Kristen Lamb

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Dismemberment–Taking Characters Apart in All the Wrong Ways

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

Today, it’s me, Cait! Join me as we venture into a common craft mistake committed by virtually every emerging writer—something I like to call ‘dismemberment.’ Because nothing says love like body parts strewn about.

Sarcasm aside, dismemberment is a bad habit that can impact the flow of the story, collapse the fictive dream, and confuse or even insult the reader.

Dismemberment is literary filler that demonstrates we (as the writer) don’t trust the readers’ intellect, thus we are “brain holding” as Kristen likes to say.

Offering fair warning: I’m in a stabby mood today. Really stabby.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

Dismemberment is one of the most common craft mistakes, but it’s also one of the most insidious. It’s one of the most prevalent reasons readers lose interest in a story, or fail to get interested in the first place.

We (readers) get tired of stopping and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. We keep pausing because our brains keep pondering tangents unrelated to the actual story.

If Taylor’s eyes just flew across the room at a dinner party, how does he discreetly get them back if he can’t see? Was any partygoer hit by a flying eyeball? Oh hell! Is one of his eyeballs stuck in some debutante’s expensive up-do?

Aaand this is when the whole story goes off the rails *explosion noises* *screams of pain*

So, what is dismemberment?

Dismemberment is when body parts move around independent of the character.

When we (as editors) see a sentence like, “Seraphina’s violet orbs roved around the room,” our first instinct is to stab. Uh, I mean pick on the obvious issues like…’orbs’ and ‘violet.’

For readers, their first instinct is usually…HUH? What the hell just happened? Do her eyes get dust bunnies on them?

The core issue has nothing to do with Seraphina gazing around the room. Rather, it’s her eyeballs going for a stroll *cue image of eyeballs rolling across the floor like marbles*

Now that you can’t un-see that in your head, let’s dig a little deeper into what dismemberment looks like, why it’s a writing no-no, and how to avoid, fix, and occasionally even use it (properly).

Dismemberment Makes Things Awkward

Remember The Addams Family and Thing?

Dismemberment - Cait Reynolds

The show was brilliant, and took the idea of dismemberment and ran with it. The show turned a disembodied hand into a character with attitude, opinions, relationships, and interaction with the other characters. It was hilarious…because it was so weird.

The problem is that what’s funny weird for a television show becomes disjointedly bizarre in a novel. Once we start being able to identify dismemberment, we can’t help seeing it everywhere. We also can’t help seeing the unfortunate imagery of random body parts moving around.

Eyes, hands, and feet are the usual body parts featured in dismemberment, though I’ve definitely seen a fair share of shoulders, legs, arms, and heads.

“His head flew across the room…”

“Her shoulders slumped down…”

“His hand reached out to her…”

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

Why do we fall into the trap of dismemberment? One possible answer is that we are struggling with how to describe the action in a scene. This is the fault of what I like to call the Inner Pushy Stage Director. Similar to the Inner Editor, the Inner Pushy Stage Director has a lot to say about gestures, blocking, and interpretive dance. #JazzHands

The Inner Pushy Stage Director doesn’t trust the reader to instinctively know the series of movements involved in the simple actions of picking something up or a character moving through rooms.

Her hand reached out to open the door.

Oh-kay.

To be blunt, we (readers) are not stupid and we “get” one would have to reach out a hand to open a door unless telekinetic powers are involved. If telekinetic powers NOT involved, then we as readers assume the character can simply open a door without explaining how this “opening a door” process happens. We’ll keep up just fine. Promise.

By believing we need to give the reader every single detail of an action, we use twenty words to explicate what maybe two or three words could do far better. Inexperienced writers often resort to giving agency to a body part as a way to vary the prose away from constantly using the ‘he’ or ‘she’ as the driver of action.

And, that’s how we end up with Seraphina’s violet orbs roving around the room…maybe stopping to get a canape… See? Creepy, right?

Happy Feet

Body parts do not have emotions. Period. Ever.

There is no situation in which the following sentence is correct: “His hands clenched into angry fists.”

No. Nope. Zipit!

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

Another reason we fall into the trap of dismemberment is that we use it to portray a character’s emotion, whether it’s Seraphina’s POV or her noticing that Taylor is angry.

What has really happened is that we have flubbed the technique of drawing attention to a physical ‘tell’ for a character’s emotion.

Instead of:

His hands clenched into angry fists.

As opposed to clenching hands into joyous fists? #Weirdness

What we really mean to say is:

He clenched his hands into fists.

If we have the correct dialogue/action/inner thoughts leading up to that moment, we shouldn’t have to use the word ‘angry’ at all. We should also be able to avoid turning Taylor’s hands into their own POV characters. We also can just say that he clenched his hands since the word “fists” is implied.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction
You do not want to end up like Cartman and Jennifer Lopez.

Why is Dismemberment So Bad?

Isn’t variety the spice of life? Aren’t we supposed to try and find new and creative ways of describing our characters and conveying actions? Couldn’t you say that it’s ‘artistic’?

No. No, and no. (See, totally stabby this morning.)

Dismemberment violates one of the fundamental rules of writing: Always maintain connection between reader and the story. Always.

You know what breaking the connection does? It creates…bookmark moments. Every instance of dismemberment lets the reader drift a little further away from the engrossing empathy that keeps them immersed and turning pages. It’s a subtle loss of connection that, given enough time, may even relegate our books in the DNF (Did Not Finish) pile.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

I will sacrifice everything for a book hangover because I *have* to find out what happens to Seraphina. Or Taylor. I identify with the choices and emotions of Seraphina and Taylor, but if those choices and emotions are assigned to body parts, I’m just not as invested in the outcome of the characters.

If there is too much, Seraphina’s head flew across the room when Taylor unexpectedly arrived to the party, then I’m more concerned why the partygoers aren’t trampling each other in terror to flee the room and the flying head.

Dismemberment takes the edge off of tension and blunts the poignancy of the ‘either-or’ that drives plotting and character arcs.

There’s one other reason that dismemberment is so very, very bad.

Welcome to Amateur Hour

Dismemberment is one of the clearest symptoms of amateur hour. Editors can spot a sloppy writer in any number of painful ways, but dismemberment in a FINISHED, EDITED, AND PUBLISHED BOOK is the equivalent of the author holding a neon sign over his/her head flashing ‘AMATEUR HOUR – 24/7.’ 

Even worse? The fact that whoever was paid to edit and proofread did not catch the dismemberment…just maybe see about a refund.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

In my opinion, amateur hour editors sin worse than amateur hour authors. There is more to being an editor than running a manuscript through Grammarly and finding typos, which is why writers need to use prudence and maybe referrals when choosing an editor (not just price).

If you think I’m being harsh, I’m a small fry compared to agents and NY editors. They’re inundated with more manuscripts than they could read in a lifetime, meaning they are actively looking for reasons to stop reading. The moment these folks see dismemberment? Their head doesn’t fly across the room, our novel does.

#SlushPile #NoTimeForN00bs

Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together

So, now, we have to pick up all the scattered body parts and emotions, and order the 40-pack of super glue from Amazon.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

The first part of recovery is to train ourselves to recognize dismemberment so we can get out of using it improperly. While it might take some time to break the dismemberment habit, this is one case where we do need to stop and listen to our Inner Editor as we draft.

Instead of noting the dismemberment and promising to deal with it in revisions, we should take the time to correct it then and there. It’s simple to fix. Just delete a few words and reassign the emotions to the character instead of the body part.

Do this over the course of 50,000 words, and you’d be surprised how quickly a new and better habit forms…

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction
When you start to hear Cait’s voice as your Inner Editor…

Of course, no one is perfect (except for me, duh). That is why there is the editing phase of writing, when we catch those sneaky little instances of dismemberment that slipped a body part in our path without us noticing.

