How to Use Idioms
Since idioms are part of the language, and not any individual author’s creation, you can’t exactly “write” them. However, there are many ways to employ idioms in your creative writing. For example, using slang is a great way to make a character seem cool – but only if you know the slang pretty well and use it correctly! Otherwise it will have the opposite of its intended effect.
If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you can create fictional idioms to add depth and detail to your fictional cultures. For example, if you have a warlike alien species in your story, they would probably have some brutal idioms for death, warfare, etc. However, a peaceful race of elves would have different idioms. Just make sure that your idioms aren’t simply dropped into the story at random: either explain their meaning or (better yet) make it clear from the context what each invented idiom means.
In all genres of fiction, characters will often use idioms in their dialogue. This helps make the characters more realistic, since real people use idioms all the time. In addition, you can have a second character respond by “extending” the idiom, which helps create a snappy, rhythmic back-and-forth between the two characters. For example:
A: “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel!”
B: “You’re wrong – that’s the train.”
The idiom here is a common one in English, and it refers to the moment of relief or rewards at the end of a long, strenuous effort. In this example, the reply extends the idiom and uses the same metaphor to make a much more cynical point.
When to Use Idioms
It’s best to avoid idioms in formal writing, because they (a) aren’t literally true; and (b) can be easily misunderstood. In formal writing, you want to be as clear, direct, and accurate as possible. The more you bring in idioms, the more likely it is that your reader will get confused and not follow your line of thought.
Idioms are great in fiction, as we saw in the previous section. However, even here you have to use some caution. Remember that idioms come from the general culture – they are not your original expressions. That means they can easily become clichés, and your writing can start to sound boring as a result. In addition, if there are too many idioms in your writing, you will start to sound unoriginal even if the idioms aren’t clichés!