Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Fictional Turns of Phrases: the Why's and the Wherefore's

There are a whole host of techniques that can deepen the reader experience in fiction and one at the top of my list is the use of relevant idiom. I come at this from two perspectives: poetry and worldbuilding.

Long before I started writing fiction, I was a poet and one of the foundations of poetry is comparisons.  What separates a strong poem from a mediocre one is often the quality of its imagery and use of comparisons. There's a reason things like 'blood red', 'cold as stone', loud as thunder' are cliches. They are expected and overused. They bring nothing new to the reader.

In poetry, you only have a few words to make an impact. In fact, one of the descriptions I use in teaching poetry is an image: a strong, sensory one.

Poetry is the orange juice concentrate of language: none of the water, all of the pucker.
I have used that image in class after class with students from elementary level to high school. It's visceral. It's vivid. And it makes sense to the students. It also gives me a framework to teach them critique.

One of my all-time favorite poems is "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver. It opens with these lines:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
The language is simple; the images fresh and the emotion vibrant. I especially love the phrase 'soft animal of your body.' It is so evocative of the essence of what it is to be human. It's a poem I have memorized and read often.

But we're not writing poetry, you say. We're writing novelsNo one wants to read that poetic crap in a scifi novel.

Okay. I grok that (even if I might disagree, at least somewhat.) We aren't writing in verse, for the most part, and some of the techniques of poetry won't easily fit in modern novel writing. Which brings me to my second perspective: the use of language as a tool in your worldbuilding.

Have you ever taken the time to notice how often your language leans on imagery?  I'm talking your every day communications. We use expressions like 'needle in a haystack', 'smooth as silk', 'dog-tired', 'a dog's age', 'like herding cats', 'when hell freezes over', 'waiting for the other shoe to drop', 'like a bad penny'. A reputation is 'tarnished'. In communication, our 'wires are crossed'. Someone who talks crazy shit is a 'crack-pot'.

Some of these are old cliches and we use them even without realizing where they're from. For the most of you, when was the last time you actually SAW a haystack? I'm a city gal, so pretty much, never. How much meaning can these expressions convey if they are simply automatic responses?

I am currently writing a near-future space opera series. It takes place after sea-level rise has made most of the coastal cities uninhabitable and forced humanity into space for the raw materials. The first two books in the series take place either on a space station on an asteroid or on a space ship. Why on earth (see what I did there?) would they reference a haystack to talk about trying to find something difficult to find?

Instead, my character compares that search to 'listening for one ping in a universe of ansibles'. It is likely that none of my characters have traveled on a bridge over a river, so 'cross that bridge when we get to it' turns into 'traverse that wormhole when we get there'.

One of my characters describes another this way:  She had as much respect for containment as a nuclear melt down.

Instead of something falling apart or turning to shit, it's venting atmosphere.

As much as I was able to, I substituted old cliche-ridden turns of phrases with ones that had some kind of cultural relevance to the characters in the story and that helps immersion.

I'll leave you with one final little story of turns of phrases. For a few years, we opened our home to a lovely young woman from Central Asia while she was studying for her masters degree at a nearby university. Her command of English was astonishing, except for the small colloquial expressions that she often tripped over. One night at dinner, she asked us what 'when hell freezes over' means.

After we explained it, she smiled and told us the equivalent, translated from Kyrgyz would be 'when the blue crab climbs to the top of the mountain and whistles.'

Do you have a cliched phrase you wish would be permanently banned?  How about one from a story that has stayed with you? Feel free to share in comments.



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