In terms of actually fixing dismemberment, think of a movie. Really think and try to recall how often the director has the camera zoom in on a JUST a body part (okay ASIDE from porn).

Funny how it’s a little tougher than you thought to come up with examples. Why is that?

Well…wait for it…because the moviegoer identifies with the character, not the body part.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

There’s one other thing to watch out for when we are correcting a scene with dismemberment, and that is the dreaded ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ problem. In this case, it manifests in the far-too-frequent and indiscriminate use of the word felt.

Seraphina felt her ears heat up from embarrassment.

There’s no dismemberment in this sentence, but it’s kinda blah. I mean, the whole point of the sentence is to inform the reader that her ears are getting hot. Meh.

Like I said earlier, if we are guiding the scene the right way, we won’t need to point out that she’s getting embarrassed. The reader will already be getting the sense that Seraphina’s experiencing humiliation/shame/whatever.

We could make the sentence more interesting and ENGAGING with just a couple tweaks.

Seraphina fought to keep her expression neutral, even if her burning ears were bright pink giveaways.

In this example, I changed up the passive ‘felt’ for a more active purpose to the sentence. We still understand that she’s feeling embarrassed, but now, she doing something other than just passively experiencing a sensation. Also, I’ve given the other characters in the scene something to notice and/or react to with Seraphina’s obvious struggle to keep a straight face.

Dismemberment - Cait Reynolds

When correcting dismemberment, just remember: put the emotion back in the character’s head, and have him/her/it DO something to express it.

Disciplined Dismemberment

Like every rule, there *are* exceptions to the ban on dismemberment.

Once we are on auto-pilot in terms of avoiding dismemberment, we can finally use it as the tool it was really meant to be. (Hey, you can’t go through medical school without gross anatomy – dissecting body parts has its place!)

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

We can use body parts when we are trying to heighten tension.

For example, let’s say Seraphina and Taylor have been gagged and tied up, but there’s a knife nearby to cut their bonds. Just riffing here:

Seraphina held her breath as Taylor tried for the knife. His fingers flexed and stretched as long as possible, desperate for the blade. Tendons popped out on his hands, hands that reached farther and farther until they shook from strain, only to finally slacken in defeat.

In this moment, Taylor’s ability to reach the knife is critical. By zooming in on his hands and their actions, my goal is to build tension and create a vivid, visceral visual. It’s worth nothing that in this situation, Taylor’s hands are the only part of him that can have any action.

If he wasn’t tied up or his arms were free, then I’d describe the moment differently and put Taylor himself back in the driver’s seat.

Dismemberment, Cait Reynolds, craft, writing tips, stage direction in writing, how to write fiction

Another way of using body parts is by having the POV character notice a particular action or emotion on the part of someone else in the scene.

Taylor did a double-take when Seraphina’s eyes widened a mere a fraction. He wasn’t sure if she was surprised or angry, but it was enough to put him on his guard.

The reason this example works is because I’m showing, not telling, and the dismemberment provides something for the POV character to react to – in this case, a confusing signal from Seraphina. When used in this way, dismemberment can be an excellent tool for revealing or concealing clues, creating misunderstandings, and varying communication between characters between verbal and non-verbal forms.

THESE EXAMPLES DO NOT GIVE US PERMISSION TO GO BACK TO HACKING UP BODY PARTS AND HAVING THEM RUN AROUND DOING THINGS ON THEIR OWN!

Just like truffle oil…a little goes a very long way.

Class with Cait this Friday!

I’m offering a really cool class tomorrow night! It’s my blurb-writing class. In it, I will show you all my secret tips and tricks (even beyond what I wrote in this blog post) to painlessly writing those crucial 150 words that will SELL YOUR BOOK!

