Key Words And Phrases in Middle Grade Fiction

‘Key words’ in storytelling is a slightly wider-ranging way to describe the  motif.

Key words, phrases, taglines, and sounds [have] the potential to carry special meaning, symbolically or thematically, the way a symphony uses certain instruments, such as the triangle, here and there for emphasis. The trick to building this meaning is to have your characters say the word many more times than normal. The repetition, especially in multiple contexts, has a cumulative effect on the audience.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

John Truby is a screenwriting guru, so obviously his focus is on key words as the audience hears them in dialogue.

James Wood, whose speciality is adult literature, recognises the same technique on the page, and how it relates to real life:

We all know people in real life who […] use a series of jingles and tags and repetitive gestures to maintain a certain kind of performance.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

At TV Tropes, you’ll find an entry for ‘Arc Words‘: Words or a phrase that appears throughout the story as an Arc or as a Motif.

Likewise, the arc phrase is employed by many authors of middle grade fiction.

Examples Of Key Words In Middle Grade Fiction

In Once by Morris Gleitzman the arc phrase word involves the word Once, which was introduced — most obviously — as the title.

Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.
Barney said that everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.

Related to arc phrases are ‘catch phrases’.

The hero of Once is in a dire situation — he is a Polish kid in the Nazi era, dodging murder at every turn. It would be easy for this story to turn into a sob story, so Gleitzman has him use the phrase, “You know how…” whenever he’s telling the reader something terrible about his life. This is more of a character tic than a motif.

The first example occurs at the third sentence of the book, and these situations he describes only get more and more dire:

You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesn’t drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you can’t wipe them because you’re holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesn’t clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler?
That’s happening to me.

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a middle grade novel which was written concurrently with the screenplay. My point is that the book was written by an experienced writer of screenplays. Naturally Cottrell Boyce made use of all he knew about screenplays when writing the middle grade novel.

In Millions, the first person storyteller narrator repeats the phrase, “To get X about it…

Judy Moody (series written by Megan McDonald) has a catch phrase — I don’t know if it’s a regional dialect but I’ve never heard it before: “Rare!” My seven-year-old started using this word only after reading it in Judy Moody, though she did use it in the general way rather than in the Judy Moody way, as an exclamation.

Joan Aiken’s raven, Mortimer, squawks “Nevermore!” in reference to the classic poem, which is funny because the stories are slapstick humorous whereas the poem is gothic horror. Apart from making squawk type sounds this is the only word he knows. Aiken adroitly contrives a surprising number of occasions in which he can use it.

Unintentional Pop Culture Spoofing

Chances are that looking back on your childhood experience of reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, you remember ‘lashings of‘ in reference to the picnics — lashings of cream, lashings of butter, lashings of ginger beer. If you happen to re-read those books the word ‘lashings’ doesn’t actually appear all that often. But for some reason it stuck! Helped along by Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad In Dorset parody. ‘Lashings’ became part of pop culture mostly as a derisive comment on Blyton’s unimaginative prose, I suspect (she could pump these out one per week). I’m sure this spoof does the popularity of the series no harm.

If Enid Blyton had belonged to a critique group, or had she been more of a stylist, her (over)use of the word ‘lashings’ may have been edited out. But as Blyton’s ‘lashings’ demonstrates, even unintentional overuse of a word can become part of its enduring popularity.

 

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