Writing Cromulent Dialogue

David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

In the never-ending search for snappy dialogue, we often overlook the ways in which our own personal exchanges with friends and family members provide us with creative language we can use (i.e., steal) for our stories.

Using idioms to freshen up dialogue is hardly a revolutionary idea. But many idioms have become so commonly and widely used they amount to clichés: Look what the cat dragged in. Better get cracking. Gotta keep the wolf from the door. [If you’re looking for a source for such expressions, trite and not so trite, check out this idiom dictionary.]

The problem with some of our personal sayings is that they are so dependent on a unique context connected to our own experience that they’ll likely require at least some explanation for the reader to understand what’s being said (let alone why). And as we all know, explanation can be deadly.

That said, this problem isn’t insurmountable—you just need to select the expressions that require the least explanation—or come up with your own. Just as you and others have created these expressions from experience, so too can your characters.

As an example, in my most recent novel two friends have created a game where they make up names for dwarves who “didn’t make the cut” for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: Salty. Slimy. Punchy. Stuck. (My wife and I now, whenever we find ourselves using some particularly vivid adjective, will typically remark, “There’s another one that didn’t make it.”)

As the idea for this post began matriculating in my mind, I began to pay more attention to all the little sayings my wife, my friends, my family and mere acquaintances bandy about in the course of any given day. It dawned on me that maybe I was overlooking a rich source of material staring me in the face.

The fact that these expressions are rooted in day-to-day experience with someone else means that, if we’re going to try to create such expressions from scratch, we’ll have to imagine deeply such a quotidian existence for our characters. That can be laborious—all the more reason to pilfer from one’s own life.

With that in mind, I thought I’d run off some of the expressions I wrote down as they either came up in conversation or arose in memory.

Marital Maxims

I doubt any of you who are married or in a long-term relationship don’t have buzzwords, witticisms, or other expressions developed in your life together. Given these catch phrases likely developed in unique situations, you will likely have to recreate such a situation between your characters to make the expression work.

Some examples:

Penguin Fight!

Said when my wife and I disagree on something not terribly serious, but we can’t reach an accord. One or the other will announce, “Penguin Fight!” and we will approach each other face-to-face, our arms pressed close to our sides—to mimic fins—and raucously slap each other’s arms. Any tension that might have arisen magically vanishes.

Hashtag: Goals

Said when one of us expresses an intent to finally get to an unpleasant task put off for too long. (Me: “I guess I’ll go out and clean the gutters before it rains again.” She: “Hashtag: Goals.”)

It’s in the vows

Said when one of us agrees to do something we’d prefer not to. (Me: “It’s freezing but, sure, I’ll go out and get more firewood.” She: “It’s in the vows.”)

I’m a delicate flower, my love

Said by my wife when she does something clumsy or unladylike—e.g., hammering some innocent nail into submission.

You/I married it

Said when one of us tells a particularly lame joke, makes a bad pun, or otherwise does or says something awkward, quirky, weird, or potentially embarrassing to the other. (She: “I’m going to get a selfie stick and take a long look at myself.” Me: (groans) “I married it.” She: “Yeah ya did.”)

Mistakes were made

Original source: Oliver North’s testimony concerning the Iran-Contra scandal. We say it whenever one of us is hungover or eats too much.

Mom Rules

A pun on John Le Carré’s “Moscow Rules,” from Smiley’s People. In this case, it refers to something my wife’s mom always said: That if there’s only one left of an item at the store, it means it’s popular and you should snatch it up before someone else buys it.

Don’t let them bamboozle you!

My Turkish father-in-law’s expression, who sometimes to caveat emptor to extremes. (And such a fun word to say: bamboozle.) Whenever our dog, Hamley, tricked us into something (like going outside just so he could turn around, come back in, and snooker us out of a treat), we said we’d been Hamboozled. Similarly, now with Fergus, he knows how to Ferboozle us. Sometimes one of us will say it when the other is going out to shop for something. She: “Okay, I’m heading out to buy dinner.” Me: “Don’t let them bamboozle you!”

Resting is the best thing

Speaking of my Turkish father-in-law, this was his remedy for virtually any ailment.

I am here!

Speaking of Turkey: this one arose from a visit to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, a sprawling warren of merchant’s stalls. I was at an intersection and made the mistake of merely glancing down the path to my right. About fifty yards away, a merchant, standing in the middle of the pathway, made eye-contact, lifted his arms, and bellowed, “I am here!” We say this, in the same tone and accent as the merchant, whenever one of us needs to let the other know where we are. (As most married couple know, ninety percent of conjugal life consists of yelling to each other from separate rooms.)