What’s extra cool about this class is that I will take TWO blurbs from attendees and rework them LIVE AND ON-THE-FLY IN CLASS to demonstrate just how simple and effective my techniques are.

Yeah, I know. Super cool.

Anyway, here are the details–hope to see you tomorrow night!

BLURB BOSS: WRITING BLURBS THAT SELL BOOKS

Blurb - Cait ReynoldsInstructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

If the cover is an invitation to the party in your book, then the blurb (the back cover description, the summary, your entire book in 3 short paragrahs) is the RSVP card readers check off as attending-with-the-chicken-option when they buy your book.

The trouble is that for so many books, while the cover is invites you to a rave, the blurb reveals it’s really polka night at the VFW.

So, if the blurb is so important, why is it so hard to write? Raise your hand if you hate writing blurbs. Raise your other hand if you agonize over writing a blurb, and it still feels like it’s awful when it’s done.

The heart’s cry goes up from every single writer ever: “THIS IS HARDER TO WRITE THAN THE 90,000 WORDS OF MY BOOK!”

And yet, it shouldn’t be. Approached from a different angle, a blurb should be one of the easiest and most fun things to write. Yes. I went there. I said it. Hopefully, after taking this class, you will be saying it, too. No more blubbering over blurbs. Ever.

This class will cover:

  • Understanding the purpose of a blurb in attracting readers;
  • The top secret formula to structuring a blurb;
  • How to plug-and-play every blurb, every time;
  • Why everything you think is important in your story really isn’t (in terms of the blurb);
  • The secret to keywords, blurbs, and algorithms.

As a bonus, bring a copy of your blurb to the class for group workshopping! I will pick two and edit them LIVE IN CLASS to show you just how easy it is!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

Register today!

For subscribers, click to my site to view gallery of upcoming classes (gallery doesn’t show up for you). But here are the two biggies coming up from ME (Kristen LAMB)…

BRAND BOSS! When Your NAME ALONE Can SELL! November 14th, 7-9 EST and comes with FREE RECORDING. $45 for General Admission, GOLD Option Available!

PLOT BOSS! Writing Novels Readers WANT TO BUY! November 16th, 7-9 EST and comes with FREE RECORDING. $40 for General Admission, GOLD Option Available!

Blurb - Cait Reynolds
BLURB BOSS: Writing Blurbs that SELL BOOKS. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
BRAND BOSS! When Your Name Alone Can Sell. $45 USD. Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
PLOT BOSS: Writing novels readers want to buy! $40 USD. Thurs., Nov. 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Bad Boys. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

20 thoughts on “Dismemberment–Taking Characters Apart in All the Wrong Ways”

  1. ScottScott

    “If we have the correct dialogue/action/inner thoughts leading up to that moment..”
    This line stood out to me as a reminder that all elements have a connection. Writing mistakes are not stand-alone. I need to go back and put some eyeballs back into place!

  2. Elizabeth DrakeElizabeth Drake

    The “except in porn” comment had me chuckling.

    I see this a lot even in completed novels, especially when it comes to eyes roving and hands fisting.

    Definitely something to think about. And felt is a great word to search for in a document and root out. I have a small list of them tucked next to my computer, and I try to eliminate them all.

  3. Mary Van EverbroeckMary Van Everbroeck

    Hi Cait. Oh boy, this post is very timely to what I’m doing at the moment. I am participating in Nanowrimo as a Rebel for the first time. Rather than using the 30 days to complete a Novel, I am using this opportunity to write outlines and scenes (chapters) of my first WIP. I’m sure that I have ‘dismemberment’ happening throughout the Chapters that I’ve written so far. I appreciate you not only pointing out the negatives of this practice but more important offering us ways and precise examples to show how to avoid doing this. Thanks so much. Take care. Mary

  4. IolaIola

    I once read a sci-fi novel where the alien species could take their heads off and throw them around the room. They could even swap heads (although that was frowned upon by the more conservative among them).

