Saturday, June 22, 2013

I Blog-jacked Lisabet Sarai's Post...

“Independent Body Parts”: A Defense

A few days ago I reviewed the second round of edits – what my publisher calls final line edits – for my upcoming release Challenge to Him. In general, I had no problem accepting the suggested changes to wording and punctuation. I didn't necessarily agree that the one POV problem the editor highlighted really was a problem, but if she thought it would be clearer if modified, I was ready to go along. For the most part I don't view my words as sacred, so I rarely object to reasonable changes.

I've noticed, though, that each editor has pet issues she tends to focus on. I had one editor who insisted on striking every instance of the word “that” introducing a dependent clause after a verb of sensation or thought. For example, if I wrote:

Henrietta thought that she'd never recover from Harold's treachery. 

This editor would revise the sentence as: 

Henrietta thought she'd never recover from Harold's treachery. 

I agree the two sentence are equivalent in meaning, and the second is more concise than the first. However, sometimes the rhythm of a sentence requires the additional beat of that extra word. Furthermore, I like some variety in my sentence structures. So I accepted most of her edits, but retained a few “thats” where they seemed to fit.

Anyway, my most recent line editor really had a bee in her bonnet concerning “independent body parts”, often abbreviated as IBP. 

In case you've never met the dreaded IBP, this term refers to sentences where some part of a character's body becomes the subject of an action verb. For example:

Her eyes followed him as he strode across the room.

His fingers crept up her thigh and under her skirt.

His tongue poked rudely into her mouth. 

Some novice authors overuse this kind of sentence, often to the point of silliness. Because of this tendency, editors have become hypersensitive to these constructions, brandishing their red pen whenever one appears.

However, there is nothing a priori wrong with using a body part as a sentence subject in this way. This is an accepted category of  figurative language. It even has a name:synecdoche.  Synecdoche is the practice of referring to a part when you mean the whole, or vice versa.

Sentences that are labeled as IBP are not intended to be construed literally. Of course her eyes stayed in her head as he walked across the room – no reasonable reader would think otherwise. Yes, most likely he was in control of those fingers – they weren't acting on their own -  but the synecdoche focuses the readers' attention on the stealthy progress of those digits, perhaps even as their owner continues to converse in a normal way.

An occasional “IBP” sentence is not a flaw, in my opinion. When I construct my paragraphs, I do so deliberately, with an eye to diversity and flow. The alternative to using IBP is often to have every sentence beginning with a name or pronoun. This gets boring after a while. 

The so-called rule about avoiding IBPs may be helpful to novice authors. The trouble is, it's really not a rule, anymore than the guidelines about avoiding passive voice are rules. English is a gloriously rich language with an enormous repertoire of sentence structures and rhetorical devices. An accomplished author should not shy away from using the ones that she believes her story needs.

Note from Ginger:  I shared this on my FB already, and my comment was go ahead and throw your hands in the air if you want.  If readers can't surmise they remain attached to your character's arms, then Houston isn't the only place where problems linger.  *smile*  I, like Lisabet, believe too many editors are focused on what they perceive as problems and forget that  sometimes an extra "that" here and there does improve the flow and make the reading more melodic than flat.  This is a great post, in my humble opinion.


Jen Black said...

I know what you mean! I've met that problem and although I now try to avoid IBP, sometimes a phrase like "Her eyes followed him across the room" adds to the story. Often I cheat and just substitute "gaze" for "eyes," and it seems to work.

Unknown said...

Substituting 'gaze' is not cheating. That's what we've been trained to use instead of eyes, because then it isn't an IDP. :)

I'm sick of all those arms thrown in the air. They keep falling on my head. :)

Jen Black said...

I really did snort over my coffee as I read that - I groan when I read about feisty ladies tossing their heads - Can't help but wonder where they tossed them to.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I have a friend who always finds my IBPs and points them out to me with hysterical results. I'm much better at avoiding them as a result.

Terry Pratchett is wonderful at having fun with IBPs and silly similes in his character's dialogue.

I have to admit though, I still toss a head or two now and then.

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