How to come up with great lines

From Rick:

This week I promised no rants. So, no rants. No promises about next week though.

We’ve all heard a line on TV or in a movie, or we’ve read one in a book that makes us think “That’s a great line. I wish I’d thought of it.” If you’re a writer, you might even be more than a little envious of that line.

Let’s reverse that perspective. Have you written and published a story, then later re-read it and wondered how you came up with some of those lines and what triggered them? I know I have.

I keep coming back to one in particular from my first novel that I’ve shared here before, and a couple of others have liked it as well. The whole scene is one I’m rather proud of, but the line near the end is the one I’m bringing to your attention. In this excerpt, Jake Kesten has just offered newly graduated Scott Madison a job. Scott’s father is a colonel in the Army and has often pressed his son to follow in his footsteps. Jake has admitted to knowing and working for Scott’s father, and Scott suspects this is some sort of trap by his father. The POV is Scott’s.

* * *

This guy seemed to be doing his best to make me not want the job. He knew who I was and knew my father, but this wasn’t my father’s style, unless my father had gotten more desperate than I thought.

I looked at my watch, then at him. “Yes, sir; no, sir; anything you say, sir; no fucking way, sir. Military is not my favorite color. Clear enough? Thank you for breakfast. Now, if that offer of a ride to the airport is still open, I would appreciate it. If not, please drive me back to the dorm and I’ll call a cab.”

He raised an eyebrow. “‘Military is not my favorite color?’ I like that.”

* * *

As I said, I cannot recall what prompted the “military is not my favorite color” line, but later in this post I’ll share how it likely happened.

I read great lines all the time in manuscripts I receive for Fabula Argentea magazine. Where do great lines come from? And how can you come up with them for your writing?

I have some good news and bad news about that. The good news is that any writer can produce great lines. The bad news is that there’s no magic formula for doing it. But I can give you some tips and suggestions.

Before I get into that, let me share a brief dialogue exchange I found on the TV series The Last Ship that I recently finished watching. This exchange comes in “The Warriors” (season 5, episode 5).

Two characters are talking. The second speaker is the main character in the series, Chandler:

* * *

“I’m sick of war.”

“Sometimes war is the only way to keep the peace.”

“Sometimes I think peace is the awkward pause between wars. Maybe peace is the time for the world to reload its weapons.”

* * *

Great dialogue lines, yes? If you were writing a military novel, these are lines you might wish you’d thought of. So, how do we do it? How can you come up with great lines like script writers and other novelists do?

Here are some suggestions.

(1) Strong, interesting characters with well-defined personalities will help lead you to great lines. When you have three-dimensional characters with minds of their own, they will draw great lines out of you.

Great lines don’t need to be spoken dialogue. They can be narrative lines or thoughts from the characters. The more effort you put into giving your characters backgrounds and personalities that stand out and attitudes, the more you’re going to be inspired.

This may seem like circular logic because, after all, you’re the one who has to come up with the lines. Yes and no. If you as a writer are invested in your characters and have brought them to life in your head, then you’ll be surprised at how your brain will magically craft great lines when you put yourself into the mindset of your characters.

And this is what I believe led me to the “military is my favorite color” line. I got wrapped up enough into Scott’s character and attitude that my mind just created it.

I’m not saying it’ll always be easy, and you certainly don’t want to try to force every line to stand out. You can have too much of a good thing. Too many great lines will dilute the effect. You want such lines to pop out unexpected at the reader.

I’ve seen a few writers who seem to like to use similes and metaphors a bit too often. This is different from purple prose, which is too-flowery prose that goes overboard with vocabulary and descriptions when not warranted. Too many similes and metaphors used too often will wear thin and call attention to themselves instead of serving the purpose the writer intended.

Consider the following passage that has two similes (with “like”) in the course of three sentences:

He lifts her off the ground and swings her up like a swan as she wraps her legs around his waist and clenches her arms around his neck. He leans forward and dangles her above the earth like a human swing.

Too much. One strong simile would suffice, and the passage would be stronger. Or it could be fixed by altering “like a human swing” to read simply “her human swing.”

Here’s a line where the simile is not only too much but not exactly appropriate for the situation:

She turns around and hurries out of the hidden room and out of the tunnel like a mother giving birth.

The “like a mother giving birth” is at best a forced comparison for the situation and really not appropriate.

Save your comparisons for when they will create the right image:

He sits up and curses beneath his breath, only to then peek above the back of the truck like a World War I soldier observing the German advance.

That one creates a good image the reader can immediately understand.

Here’s an example of how creating interesting characters can help you do the job. In this scene (which is longer, but I’ve shortened it here), two police officers, Henry and George, have just spotted a speeding vehicle, and they’re unaware that it contains two fugitives from justice. These two police officers do not appear in the story before or after this scene, but as written, the author uses it to add a bit of comic relief. Even though it’s just one isolated scene, it creates a wonderful picture and ends with a couple of great lines:

* * *

“He’s speeding. Aren’t we going to go after him?” George asks, gritting his teeth.

Henry, one of the fattest members in the police department, laughs and stuffs his face with another jelly doughnut. In reality, he doesn’t give a shit about some stupid redneck. If he did, he might have received a reward and promotion for successfully bringing the most-wanted couple in recent memory to justice. He would be a media sensation for a week, a month even. Fortunately for the two fugitives, Henry doesn’t like paperwork, and the people who take his white powder- and strawberry-stained paperwork don’t like Henry.

It’s a win-win all around.

* * *

(2) Another source of line inspiration is to use lines you’ve heard or overheard in a conversation. You should not use lines directly from movies or TV programs because of possible copyright infringement, but you can certainly use them in a modified form to fit your particular situation. Over the years I’ve collected a few hundred great lines I’ve heard, mostly from friends (so no copyright issues). Here are a few of them:

“I’m afraid of having children. I’m afraid they’ll be too young.”

“Every time I talk to you, my I.Q. drops ten points.”

“What do you do for a living?” “I’m evil, and I get paid for it.”

“He needs a wake-up call. I recommend a Taser shot to his private parts.”

We were at a family picnic admiring the cute new baby. The baby suddenly began to cry and I said to myself, “It just got a good look at its gene pool.”

“I was in Las Vegas, having a bad day. The only thing paying off were the ATM machines.”

“These charges would max out my credit card and we’d be into sexual favors.”

“You say I have an accent, but I never had an accent until I left Canada and moved here.”

While you may not always find places to use lines you’ve overheard, they may give you ideas or inspiration for other lines. Or maybe a line will inspire a story or a character in one of your stories.

(3) Sometimes great lines are simply a superb description of something, an unforgettable turn of a phrase. You have to be careful not to overdo those, but one or two well-crafted descriptive sentences can do more than several paragraphs to set a mood or capture an image. Those can get tricky, and you’ll likely have to think about them.

Teleportation was not a pleasant experience. At the transmission point the atoms of your body were ripped apart with a disconcerting tingle. But at the terminus, when they snapped back together, every sensory nerve in your body fired simultaneously—followed by an explosive headache.

He liked the dark danger of the streets of Kunego City. Its nightfog covered and caressed him. It let him dream.

I hope these suggestions have helped or give you some ideas. Always remember that you don’t need a lot of great lines. Sometimes just ONE will make the entire story memorable for the reader.

Don’t be jealous of other writers or feel that you can’t craft great lines yourself. You can do it, and you’ll most likely come up with one when you’re not trying too hard.

Don’t try to force lines or comparisons because most of the time they will sound forced. Once you’ve set up your scene and characters, let your imagination run free, and you’ll be surprised at how often great lines seem to come out of nowhere for you.

–Rick

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