The Writer’s Craft – Captivating Catchphrases

(Pensacola, Florida; May 5, 2023,) – “He’s dead, Jim,” “Make it so,” “I’ll be back,” “Well, gang, it looks like we have another mystery on our hands,”  “I’m a doctor, not a…”

Crafting captivating catchphrases is one of the more enjoyable parts of writing fiction.  Catchphrases that click with the public can enter the cultural zeitgeist, becoming part of the very fabric of our language.  In fact, some catchphrases can become so ubiquitous we forget where they originated from.

The term “getting cold feet” is a common colloquialism to describe getting nervous.  However, this expression originated as a catchphrase from Stephen Crane’s 1896 novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.  The phrase originally meant losing interest in something, but its genesis was forgotten as it became embedded in the language, its meaning morphing into an expression of fear.

Two of Star Trek’s most memorable catchphrases were regularly used by DeForest Kelly’s Dr. Leonard McCoy: “He’s dead, Jim,” and the flexible, “I’m a doctor, not a …,” (fill in the last part with an appropriate word). 

The Terminator franchise is instantly recognized whenever anyone says, “I’ll be back,”…and usually says that line in a faux-Austrian accent.

James Bond’s famous, “Bond, James Bond,” unites all the actors who played the super spy by elevating a personal introduction into a spiffy, snazzy catchphrase.

Catchphrases are powerful literary devices providing nuance, humor, and character consistency to your stories.  Understanding why this is such fertile ground is as easy as understanding how and why our own various relationships work in real life.

Every one of us commonly uses ‘catchphrases’ even if we’re unaware we’re doing so.  For example, I have a habit of saying “Interesting!” when something catches my attention.  My friends and family don’t say “Interesting!” like I do, but they expect me to use it since I’ve habitually used it for years.  In other words, that simple, one-word catchphrase is a part of my identity because it’s a recognized part of how I communicate, and that’s why our characters need catchphrases of their own.

Communication style reflects a person’s identity as much as their interests, fashion choices, and hobbies.  We usually don’t consciously notice the personal catchphrases used by people we know, but they’re there.  We most often register physical habits, mannerisms, and other visible things on a conscious level, but verbal cues (like catchphrases) are often processed subconsciously.  However, the subconscious is as much a part of how we process, interact with, and find our way through the world as our conscious awareness is.

These subconscious cues help reinforce our sense of security because they reinforce continuity within our lives.  In writing terms, personal catchphrases help enhance the characterization of the performers on our literary stages.  I know my dad and mom because of how they look, behave, and speak.  Alter one of those three elements, even on a subconscious level, and our relationship continuity will be thrown off (even if only a little) because part of how they characterize themselves will have changed.

Writers strive to create fictitious characters who feel as if they were real people, enabling our readers to connect with our characters and emotionally invest in them.  We use physical descriptions, behavioral cues and habits, attitudes, and (in my opinion) the most overlooked aspect of our characters: how they verbally communicate.  Just as with real people in real life, a character who uses even a bare few habitual catchphrases creates the sense of being a real person.

One of the catchphrases in my Accidental Detective series are variations of “How in the name of John Q. Arbuckle…?”  This is a common expressing used by all the characters in my fictitious world.  The original line was based on the name “John Q. Public,” an expression we used in the Navy while training new public affairs specialists.  However, as I began writing the Accidental Detective’s first adventure, Proud Lion, I realized that “How in the name of John Q. Public…” was simply too generic.  It no panache, no style, and no hope of being anything but, well, boring.

During my career, I’d met a young ensign named Arbuckle.  That meeting was such an in-passing event so many years ago that I can’t even remember the officer’s first name, but “Arbuckle” was unusual enough that it stuck with me.  While writing Proud Lion, I realized that “How in the name of John Q. Arbuckle…?” was much more entertaining (and memorable) than “How in the name of John Q. Public…?”

Whether or not my “How in the name of John Q. Arbuckle…?” ever becomes embedded in the fabric of our language is ultimately irrelevant outside the fact it presents a recognizable and consistent verbal part of my fictitious world.  This type of stability helps communicate the ‘solidity’ of my fictional world, enabling my readers to emotionally invest in my characters because these characters behave just like real people.

Many writers long to create the next great catchphrase that enters our shared lexicon.  I would certainly to do so.  However, whether any of us ever achieve that level of linguistic success or not, it’s incumbent upon us to wisely deploy catchphrases in our own works.  We need our characters to truly leap off the page (or screen, as the case may be) in order for our readers to connect with them, and catchphrases are a much-neglected part of this effort.

Take the time to deepen your characters by developing clever and captivating catchphrases for them and their world.  This will unobtrusively tighten the weave of your literary landscapes, allowing your readers to visit colorful characters behaving like living people.  The closer our characters are to real-life people—even in subtle ways—the more our readers will be willing to invest in our stories.

Who knows?  You might even create the next “Quick Robin, let’s race to the Batmobile!” catchphrase and have your work become not just a beloved story, but forever part of our language!

Check out my video on this topic at:

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