Image Credit: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos. Book cover image from Chapeltown Books.
This topic was inspired by last week’s post when I talked about Pinch, Punch, The First of the Month. I’ve often used well known sayings in my flash fiction. Sometimes I’ve used them as titles. Sometimes I’ve used them as themes. And I have written stories where the well known saying was both the title and theme.
Why Sayings Are Useful
Sayings are useful because you can get so much out of them. Take the saying justice will out. Now that’s a wonderful theme to work to for the crime writers amongst us. It would also be a useful title because it should provoke curiosity in the reader to find out how the title plays out in the story.
And people’s thoughts on what justice should be vary so it expands the genres you could use for this theme. Crime is the obvious one but you could have justice will out as a theme for a humorous tale and set your characters up for a long overdue fall or something like that.
Any topic useful for a theme can be adapted for non-fiction work too. Justice will out can be a theme for articles on miscarriages of justice finally being put right and that is just to name one idea.
So don’t throw out the book of proverbs/well known sayings yet. It will still have its uses!
Amongst the sayings I’ve used are Time Waits for No Man, Pressing the Flesh, Coming Up Roses, Saving for a Rainy Day, Seeing is Believing, and Enough is Enough. The latter is also an example of how repetition can be used effectively for emphasis. You could also guess the likely mood of the character for whom enough really is enough!
Also our sayings and proverbs do reflect timeless truths so they will always be relevant themes to write stories, blogs, and/or articles about. And they can make for a useful short cut if you are watching the word count limit, as I do with flash fiction.
If I use the saying as a title, most of the time I don’t repeat it in the story. I get my character(s) to “act out” the title so by the story’s end, the premise given by that title is fulfilled. And the title acts as a “hook” for the reader, giving them clues as to what they might expect. They then read the story to find out whether they were right or not.
The important thing here is I keep my end of the bargain. I always make sure my stories do fulfil the promise set by the theme/title. Readers need to see I’ve used the well known saying or proverb to good effect.
Being Open to Interpretation
I also like to use sayings that are open to interpretation. My Seeing is Believing could be an upbeat story. It could equally be a negative one. Someone sees something that makes them change their mind about something they’d previously believed in. That isn’t necessarily good news!
A quick look on the internet for sayings came up with a list of different sites. One of them claims to have 2,500 of them on their database. So you’re not going to run out of ideas for stories and articles any time soon if you just worked your way through that website!
I like to have “pegs” to work to when I’m drafting anything and usually the chief “peg” is either having a theme or a title to hand. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve used a well known saying to give me my theme. I don’t always use the theme for the title because as I am drafting something a better idea for a title will occur that encapsulates the theme but also puts a “spin” on it. In stories like this, the theme should become self-evident within the first paragraph or so.
Starting points are vital then and every writer has to work out what they need to know before they can plunge into their next story or article. And sayings can prove to be an excellent “way in” so do bear that in mind.
I don’t do this myself but of course writers have given their characters sayings that readers identify with them. For example, Agatha Christie’s Poirot and his “little grey cells”. Can’t imagine any other character coming out with that, which is the idea.
The danger with this is that the saying could fall into cliche but Poirot is a good example to use here as he uses it often enough for us to associate the saying with him but he doesn’t use it all the time. What a writer wants here is something distinctive but not over-complicated, too long, or likely to become something the author becomes sick of writing.
For my flash writing, where I’m inventing characters all the time in separate, very short stories, this is difficult to do but not impossible. I’ve been writing some linked flash tales (where the same character turns up in more than one story and there’s a common thread in the plot) so I could choose a phrase for my character to say here and repeat it in another story to get the same effect.
The main reason I haven’t is because, while I do use repetition for emphasis, I limit my use of it because with a limited word count, I want as much variety as possible for what I do have to play with!
Avoiding Tipping Over into Cliche
One way I’ve used here is to “subvert” the saying. For example, in From Light to Dark and Back Again, my story Punish the Innocent subverts a saying as we normally talk about punishing the guilty.
It is also what you do with your character in your story or your take on a saying if you’re using it for an article that will make your writing unique. That is by far the best way to avoid cliche.
A writing exercise I was set once a few years back at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School necessitated me having to use the phrase “take the biscuit” but I didn’t want to use it as it stood precisely because it is a cliche.
I wanted something that would say that and give extra information about my character, almost subliminally, so I used the phrase “take the Garibaldi”. It went down well with the writing tutor too and made people laugh (which was the idea) but you take a phrase and then twist your use of it to bring about something unique.
A cliche turned on its head in some ways. And by using Garibaldi I flagged up in one word the likely economic status of my character. I could’ve used “taken the Aldi Rich Tea” or “taken the Marks and Sparks dark chocolate digestive” just as well. I would not need to tell you how well or otherwise my character was – the biscuit referred to shows you their status.
So you can use sayings to your own advantage. Use them as a starting point for your creativity. After all, what could you do with a well known saying? It inevitably won’t be the same as what I would do with it and that’s fine. Every author has their own voice.
For the Waterloo Arts Festival Writing Competition, where I was privileged to be one of the winners three years in a row, we had to write to the same theme and word count. Fifteen different authors, including yours truly, came up with fifteen very different stories.
So it is not a question of “it’s all been said before”, when you use a saying, you are bringing your unique mix into the equation. What can you do with this? How would this saying apply to your characters?
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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