Four steps to crafting a twist of phrase
Some people are natural-born phrase twisters. The rest of us will likely need some help.
Want to write twists of phrase that are as clever as puns in literature? Can you write the corporate equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s play, “The Importance of Being Earnest”? Could you pull off a compound pun, twist a list, or list, rhyme and twist?
Here’s a process for hunting down the muse:
1. Identify your topic word.
What’s the key word in your story?
2. Find related words.
Create a list of synonyms, antonyms, rhyming words, homophones and other related words. Find words and phrases that sound similar to your topic word. These tools should get you started:
- Visual Thesaurus. This thesaurus presents search results as a series of three-dimensional maps of connotative associations.
- OneLook Reverse Dictionary. It’s like a thesaurus on steroids.
- Google “homophone for (your topic word).” Find words that sound like your key words so you can sub a soundalike.
The best words to play with are fluent words — that is, they’re short (one syllable’s best), sweet and easy to pronounce. “World,” for instance, is going to give you a lot more options for wordplay than “international.”
Finding the right word is the first step toward better wordplay. These tools can help you get there faster.
Don’t try to keep these words in your head. It’s easier to play with your words if you get them down on paper or on the screen.
3. Find familiar phrases to twist.
There are lots of great tools out there to make this easy. Among them:
- Phrase Thesaurus. This searchable database of the largest collection of English-language phrases and sayings available on the web is like an online sound bite generator.
- Internet Movie Database. Find movie titles to twist.
- Lyrics.com. Find song titles and lyrics to twist.
4. Play twister.
Take your list of phrases and start substituting words.
Sam Horn, author of POP! The Art and Science of Creating the Next New Thing, is the goddess of developing creative book titles. She uses these techniques to come up with twists of phrase:
- Reverse phrases.
- Replace words.
- Try different spellings.
- Substitute your key word for words that start with the same letter. (“Movers and shakers,” for instance, could become “mothers and shakers.”)
Here’s how it works …
.. in an IABC Southern Region Silver Quill call for entries:
Nothing Entered. Nothing Gained.
.. on a Men’s Health headline about how chocolate may be even more healthy than previously thought:
Avoid Death, Buy Chocolate
… atop a business-to-business review of a marketing book:
Life’s a pitch … and then you buy
Avoid stupid word tricks.
The Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark once asked, “What value is there in a story of a renegade rooster that falls back on “foul play,” or, even worse, ‘fowl play’?”
Wordplay is great. Unless it’s not. Then it can be awful.
How can you create wordplay that’s witty, and not a joke?
- Have a process. Don’t just sit waiting for inspiration to slap you across the face.
- Go beyond the surface of the story. Be specific. Get past the topic to the angle. Your phrases for “money” are going to be a lot shallower than those for “managing your unexpected inheritance.”
- Throw away your first three ideas. Push past “Making ‘cents’ of your medications” to something more sophisticated and original. If you spend no more than 45 seconds coming up with a concept, is it any wonder that it’s a groaner?
- Remember, a little alliteration goes a long way.
- Don’t twist overused phrases.
When Molly Ivins wrote a piece about a chicken-killing festival, she didn’t fall back on:
Instead of the late, great columnist famously described the event as a: