Beware of out of place references!


Have you ever read a novel that takes place in a fantasy universe based on Medieval Europe, or a historical fiction that is set over a hundred years ago, or thousands of years ago, or a story that happens on a different planet to a race of people that have no knowledge of Earth’s civilization or culture? Then, once immersed in these carefully crafted worlds, the writer uses an idiom, simile, or references something that completely pulls you out of the story because they’re using an expression that doesn’t fit with the story time or setting? One of the things that always ruins the reading experience for me is when writers use out of place expressions.

The other day I was writing for my fantasy novel, and I was about to use the expression “her heart rate skyrocketed,” but then I stopped and thought;

“Wait a minute! This isn’t an advance technology universe, it’s rather medieval. Do they have rockets? No. Would my character’s know what a rocket is? No.”

I had to stop and consider the etymology behind that word, and if it fit with the universe I was trying to make – and it didn’t.

A lot of writers make this kind of mistake, and what they don’t realize is that it can actually be jarring to the reader. Especially when you seek to immerse your readers in the world that you’ve so carefully crafted.

Idioms are particularly troublesome because, while most can be applied to just about any scenario and should contextually make sense, there are others that wouldn’t. For example, you wouldn’t write a fiction that takes place on another planet or in another time and say something like; “she came over for Netflix and chill.” You wouldn’t say something is “the tip of the iceberg,” if you’re writing a story that takes place on a desert planet that’s never seen snow or large bodies of water.

You wouldn’t say “a penny for your thoughts” when you’re writing a story that happens in a country that uses a different denominational system.

One also has to beware of similes. You can’t say “nutty as a fruitcake” unless fruitcake is a possible delicacy in the world you’ve built. If you use that simile, and you’re writing a story that happens on an alien planet where everyone eats dehydrated nutrients or the charred flesh of their enemies, perhaps saying “nutty as a fruitcake” doesn’t make sense.

It is tempting to use contemporary expressions like; “her worshippers followed her like paparazzi,” but if your story is a historical fiction that takes place in ancient Greece, that simile might be very out of place.

Whatever expressions of speech you use, if you’re a fiction writer, please just make sure they make sense for the time, setting, and context of your story. If you choose poorly, you could inadvertently throw your reader out of the moment and spoil the immersion experience for them. Choose your words wisely.

Have any of you experienced reading a novel only to have the writer choose an expression that seemed to throw you out of the story? Have you made this mistake in your own writing?

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