Clichés and Jargon…Mary Deal Dishes the Straight “Skinny” on the Subject

Clichés and Jargon


Mary Deal

Do you know how much of your day-to-day language contains clichés and jargon? The way you speak among your family and peers defines your roots and the person you are.  However, in writing, clichés make your story stale and jargon needs to suit the time period of the story.

If you are writing a story that takes place, perhaps in the 1930s or any older time period, you’ll need to capture the language of the day. Whether you have your characters speak these lines or your narrator uses them, similar phrases of the early Twentieth Century may be something like:

A penny for your thoughts

The pot calling the kettle black

Putting the horse before the cart

To include such phrases in a modern-day story tells of an elderly author who has not kept up with language changes, or tells of a younger author bound in family colloquialisms. With the exception of writing a story in a past time frame, the language you use must be the most up-to-date as possible.

You can free your muse to create lines all your own. Add humor. Be silly. You can even add wry humor into a thriller.

Remember what the police used to ask, perhaps at a stake out? “Did you spot him?” Today, the police say “Do you have an eyeball?”

Try this: “His voice squeaked like a fledgling choirboy.” Instead say, “His high pitched voice made him sound as if in a perpetual state of shock.”

When a person is fired from the job, you would no longer say “He got the boot.” You might say “He took it in the shorts.”

One such change I used in my novel, “River Bones,” was when referring to a person’s mind, I called it his attic. The lines I used were: “Crazy Ike never hurt anyone. He was just a little off-center in the attic.”

Depending on the overall “feel” of the book, you might choose to have your narrator use these phrases. The narrator may be an old-timer relating an experience. She or he can use old jargon along with the characters.

You may choose to have your narrator be a modern-day speaker relating a story about age old characters. They would be the only ones to speak the clichéd language to enhance their dialog and give the reader a sense of the characters’ personalities.

Writers need to have a library or resource at their fingertips. Many books have been published defining American colloquialisms, British colloquialisms, even police jargon. Books on worn out phrases have also been published. Lists can even be found on the Internet. Every author should have some of these on hand to help avoid worn out language. The overall intention is to give your stories a sense of freshness, to help your reader avoid feeling they’ve “read something like this before.”

Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre.

About Mike Angley

Mike Angley is the award-winning author of the Child Finder Trilogy. He retired as a Colonel from the Air Force in 2007 following a 25-year career as a Special Agent with the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). He held 13 different assignments throughout the world, among which were five tours as a Commander of various units, to include two Air Force Squadrons and a Wing. He is a seasoned criminal investigator and a counterintelligence and counterterrorism specialist. In his last assignment, he was Commander of OSI Region 8 with responsibility for all of Air Force Space Command. He’s fond of saying, “If it entered or exited Earth’s atmosphere, I had a dog in the fight!”
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