Recently AJ wrote a great post on finding the unfamiliar phrase which is a topic I adore. One of my favorite authors is Vladimir Nabokov and the story I heard is that he would write a phrase and then examine it, probing at the words to find it perhaps there could be something better, less expected, more unique. Taking a phrase beyond the cliche is a great way to hit a point home with the reader — to push their imagination in the direction you want them to go and make important details really stand out.
AJ’s post does a great job talking about how we choose words to create unfamiliar phrases and I want to piggy back off of that and talk about the broader idea of how we get information across to the reader not just in the words we choose, but how we use them.
First, sometimes using a cliche is ok. Cliches exist for a reason — it’s an easy and familiar way to get a point across to a reader. Sometimes the point you’re trying to make in your phrasing is a minor one and you just need to get the info out and move on. If every description in your book is built with unfamiliar phrases, they begin to lose impact. Instead, think of unfamiliar phrasing as a tool — a way to zero in the reader’s focus and attention — and use it during the moments of the story you want to highlight. I think of it as digging into into a scene and slowing it down for emphasis.
For example, my first series is about zombies which, as you can imagine, means I end up killing a lot of zombies. When the zombie being killed in an action scene is anonymous I don’t mind if a cliche slips in because my goal is to keep the action going fast which means I don’t want the reader pausing to think or linger over a phrase. However, there are moments when I want to slow things down — maybe the zombie being killed is a former friend, love, or family member. That’s something that will have a large emotional impact on the character and so I want to dig in. I want the reader to viscerally feel every moment and so I try to use a lot of unfamiliar phrasing that the reader can’t easily gloss over.
Second, be aware of burying your lead. As a lawyer one of the “tricks” I learned in drafting was how to bury adverse facts in a complaint or brief. You couldn’t just ignore them — adverse facts have to be included — but you could make them seem unimportant and not stand out. The two biggest tricks: passive phrasing and burying the fact in the middle/end of a long, boring paragraph. Readers get easily overwhelmed and tend to read the first couple of sentences and the last sentence of a paragraph and skim the rest.
Be aware of this in your own writing. If you have an important detail to get across to the reader, make the phrasing stand out and don’t bury it. I was discussing this with a critique partner yesterday. She pointed out that in my WIP the only way to figure out the age of my protagonist is through a short line buried in a paragraph (that also requires math). Readers easily miss things like this and if the information you’re trying to get across is critical, sometimes it’s a smart idea to repeat it to make extra sure the reader gets it (they say someone has to hear something three times before it sticks).
For example, if it’s important that my reader know that my protagonist is 12, then maybe over the course of a few paragraphs or pages I can mention that she’s starting seventh grade soon, recently attended her best friend’s 12th birthday party, can’t wait until she’s finally a teen next year, etc. All are ways to get her age across to the reader in a way that’s not repetitive but will help stick that detail in the reader’s mind.
Third, sometimes the important bits of a story should physically occupy a lot of space on the page. Every story has a backbone of critical moments and these are the ones you want to make sure the reader is fully immersed in. You don’t want to gloss over these events in a paragraph. At the same time, you don’t want to artificially inflate a scene, but when you’ve been building toward a payoff, the reader will expect… well… a payoff.
I have a character in my series who over the course of two books faces the question of whether he can kiss anyone (or if he does, will they become sick). This isn’t a minor plot point — it’s a big part of his character. So when he finally does kiss someone, it’s a big deal and I wrote several paragraphs about it. My editor and I actually disagreed a bit over this because she edited the kiss down to a few lines. But I knew this was a big emotional payoff for the character and the reader and I wanted that scene to physically occupy space on the page. I didn’t want the reader to skim past this moment; instead, I wanted them to linger in it and to do that, I had to keep them in that moment with words on the page.
How our words occupy space on the page (length of paragraphs, length of chapters, placement of details) can have a large impact on readers and it’s a useful tool for writers. Of course, when we’re writing a first draft we’re usually focused on getting the story on the page and don’t need to be overly concerned with the physicality of them. The techniques above are ones I often turn to in revisions — making sure I’m directing the reader’s focus where I want it, emphasizing the rights beats of the novel, and digging in for maximum emotional impact. The effect may be subtle, but it adds another layer to your writing that can have a big payoff with the reader.