Phrases in Writing

I’m in the midst of A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones series, and hope to finish it this weekend or early next week.  As I’ve been reading, I’ve noticed a few things he does with peculiar phrasing that stood out to me as writing no-nos.  It’s not bad writing — Martin is a very good writer, so I’m not criticizing him.  After all, as much as I love to write, I don’t know if I’ll ever reach his level.  So for all you ASOIAF / GOT fans, I’m not bashing your god, just using some blips in his writing to make a point.  🙂

“If I had half a groat…”

I’ve so far noticed this phrase used three times.  It was always in the context of, for example, “If I had half a groat, I’d slap her.”  It’s an interesting phrase for Martin’s narrative and evokes what he aims to evoke.  It helps define Cersei’s character when its used in her perspective chapter.  The only problem with it is that it’s used three times in different chapters, by at least two different perspective characters.  (And I didn’t make note of them, so I can’t reference the book for you.)

Using a creative phrase is definitely a good thing — especially if it comes across with the meaning and strength that Martin manages, without it feeling contrived or forced.  But, using a creative phrase word-for-word more than once makes it stand out.  And having more than one character use the exact phrase word-for-word stands out even more.  I’ve written before about how words are a writer’s tools and that in good writing, the words are really unnoticeable.  Well, using the same unique phrase twice is very noticeable to a reader.  It’s like the words sat up on the page and said, “Hey!  Look at me!  You saw my twin 150 pages ago!”

“…as useless as nipples on a breastplate.”

This was a humorous phrase, causing chuckles the first time I read it.  The second time I read it, though, I thought, “Huh… didn’t he say that already?”  Again, Martin uses a unique phrase more than once and, again, by multiple perspective characters.  (I believe they were Jamie and Cersei.)

It also made me wonder if George RR Martin had been watching some of Joel Schumacher’s Batman films (infamous for the addition of nipples to the Batsuit) while writing this.  It’s a reference that is humorous in the context of the novel, but the repetition by multiple characters throws the reader out of the narrative… and the possible pop culture reference only adds to a sense of disconnect.

“in for a penny, in for a pound”

One rule that was hammered into me is that you don’t take a present-day saying and alter it to fit your narrative.  I once tried to turn “between a rock and a hard place” into something like “between a satellite and an asteroid” for one of my sci-fi tales — only to be thoroughly chastised by a retired New York editor for the attempt.  In A Feast for Crows, Littlefinger states a variant of “In for a penny, in for a pound.”  I can’t remember the exact wording, but “pound” was replaced with either dragon or lion — whatever the Westeros version of a pound is.  Given Martin’s gift of language, he could have come up with a Westeros-unique phrase that means the same thing.

So, for the writers that are reading this, and as reaffirmation for myself, unique phraseology can make a book.  Words are a writer’s tools.  However, these tools must be used carefully and wisely, and phraseology is no different.  Overuse of phrases, inconsistent context, or other no-nos can bring a reader out of the experience.

(And for those that are interested — I’m greatly enjoying Feast For Crows and will hopefully be posting a review next week.)


1 Comment

Filed under Reading, Writing, Writing Tips

One response to “Phrases in Writing

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Feast for Crows | Cameron D James

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