On Expression: The Roads Run Down

There’s a moment of realisation in writing, when you look at the expressions that you use by instinct, and realise that the first-shot may not be the best. I’m a firm believer in the important of voice when it comes to writing, but there’s a difference between what comes first, and what comes naturally.

The divide comes from our tendency toward idioms, cliches, and other forms of memetic language.

People are unequivocally social creatures, and it’s potentially that which caused the rise of language. Mimicry was a huge part of the formation of language, otherwise we’d have no language to speak of (or with – ha!), but I think it needs to be left behind when it comes to storytelling. It’s impossible to escape all of these – go on the internet, and Oh My God It’s Full Of Memes. Sentences enter the languages in ways that can’t be divorced from their originators, and you can’t swing a cat without hitting a questionable idiom these days. I regularly wonder about what effect these trends have on thought, to the point where I’m not sure if I have a viable point on the matter, or hmmm – did it again.

Do memes restrict our language?
Do memes restrict our thinking?

These things happen in writing, and they’re difficult to avoid. It’s easy enough to write without giving thought to how we express ourselves, and perhaps that is a part of what natural voice is. It does seem that by using idioms and the like, we are narrowing our band of expression closer to a homogenous muck, instead of adopting our own expression. Not only do we write in the same way with these, but our rivers of expression flow closer to staples of fiction. The characters that call out “It’s not what it looks like” or “You’ve changed. I don’t even know who you are anymore” could be placed into many a daytime soap, but do they add to your story? It might be who the characters are, and their actions might follow those same trends, but at the end of the day, it’s necessary to make your language your own – and not another specimen of rote expression.

A character in the rain shouldn’t be soaked to the skin, or so hungry they could eat a horse – though they could be so hungry that they actually do eat a horse. One of those is hyperbole in expression, whereas the other is something that happens. You can play the notes of the idiom in your own way – a sick girl putting an apple on her desk – without saying an apple a day keeps the doctor away. The reactions of your characters are important – what they say and what they do – they need to be logical without being entirely predictable. The protagonist will often give the villain a chance they don’t deserve, but the villain needn’t twirl a proverbial moustache to be an appropriate villain, and need not cackle maniacally either.

It’s in the written words, not so much the actions themselves, that the effect is most jarring. Whether it’s how the writer explains what events are happening, or if it’s the lines spoken by the characters, a basket full of cliches lessens what’s going on. It’s easy to think you’ll cross that road when you come to it, especially if you feel like you tend toward the roads less travelled, but try to be mindful of what you write when you do write. While it’s true that many of these things have entered language, and become such an ingrained part of it that we don’t realise they’re cliches, the tell-tale sign of them is a set of words together feel so very familiar.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t write like you, but pay attention to where you end and the basest forms of expressions begin. You can make the words dance. It might require more than scratching the surface, digging deeper, or searching for buried treasure, but with effort, you can unearth a way of expressing that is more you than the first words you put to page. You can find a great number of pages with cliches on the internet, and I’ll leave you with a link to some of the ones you ought to avoid.

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