I like one-liners. Comedians use them of course but one-liners are invaluable to fiction writers too. One-liners can end a story or film with a gasp or a giggle. They can turn a story on its head at the very last moment.
Equally, use one-liners at the start of a tale and they can draw a reader into the story with powerful imagery. They can convey information in a few, well chosen words and because the good one-liner has to have impact, there’s no room for waffling and so can make a great writing exercise for learning how to “write tight”.
Some of my favourite one liners include:-
1. Infamy, infamy they’ve all got it in for me.
Spoken by the marvellous Kenneth Williams when he was playing Julius Caesar in Carry On, Cleo. It’s one of the best Carry On films too. Great pun. This line originally came from Denis Norden and Frank Muir from Take It From Here and the writers of the Carry On asked to borrow it.
2. Don’t call me Shirley
From Airplane, again a marvellous spoof and a lovely play on a “mishearing”. Is repeated throughout the film but doesn’t lose its effect.
3. And cancel Christmas
The much missed Alan Rickman delivered this line with the right amount of menace you’d associate with the Sheriff of Nottingham. For me now he is the definitive Sheriff. Also these three words show up the character for what he really is – three words only, mark you! You know exactly the type of character who would cancel the festivities without everything needing to be spelt out. That is brilliant characterisation.
There are many other one liners I could’ve included (and do send your suggestions in). I started this post just before word of Sir Roger Moore’s death was announced so thought it apt to put in something about this here, given his Bond was renowned for his witty one-liners. (Yes, Sean Connery did come out with some but most recall his Bond as coldblooded and more of the action man).
Roger Moore’s James Bond was not my favourite Bond (though Live and Let Die is superb) but the wit Moore brought to the role was brilliant. Hope you enjoy some of the best one-liners recently collected to form part of the obituary.
I’ve also included a link to a site which shows some historical great one-liners. It is worth persisting with the “next” button as there are some real gems here. Good to read but not to be on the receiving end, I think.
I love writing one liners to end stories. They can be the secret to a successful twist in the tale or a powerful “punchy” ending. Sometimes I will use a good finishing line and then work backwards to figure out what the plot was and then write it up. Agatha Christie did this often with her novels. She knew the ending, she just had to work out how to get there. Sometimes it can be easier to write the story by working backwards from that end point, strange as that may sound.
Sometimes the one-liner can come at the start of a story and I build up my tale from that promising start. In From Light to Dark and Back Again, several of my stories have key information in that finishing one-liner, which will often then change the mood and direction of the tale as well. Three jobs done in one line – I like that!
Practicing writing one-liners can be a good idea too. I have brainstorming sessions every so often and will write down thoughts for potential stories (and even blog posts such as this one) but I always limit myself to one line per idea. If an idea really “catches”, when I come to look at it in more detail, I can then work out threads to come from it and I will know that idea is likely to be a “goer”.
Practicing writing one-liners is also a good idea for the “elevator pitch”, which is where you pretend you’re in a lift with a publisher or agent you want to approach with your book. You’ve got about 30 seconds in that lift and a unique chance to sell your book idea to them. That’s not a lot of time. So stick to one line, something that will hook them in and make them want to know more. It is often recommended you should be able to sum up your book in one line. (That line can always be used as the strap line for the book at a later date). Limiting how much you can convey in terms of information means you have to pick the most important point/theme of the book.
Every story has to convey its point in as few words as possible (and yes even the standard length short tale has to do that. Standard competition length is usually anything between 1500 to 2000 words and it is amazing how quickly you can reach that word count limit. Incidentally the “point” can just be to entertain the reader, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a “message” though I must admit I love the tales that can do both). Writing efficiently takes practice. I’ve found writing one-liners has come out of writing effective dialogue for my “people”.
I also thought the late Bob Monkhouse was brilliant for his one-liners. Probably my favourite from him is the classic:-
“They laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian, they’re not laughing now!”
Both of Radio 4’s flagship comedy shows, Just a Minute, and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue come out with one-liners. One of my favourites from Clue is:-
“They say our teams walk on water; not true but Barry Cryer does run on lager”.
And in a world that knows so much horror, a witty one-liner can bring much needed comedic relief. Equally in fiction they can help create a world in which the reader can lose themselves for a while. Two excellent objectives, I think.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.