When the house is finished, the man is finished

From Turkey to Norway, where my wife’s mom’s family resides. This is a tribute to the Norwegian ethos of building and renovating their own homes. It’s often an obsession with the men in particular, so much so that when there’s no longer anything to do, they tend to lose interest in life.

Yeah, yeah, that’s what she told him at the picnic

This was one of my late wife’s expressions, said when she didn’t believe you, or if someone’s promising something it’s doubtful they can deliver.

Got some medication you need to take?

From an old girlfriend, not a spouse. Said when she caught me glancing at my watch during a date.

Oh, Grandma

My maternal grandmother was raised on a farm in western Wisconsin. She had a number of earthy expressions rooted in that place and time that stick with me to this day.

Smell the honeysuckle!

Said during long drives whenever we encountered the scent of manure.

I’m gonna give you to the Rag Man!

Said when we were misbehaving. (I still have the terrifying mental image of the bedraggled old man with his horse-drawn cart waiting outside at the curb that always came to mind when she said this.)

What happened—loosen your hold to get a better grip and it got away from ya?

Said when someone conspicuously passed gas.

From an Ex-Felon Friend

Joe Loya spent eight years in federal prison for bank robbery and wrote an exceptional memoir upon his release, The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell. We met during a creative writing session at San Quentin (he was an instructor, like me, not an inmate at that time). He had two expressions in particular that have stayed with me.

Don’t cough up a nut sack

Said when someone’s overreacting to something. (A British variant, “cough up a bollock,” was used in an episode during the second season on Slow Horses.)

I’m in there like swimwear

Said when he agreed to join in on some task.

I Heard It At The Movies

I’m often amazed at the number of times I hear someone using a line of dialogue from a film or a TV show in ordinary conversation: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.” “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” (Yeah, yeah, I know I’m dating myself with my examples.)

Here are some others my wife and I use routinely:

My sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter (from Chinatown)

Said whenever we can’t decide between two items—e.g., on the menu.

Sooooo refreshing! (from Pride and Prejudice)

Said when something is, well, refreshing.

Oh, that’s the good stuff (from Good Will Hunting)

Said when one of us belches or in some other way risks grossing the other out.

Match me, Sydney (from The Sweet Smell of Success)

In the film, the imperious Burt Lancaster character is asking for a light from his groveling minion, played by Tony Curtis. We use this expression whenever we want the other to pass us something, e.g., “Gravy me, Sydney.”

Kirk Douglas, he die (from Queen of Hearts)

In the film, a family of Italian immigrants living in 1960s London is watching The Vikings on a tiny TV set. During the fight scene, when Tony Curtis’s character releases his falcon and it tears out the Kirk Douglas character’s eye, the grandmother doesn’t even bother to say, “Spoiler alert,” before blurting out in a heavy Italian accent, “Kirk Douglas, he die,” to which the rest of the family responds, “Grandma!” My wife and I use it whenever we can tell that a character (or the actor playing him) isn’t going to make it to the final credits: “Kevin Spacey, he die.”

Last but by no means least:

It’s a perfectly cromulent [insert noun] (from The Simpsons)

Allow me to quote Merriam-Webster:

Cromulent first appeared in the February 18, 1996 episode of The Simpsons called “Lisa the Iconoclast,” in what could be considered a throw-away line given during the opening credits. The schoolchildren of Springfield are watching a film about the founding father of Springfield, Jebediah Springfield. The film ends with Jebediah intoning, “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” One teacher at the back of the room leans over to another and says that she’d never heard the word embiggen before she moved to Springfield. “I don’t know why,” the other teacher replies. “It’s a perfectly cromulent word.”

My wife and I use it whenever something is especially good. “What a perfectly cromulent hat, my love.”

The point of all this is to demonstrate how each of us has an entire repertoire of such idioms we likely aren’t using in our dialogue, prompting the question: Why not? As a number of my examples show, if an explanation is required it’s often quite brief. And even if it isn’t, we can imagine creating the scene that provides the context that makes the expression feel natural.

Either way, it’s a lost opportunity not to let these unique idiomatic expressions find a way into our dialogue.

What unique idioms do you and your family or friends commonly use? Have you used them in your fiction? If not, what’s keeping you?


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