Cliches, Dead Words, and Overused Phrases

Contributed by Teresa Darnold 

A character can be seen as being more thoughtful or more creative if they say things that are inventive and unique. Phrases that the reader has never heard or read before will seem new and fresh – unlike many colloquialisms that are said so often they have lost all original meaning, like; ‘We’re/they’re/somebody’s not out of the woods yet’. Now – while this might make some sense when the story is taking place in Washington state, when you hear newscasters say it when describing a car chase in the middle of a California desert or in the city of Los Angeles – it makes very little sense at all. 

If you’d like to see what I mean – try this; start to listen to your local evening news reports for the ‘Not out of the woods yet’ phrase and you might find yourself surprised at how often it’s used. It’s so overused we really don’t hear it being used. Likewise, if you fill up your story with characters uttering commonly called-upon colloquialisms, metaphors and puns, your story stands the chance of being as memorable as the evening news itself. 

Lawn Janitors. Have you ever heard the phrase before? They’re those guys who do little more than run a lawnmower, edger and/or leaf blower at your bank or apartment. Can such technicians really be called a ‘Gardener’ if their entire job involves cutting grass, sweeping up said grass, and then taking said cut grass to the trash?  I’m pretty confident you haven’t heard that one before because I just made it up for the purposes of this article.  And that’s what you should do for your stories as well. 

For example, Shawn Levy, the director of Night at the Museum I & II used a word in the sequel that he and his wife had made up in their own private conversations: “jimmyjack”.  It is intended to mean something like “crackjack” in its old usage, but with more of a sense of “splendid” than “top notch”. 

In his commentary on preparing the movie he says he gave the word to the character of Amelia Erheart because it simultaneously enhanced her personality and also made her unique.  Further, the sound of the word fit in with her time period.  And finally, it gave the audience something memorable to repeat, which leads to more word-of-mouth and recognition for a movie (or a book or stage play, for that matter). 

Think of all the clever, totally devised phraseology in other movies such as Men In Black, Beetlejuice, and Avatar, and books like Harry Potter, Interview with the Vampire, and anything by Clive Cussler. 

Now, admittedly, it isn’t always easy to come up with an inventive new word or phrase on the fly, so a good trick is to train yourself to notice when they pop up all on their own, such as when you mis-hear a phrase on TV or the radio, or when you mispronounce something in your own conversation. 

When you hear it, jot it down straightaway in your writer’s notebook.  You DO carry a writer’s notebook don’t you? – or at least the modern equivalent such as a smart phone, ipad, or voice recorder? 

Well if you don’t, you should – and for a lot of other reasons besides only made-up phrases.  And if you do, you will be richly rewarded with richer dialog and descriptions.  Or, as I always say, you’ll more pleased than a butt-happy, foot-happy kick-a-roo pony!

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