Making Memorable Quotes

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
We all remember memorable openings and closing lines of famous novels - the 'It is a truth universally acknowledged' and 'After all, tomorrow is another day' phrases that have entered the language as expressions.
Sometimes powerful quotes are lifted from the body of the narrative, and it helps if the writer is witty, such as Oscar Wilde with this observation from The Picture Of Dorian Gray - 'Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.'
I've sometimes wondered how much an author laboured at coming up with something meaningful, hoping it would pass into posterity. I didn't consciously try to compose anything pithy while writing my novel. If I did write something that reflected a character's view of the world, it was more as a way of summing them up than meant for universal application. All the same, my beta-reader commented on a couple of phrases that I'd used, which was encouraging.
Her praise set me to thinking that I should, perhaps, sprinkle a few pearls of wisdom into my writing - only in passing, not setting them up as some portentous pronouncement to the universe! Readers like phrases that ring true to them - I know that I do.
I had proof of this a few years ago, when I found an interesting novella in my local out-of-town discount retailer, a place that sells everything, including remaindered books. It was a book called The Fly Truffler, written by Gustaf Sobin - an American-born writer, who lived in France, and who had more success with his poetry than prose. I was intrigued by the story, as I didn't know that truffles could be traced by the flies that hover above where they're growing. I'd heard of truffle hunters using pigs and dogs to find them.
The story is about an ill-advised affair between a middle-aged professor and one of his students. It's intense and poetic reading, and I really enjoyed it.

As the discounted book was only 50p, I bought several copies to give to friends. They all picked out a couple of sentences that had struck me as being wise and expressive :

' Maybe it's not a person we fall in love with so much as a distance, a depth which that particular person happens to embody. Perhaps it's some inconsolable quality in that person, some unappeasable dimension that attracts one all the more forcibly.'

It fascinated me, that we'd all noticed the same thing, and again I wondered how consciously the author had chosen his words.
Do any of my fellow Colonists pause for thought, trying to come up with memorable phrases that might take on a life of their own? And, if you do, how about some examples...
Short answer no. I doubt any writer ever sat down specifically to write something "witty" or "memorable." Any writer, regardless of what they write, sits down and does just that, write. If they are talented enough, something "witty" or even magical writes itself and usually is a nice surprise for the writer, at least in my limit experience. ;)
A writer might not set out with any such thought, but a writer, or anyone becoming utterly absorbed in something outside of their normal thinking, might startle themselves with an unexpected thought. It might be an old idea, nothing new under the sun, but presenting itself in a way that shivers the timbers, even if the originator can't precisely tell themselves where it came from, why they chose to write that. Musicians do it; so do singers, writers, artists, craftspeople, sports people. There are so many kinds of magician-ship; it is in high science, it is in gardening, producing something so high in vibration, so perfect, like an egg, and so seemingly obvious you couldn't imagine it didn't already exist before. A piece of writing that becomes a quote has got that kind of ring to it; a shamanic 'thus-ness'.
I too am sure no writer sets out to manufacture such pearls but they can emerge from intense or insightful writing. For example, in Go Set a Watchman, chapter one, is a lovely line 'If you didn't want much, there was plenty'. Possibly culled from GK Chesterton's 'There are two ways to attain more: earn more or desire less.'
But he was a veritable font of such gems - so much so that there is Twitter feed dedicated soley to his aphorisms, which I follow avidly!
I think that may be one of the problems of my writing, actually. I love a good aphorism too much. I'm always trying to squeeze in memorable phrases/'pearls of wisdom' as I particularly enjoy discovering these moments when I read.

I have characters saying things like: 'You can't miss existence if you don't exist to miss it.'

And ram in whole paragraphs like:

'This is a world for the bone-headed, the unreflective, the superficial and easily pleased. Drip fed on TV, we are open-mouthed, imaginationless, targets of consumer suggestion. This universe of galaxies and stars, this world of ice, earth and fire, is a Mona Lisa buried behind a billboard. We are the in-joke of history. A species that distinguishes itself from nature by its intellectual capacity. Then sets about destroying nature with utter dumbness… '

I should probably try to do it less but I sort of enjoy it...

...and don't you think the quote you mention in your original post could be shortened to say 'We fall in love with the idea of someone.'

It could well be abbreviated in that way, but Sobin is a poet (with pages to fill), so he waxes lyrical. A cynic might argue that the whole process of falling in love involves loving an idea rather the reality of a person. As Sophie Hannah observed in her poem My Ideal Man :

My Ideal Man

This is what happens, nine times out of ten.
I nurtured fantasy, neglected fact.
I fell in love with an idea again.

I think I might prefer ideas to men.
My dreams had all the qualities you lacked.
This is what happens, nine times out of ten:

I meet a man I hardly know and then
I improvise his words, how he’ll react.
I fall in love with an idea again,

In safety, in my mind’s protected den.
Then truth intrudes, with neither charm nor tact.
This is what happens nine times out of ten.

You were the perfect notion once, since when
Your real-world counterpart has stalled and slacked.
I fell in love with an idea again,

One I invented with my heart and pen
Who wasn’t you. Grand romances contract.
This is what happens, nine times out of ten.
I fell in love with an idea again.
In my ms, two young people are dancing around the fact that they like each other, through fear of rejection. The girl's mother sits down with the guy and shares some advice. 'You can't appreciate the beauty of a rose, until you've felt the thorns in your palm'. Some of the best things in life might hurt, but sometimes you're the better for it.

...and don't you think the quote you mention in your original post could be shortened to say 'We fall in love with the idea of someone.'

He could well have said 'We fall in love with the idea of someone.' It's effective, clean, transparent prose, easy to relate to, and no frills is good. But, whether it is better writing, or worse, it's poetic prose. He's trying to take it further, and suggest what that idea might be.
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Read dis, den dat: YA & Adult Novel Pairings

Short, Dark Fiction Wanted