Essays on language & writing
The importance of catchy lines
Lovely phrases and lines are like lollies or cupcakes we come across as we savour or endure a story. They provide bursts of pleasure that take a book or blog from good to great or relieve the tedium of an informative piece we must get through. As writers, it’s our duty to supply them to our beloved readers. As a bonus, it’s fun to experience the inspiration and craft that begets a superb sentence.
Here are a few wonderful sentences from some of my favourite writers.
- “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene
- “Hate is a lack of imagination.” Graham Greene
- “If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” Kingsley Amis
- “Sex is a momentary itch, love never lets you go.” Kingsley Amis.
- “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Ernest Hemingway
- “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Walt Whitman
- “What happiness was ours that day, what joy, what rest, what hope, what gratitude, what bliss!” Charles Dickens
Here are lines by me that caught my readers’ fancy.
- “Gentleness is love’s intelligent voice.” Here.
- “Grace is a mixture of happiness and acceptance of the world and everything in it, including myself, as they are.” Here.
- “It’s not words that appeal to me so much as what they describe. Perhaps they shine in the light of the things or emotions they represent.” Here.
- “Like belonging and connecting at birth, being home is like hugging the earth.” Here.
- “Life is meaningless, but there’s no reason it should be miserable.” Here.
- “We are part angel, part beast, still working out how to manage our limitations and powers.” Here.
- “Quality is an alloy of care and immersion that lifts our life above the banal.” Here.
What makes a line exquisite?
I’ve observed that a great line has these elements.
1. It is organic
A standout sentence is not a prima donna. It’s an integral part of a larger story.
2. It has a novelty
There’s a feeling of freshness in a great line. It can be a hundred years old yet seem new to every generation of readers. It comes from seeing things in an unexpected way.
3. It gives insight into humanity
A memorable statement reveals the human condition. It shows us something about ourselves or the world we hadn’t realised or had forgotten in day-to-day life until the punchy line comes along and engraves it in our consciousness.
4. It improves the reader
The author’s intelligence and the deep thought behind a great line come to us through it. It makes us feel a connection to the writer and each other through a shared moment of growth. The exquisite expression’s wit or wisdom, insight or inspiration enhances the reader’s life.
5. It is just the right length and uses simple words
A superb sentence has just the right number of words, not too many, not too few. And the words don’t interfere with the thought. They serve it silently and hold it up to the light. Try introducing, ejecting or replacing a word in the examples, and you’ll see. They are polished perfection, whether from genius or toil.
6. It has confidence
The best lines come with a dash of daring, a hint of heresy, and caution cast away. It’s a scarf-in-the-wind-with-Bond-in-a Bently-convertible-hurtling-down-a-hairpin-bend confidence that only comes from being the real deal.
7. It has a voice and cadence
Read aloud the example of the Dickens line above. You can’t but feel the energy, the mood, the moment, the occasion that pours out of the words. The voice of the character rings in our minds with resonant authenticity.
8. It creates a vivid image
A relatable line makes a scene come alive in our mind’s eyes. Through its artistry, metaphor or simile, we see what’s happening inside and around a person. It’s like we are there with them.
9. It is presented to maximum effect
The intrinsic value of an important sentence is revealed and made to glitter by giving it space as the bold beginning or banging end of a paragraph, chapter, or book.
10. It grows on the reader
We find more to appreciate and ponder in the famous lines of Shakespeare, Milton, the Gita, or the Bible every time we read or recall them. They don’t age but gain a mellow heft with time.
How to deliver great lines
Great lines do not fall like manna. To write more of them, we need to do these things.
- Think deeply and honestly for yourself and develop your ideas. If there’s one thing that generates the best lines, this is it. We have to become people of substance to deliver genuine gems.
- Read lots of good literature and poetry. Then study their excellent expressions. You’ll start absorbing the essence.
- Imagine the reader’s mind and what may be happening in it with every line, paragraph, and chapter. Know how to lead it and when to strike with your best.
- Refine the line by playing with the words, repositioning and replacing them. Good lines may come naturally as you write, but you should go back through your work and see if a vital thought is poorly done by the words and improve it.
- Place your best lines at the start or end of paragraphs, chapters, and sections. We are not Shakespeare to produce an effulgence of genius phrases. He was so gifted even his simple lines feel like gems. We, ordinary writers, need to make the most of our best. Position each worthy line carefully like a solitaire in a ring.
- Read it aloud to feel its energy and see how it rolls off the tongue. When it does, it will be a pleasure for the mind too.
- Please don’t use AI. Just don’t. I am fine with it being the genuine you, however good or bad it may be.
I’ve learnt these lessons from a lifetime of reading and observing how my favourite authors express things, e.g., Graham Greene, Hemingway, Kingsley Amis, Alistair MacLean, Khaled Hosseini, Mary Oliver, Whitman, Dickens, and the inimitable Shakespeare.
And here are a few dedicated books that resonate with me and reveal the many dimensions of sentence composition.
- Several short sentences about writing — Verlyn Klinkenborg
- First You Write a Sentence. — Joe Moran
- It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences. — June Casagrande
If you love the language, adore it actively. Watch it, engage with it, create it, play with it, laugh with it, and sit by it, open and friendly. Words are the expression of the most intelligent and good in us. We can do nothing better than craft a good sentence, perhaps even a great one.
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