On Idioms and Other Repeated Phrases in Fiction

Don’t know how to express frustration in your writing? Well, no need to pull your hair out over it!

I read some awesome advice the other day by superstar indie author Melissa Foster, of melissafoster.com.  She suggests, before editing, that you run searches throughout your novel-length manuscript to highlight phrases you know you use too often. From there you can change or eliminate them. (Unless you can identify a clear purpose for the phrase being there, there’s no need to say it a different way. Just cut! It might be painful, but at least it’s faster!)

This is a super helpful tip, so I wanted to pass it on to my fellow writers. I know, for instance, that as much as I love the Harry Potter books–and believe me, I do!–how many times does Snape really have to say something “silkily”?

Now, “silkily” is not an idiom, which I claim is the topic of this post. It is, however, an adverb, which makes it just as poisonous to any manuscript. You should use adverbs as little as possible, and clichés/idioms more sparingly than adverbs. Even if a phrase you use often is really unique and individual and completely you, there’s no reason to hit your reader over the head with it again and again. Remember that the more you use a particular turn of phrase, the more uncreative you cast yourself as a writer and the more magic you strip away from the words you hold so dear.


So, on to idioms in particular. I noticed today, doing final edits of “The Magic Council,” that I use the idiom “spill the beans” twice in the novel. Both instances occur in dialogue, used by commoner characters in situations where they’d have no need for formality. I told myself while writing that the phrase rang simple and colloquial, and that’s true. However, I’m in the position of writing a fantasy novel set in a nonexistent culture, and while I choose (as a matter of language) to keep days of the week and months of the year the same as in the real world, I decided it’s too much of a stretch to think the culture I’ve created would use our same idioms. That was too jarring an interference of reality for me, so I changed it.

As a general rule for writing with idioms or famous cultural expressions: when writing about the real world–in my short stories, for instance–I feel it’s okay to use such phrases in dialogue, when the character would speak that way. For example, throwing in a “Bless her heart!” from the mouth of a Southern woman gives an authentic Southern flair to her and to her speech. If your character is from New Orleans, like I am, it’s perfectly reasonable for him to greet someone with, “How’s your mom an’ dem?” or to ask someone on the phone, “Where you at?” They can call spaghetti sauce “red gravy.” Be careful not to overdo it, though. You’ll give your characters a caricaturish feel.

Dialogue, of course, is dialogue. Narration is narration. I try to never, ever use idioms in narration, because I don’t write in first person. Unless your character is speaking for himself, using an idiom as part of narration always feels stale, boring, and unoriginal–unless you do more with it, and expand the mention into some grand, creative image a la Douglas Adams. That man was a creative and comic genius.


All people have phrases they use a lot in speech. I know that I say, “No worries” all the time. Characters sometimes do the same thing, to great artistic effect. (I’m remembering “Inconceivable!” from “The Princess Bride” right about now.)

Spanish has a great term for such phrases in literature: “muletillas,” literally “crutches.” We really do use such expressions as a crutch when struggling to express ourselves, or to remove the difficulty of coming up with a new way to state our thoughts. One of my favorite characters in my fiction, Bennie, uses “Man alive!” a lot when frustrated, because she’s too religious to swear. The phrase just came to me out of her mouth the first time she uttered it, and it stuck with me as just… her. One of the most useful things about muletillas is that they negate the need for dialogue attribution because they serve to identify the speaker.

Bennie, though, is the only character who uses that phrase (except when people imitate her), and none of my other characters have a “muletilla.” I learned from reading 19th century Spanish lit (I don’t recommend it) that the muletilla as a tool can be overdone. Very, very overdone. Keep it to just one or two characters, and even with them, use it somewhat sparingly. Every other piece of dialogue they utter doesn’t need their muletilla in it for the phrase to be effective as such.


9 responses to “On Idioms and Other Repeated Phrases in Fiction

  1. Good point. I once had a problem with overusing “sighed”, until I realized just how annoying that would be! What I had in mind was exhaled, breathed, muttered. So I quickly changed that. It’s my theory that only certain adverbs are dangerous due to the fact that they stand out, while others just sort of blend in. As far as phrases or sayings go, I can happily say my increative vocabulary prevents that problem!

  2. I have an issue with people smiling and gazing. And I also structure a lot of sentences like “blah blah happened AS so and so happened.” I’m dreading doing a search for AS, let me tell you, haha.

    • Victoria Grefer

      same with me. lots of smiling. I let smiling go if it seems unobtrusive, but sometimes it really can be cut (in my work.)

  3. I only use a muletilla with one character, an meaningless, local little expression “Jeez-o-flip.” I picked it because I think it sounds dorky and slightly annoying every time you hear it, which is the effect I wanted. I have used the other technique you express. I used to insert “just” too much and I overuse “, and” (with the comma). I’ve spent quality hours finding and deleting those gems. It annoyed me so much to find them that I hardly ever use “just” anymore.

    • That sounds like a fabulous muletilla for what you want it for, Bill. Nice!!! I don’t have anything quite that fun and creative. My big one for one character is “Man alive!” I love it for her because she’s a truly religious person (not hypocritically so) and so wouldn’t curse, especially not with the Lord’s name in some form or other.

  4. Pingback: Characters with a Quirk | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  5. toninelsonmeansbusiness

    Love your use of video in this post:) Really gets the point across!

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