Image Credit: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos.
Do you have favourite lines from books, films etc? I do and I can learn a reasonable amount from them to apply to my own writing. (They also show you what really works in prose. Lines you can recall some time after you originally came across them demonstrate the staying power of well chosen words).
One of my favourites is from Carry On, Cleo. Yes, it is that one, so wonderfully performed by Kenneth Williams in his role as Julius Caesar.
‘Infamy, Infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.’
Wonderful gag but not original to the film. The line was first written by Frank Muir and Denis Norden for their radio show, Take It From Here. (Incidentally you can still hear that show. Radio 4 Extra put it on every so often. While my radio intake is now mainly taken up with listening to classical music, I have enjoyed a lot of Radio 4 Extra’s output. At last – repeats that are wanted! And Take It From Here does not sound that dated. A lot of the humour still works well).
What I love about this one is the way the sound of the word infamy is used to create the pun at the end of this line. It also shows jokes don’t have to be complicated.
The opening line from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is a classic one-liner in its own right but also sets the tone and genre for what is to come. It is a terrific combination.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a great fortune, must be in want of a wife.’
Irony from the outset – wonderful stuff. I wonder how long it took her to get that line right. Almost certainly longer than she would have liked!
Wodehouse and Pratchett
And where to start with either of the two humorous literary knights, P.G. Wodehouse or Terry Pratchett? Hmm….
I think I can do no better than share a couple of links.
Firstly, do check out these 75 Wodehouse quotes. They will put a smile on your face.
Secondly, do check out the Pratchett ones.
Then go and check the books out by these wonderful humorous gentlemen! You will come across dozens of wonderful lines. Relish them! I do!
No Such Thing as a Perfect First Draft
I don’t know how long it took Muir and Norden to come out with their most famous line but I suspect it took a fair amount of editing to get it to be just so. Nobody writes the perfect first draft. Ironically that thought cheers me up a lot. All can and will be put right in the edits and that’s fine.
Those favourite lines will almost inevitably have gone through several rewrites. That makes me feel a lot better about getting on with mine!
The best lines will conjure up images. What do you think of when you hear “stupid boy”? I should hope it would be an image of Captain Mainwaring, played by Arthur Lowe, in the wonderful Dad’s Army. (And that isn’t even a line, it’s a phrase! Humour instantly conjured up by two words. That’s great writing).
One of the great joys of re-reading favourite books is coming across the lines you love again. A good sign of (a) a great book and (b) a wonderful line is being able to re-read them many times and still loving them just as much as you did when you read them for the first time.
Catchphrases and Repetition
Catchphrases can easily become favourite lines. How about “I have a cunning plan”, “lovely jubbly”, “Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once”, just to name three famous examples? (Blackadder, Only Fools and Horses, and ‘Allo ‘Allo).
Repetition can enforce something becoming a favourite line. The repeated lines are the ones you are most likely to remember for longest. Shakespeare was definitely on to something here with his ‘To Be or Not To Be’ speech from Hamlet. And Dickens used the technique well in A Tale of Two Cities – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ (And that reminds me of a wonderful joke told in writing circles. Which two papers did Dickens write for? The Bicester Times, The Worcester Times. Go on read that one out loud!!).
Repetition like that can create a rhythm in the prose which we unconsciously pick up on (which helps recall). Poets use this effect deliberately. I rarely use it in my flash tales as I’m trying to make the most of my word count, of course, but I can and do use “excerpts of repetition”. In my character study, They Don’t Understand from From Light to Dark and Back Again, I deliberately start off two paragraphs with the same phrase as I wanted that effect.
A Smooth Flow, Twists, and the Opening Line
When we read, we generally read to ourselves but I often read my work aloud to make sure the dialogue does flow as smoothly as I think it does. What looks good written down doesn’t always read out well and if I come across instances of that, out comes the red editing pen again. I am looking to create a smooth, seamless read for a potential reader.
Some of my own favourite lines come from the twist endings to some of my stories but then I do have a very soft spot for twists in the tale. I used to love the series Jonathan Creek which was great at these.
In Tripping the Flash Fantastic, I used a technique new to me in that I used the same character for more than one story but started the two tales concerned with a similar opening line. That flags up the two stories are connected so readers should not be surprised when the same character turns up again.
The Austen quote is unusual for me in another way in that it is rare for me to have an opening line become a favourite one. Why? Because the work of the opening line is to get you into the story so you read on and find out what happens. It is usually in the course of reading on that you come across favourite lines to treasure once the story is well under way.
Mixing Up Lines and Analysing What Works
I also like to mix up line length when writing blogs, stories of any kind and so on. Doing that helps with pace. For a taut story, my line lengths will be short and terse. For more reflective pieces, the lines will be longer and the choice of language will be different too.
But when you come across a favourite line of yours, have another good look at it. What is it that makes it a favourite? How did the author achieve that effect? Story analysis like that can help you improve your own work (I know as it has done precisely that for mine). It is the technique you’re trying to study here rather than the words themselves. But I have also found working out how the author is likely to have achieved their special line makes me think about how I can replicate the technique for my work.
Back to Wodehouse
Though there is an exception here. For Wodehouse, whose sentences were often long (but oh so wonderful), those are favourite lines just to be savoured for what they are. Nobody is going to surpass his playfulness with the language.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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