    Result: every time I see dismemberment like “she threw her head” in a novel, I’m taken out of that novel and taken straight back to 1992, when I read the novel where Mr and Mrs Basketball-Head are stressing because their daughter wants to play Swap-Heads with some hot alien she’s just met.

    Editor-me tells this little story every time I see dismemberment in a novel (although I call it “floating body parts”, which is much less fun).

    I just wish I could remember the name of the novel.

  5. Maria D'MarcoMaria D'Marco

    As always a hilarious and very informative post, Cait. And I’m asking permission to be ‘stabby’ — here I’ve called it (and been told I was) crabby for all these years! Stabby is much much more appropriate.

    I have to de-dismember so many of the works I edit and feel it is a true signal of a amateur writer. No offense, everyone is an amateur once…but it’s disturbing that they simply don’t see what they’re doing. My recent fav example was: His hand nuzzled hers. :o)

    Thanks for the wonderful words of wisdom.

  6. Mimi FosterMimi Foster

    Twice now I have read a post by you the day AFTER you were offering the Blurb class. I am struggling with my current one and would love to purchase/listen to the class recording. Is that possible? Can you contact me?

    Reply
    November 11, 2017
  7. bookish Katbookish Kat

    I love this. So many times authors can get caught up with using dismemeberment as filler in an attempt to show and not tell. Thank you for sharing. It’s very helpful 🙂

    Reply
    November 12, 2017
  8. Karen GrahamKaren Graham

    I totally cracked up at your dismemberment article. Fun!

    Reply
    November 12, 2017
  9. Deborah MakariosDeborah Makarios

    So what’s your position on “He caught her eye?” Disgusting and weird, or a figurative expression common in English?

    Reply
    November 12, 2017
    • Janice C. JohnsonJanice C. Johnson

      I call it a common figurative expression, along with “He couldn’t take his eyes off (or ‘off of’) her” and “Their eyes met.”
      Hoping for enlightenment!

      Reply
      November 14, 2017
      • Kristen LambKristen Lamb

        Those are idiomatic expressions and not what we’re referring to. “His eye flew up to the heavens.” “Her eyes roved across the room.” They are pretty obvious once you learn to see them 🙂 .

        Reply
        November 15, 2017
  10. JanJan

    Great blog! I never really thought that much about body parts. I have no doubt I’ve violated this rule 🙂 Thanks for sharing. I love your posts. Easy to read and entertaining 🙂

    Reply
    November 14, 2017
  11. Jessie AndersenJessie Andersen

    Excellent post. I now want to go back and edit for dismemberment. In the next draft, it will be at the top of my list!

    Reply
    November 14, 2017
  12. Joy PixleyJoy Pixley

    Great points! I tend toward the “wandering eye” problem myself, but so far I seem to have caught all the examples and fixed them before showing those chapters to anyone else. The one instance where I think the dismembered body parts worked that you didn’t mention is when you’re trying to portray dissociation between the character’s thoughts and actions. For instance, the woman is telling herself to stay angry at her abusive boyfriend, but then she watches her hand automatically reach out and take his when he asks for it. Or the little boy thinks about how bad it would be to destroy his brother’s sand castle but then he observes his foot stomping on it, without consciously deciding to do it. Or would you say these are examples of dismemberment that we should purge?

    Reply
    November 17, 2017
  13. CindyCindy

    I love the tips here – the focus on body parts and their role in the action is especially helpful.

    I’m writing a story right now where the heroine is a young businesswoman by day, but does some private detective work evenings. There’s a scene towards the end where she gets captured and tied up, and she is trying to reach her cell phone (an IPhone) with her foot as it’s ringing:

    “Her breath slowed as she stretched her leg, her toes flexing, then pointing towards the edge of the pink case. Her foot started to cramp, straining with the effort, as she desperately tried to bridge the small gap separating her toes from phone. It was inches away from the tip of her big toe, mocking her, yet it might as well have been a mile.”

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