Idioms: Friend or Foe?

by | Jan 11, 2013 | Prose and Cons | 1 comment

Quiet as a mouse

Quiet as a mouse…or two

A large element of fantasy is world-building. You are creating a place, in whole or in part, from your imagination, and describing it to your reader. In theory, you could begin your novel with a treatise describing your world and it’s history, cultures, geography, and whatever other quirks differentiate it from the Earth we know and love. This would also bore most of your readers to tears. Instead, you’d like to paint a picture of your new world in the background, seeing it a bit at a time as the action and dialogue move the plot along. One subtle way of establishing the world your characters inhabit is in the choice of phrasing they use, particularly idioms. But it’s a double-edged sword; good use of idioms can give insights into your world from the characters’ perspective, but misuse of idioms can break suspension of disbelief by taking the reader out of the setting you are trying to create for them.

How idioms can help or hurt:

1. They have horses now?

‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth’ implies a basic standard of gratitude when receiving charity. However, if your world had all beasts of burden as various reptilian creatures and you have given no indication that the culture you are portraying has ever heard of horses, that’s going to cause some screeching brakes in the mind of your reader. However, you can take the opportunity to turn a cliched idiom into one more appropriate to your story. Consider why this idiom is used and what phrase might have developed in its place. If you want a new idiom that cautions against ingratitude, how about something like ‘never sharpen a borrowed blade’?

2. OK, this one works for me.

Just because an idiom is used in the real world, doesn’t mean it can’t be used in your story. In some cases, you may not even be aware that a phrase is an idiom, because it is so ingrained in the English language. Other times, after careful consideration, you can find no reason why the idiom could not have come into common use in your world. ‘Quiet as a mouse’ would be a nice safe example, unless the reader has been given reason to think there would be no mice. Go ahead and use it if you feel it works in your story; the reader will immediately know your meaning and will have no reason to question why it was included.

3. Starting from scratch

Used in moderation, totally unique idioms can add depth to your world, giving hints about the culture, history, or even fauna of your world. If you were to write ‘strong as a galeron’ you would not only be attributing strength to the person being described, but also implying something about a ‘galeron’. This could be the first time you reference a galeron, and without ever taking the time to explain one, people have some idea what it might be like. If you make a casual reference to one later in your story, readers will already have that in the back of their mind.

4. Cultural touchstones

‘Cold as hell’
‘Damn them all’
‘Heaven forbid’
Religion is a major source of idiomatic speech. From curses to divine gratitude, religious phraseology is common even among non-believers if a religion is pervasive in a region. Consider the words themselves though, and you’ll see the basic assumptions they make. Damnation implies an afterlife. Prayer requires a belief in an interventionist deity. Does your world have these? If not, maybe you should consider your characters’ views on religion, and what words someone in their world would use in times of anger or despair.

5. Try not to overdo it

Idioms can be fun to create. They not only separate your world from the real world for your readers, they make you think about it yourself in ways you might not have otherwise. However, for every hint you drop of the unexplored wonders of your emerging world, you’ve given a reader a tiny homework assignment: “here, remember this little detail until I explain more on it later.” This is fine, but if you use it too often, it will overburden and confuse your reader. Murder mysteries only have a handful of suspects because there is only so much information people want to keep in their heads while reading. If you ever catch yourself writing anything like ‘The night was black as elwing down, with a whispering like a chaspin’s cry throughout the blade-creased grove of wosellots’ then you might want to dial the creative juices down a notch.

6. Do you notice them?

Have a look back through the first five points. How many times did I use idioms just in talking about them? How many did you notice as you were reading them the first time though?

What do you think?

Do you use idioms? Avoid them like the plague? Make up your own? Tell me your thoughts in the comments.

1 Comment

  1. Rosamund Clancy

    One of the characters in the book I am writing cannot understand sarcasm so when her friend says, “She probably crashed her broomstick and drowned,” she replies, “Witches can’not drown,” for example. She would not understand idioms as the meaning has to be literal. I need to play this up. As her friend has had some help from the God of Eloquence and is about to use her new skills in a difficult situation, I have scope for some interesting results. This friend is tactless and trying to overcome her problem so that a particular social situation goes smoothly.with the coven. This situation will be fun to write and I am laughing at the humour so thank you for the inspiration. I will make up some idioms.


Leave a Reply