as important reminders for us seasoned writers. Funny what I find when I edit:))

  8. Thanks for these reminders, Jodie. I tend to be really detailed and analytical, so I can go overboard with my descriptions. And YES on the eyes - that's something I'm constantly watching for. I'm also trying to show more body language, etc., and now my characters are constantly fisting their hands, lol.

  9. Stacy, I can still remember the very first time I read the word fisted in a novel. I thought it was wonderful. Seven fisteds later, not so much.

    I allow myself one.

  10. Stacy and Peg, I think a character fisting their hands is fine - it's natural and shows their tension or anger. Same thing with shoulders tensing or whatever. It's just when body parts do really strange things or get overcomplicated that it starts getting weird or laughable, I think.

  11. Ladies, if you knew what fisting/fisted meant, you wouldn't use it at all.

  12. Good one, LJ! It doesn't take much to figure that one out! LOL

  13. OMG… just googled it. I would NEVER have thought of that and um… why????

    Just in case I have a person who knows, there will be no more fisting in my novels.


  14. Okay, now you've got me wondering, Peg. I guess I'd better google it too!

  15. Milk squirting out my eyes...laughing. I have a scene in my WIP where an older criminalist misuses "fisting" in a sentence. I'm actually happy that some of you don't know what that means or have investigated scenes involving that activity. GROSS!!! Unfortunately it is pretty vanilla within some circles if you can believe that. Times they are a changin'

  16. Well, that was certainly an education. More than I really needed! (TMI) But thanks, LJ and Tom for alerting me/us to this other meaning of the term. I'll definitely be watching out for the term "fisting" in my editing, now!

  17. What a phenomenal post! I especially enjoyed the part about the eyes. And so timely. My manuscript is due to the publisher on Friday, and I went through it checking for how I used the word "eye".

    I had some funny ones too. Things like "my eye caught a glimpse . . ." and "finally caught his eyes . . ."

    Some sayings may seem weird but they're almost a cliche so as readers it doesn't catch us off guard. Like "my eyes grew heavy" or "his eyes grew dark". Don't you think?

  18. Kelly, your last two examples don't jump out at me as weird. They seem plausible and natural to me. I know that feeling of my eyes growing heavy when I'm tired and trying to keep them open. A lot of it is personal preference, too. Just stay away from the really extreme ones and you'll probably be fine.


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