Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

An Odd Measure of Story Quality

My thoughts on this aren't fully formulated, but I think there must be something right going on in a story that establishes a context for a line that would make no sense in any other context.  What I mean is that a fully functioning story creates an environment for sentences that could only make sense within that story.

But you might get what I mean by example (by the way, I'm probably going to slightly misquote here: I don't have the source material readily at hand).  My examples are all from movies, but the principle is the same for written work.

Example #1:  Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  The line is, "I didn't know the meaning of fear until I kissed Becky."  I love that line, and the only way it makes sense is the events of the story around it.  It was that line that got me thinking about this subject.

Example #2:  Casablanca.  "We'll always have Paris."  This is a movie that is filled with lines that are larger because of context, including "Round up the usual suspects," "Here's looking at you, kid," "Play it, Sam, play 'As Time Goes By'" (which is often misquoted at "Play it again, Sam"), and "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Example #3:  Jaws.  "We need a bigger boat."  This is a line that sounds innocuous until it's put in context.

Example #4:  Truman Show.  "Cue the sun."  Come on, wouldn't you be willing to sacrifice non-essential body parts to write a line that is so perfect at that point in the story?

Example #5:  Gattaca.  "Right handed men don't hold it with their left."  This is both a funny line (in context) AND incredibly significant in unfolding a part of the story for the reader that wouldn't be clear without it.

Example #6:  Aliens.  "Get away from her, you bitch!"  I'm also fond of "Game over, man.  Game over."

Example #7: Galaxy Quest.  "by Grabthar's hammer... by the Sons of Warvan... you shall be... avenged."  This is really cool, and a perfect example because the line is total nonsense outside of the context of the film, but within the story it becomes oddly (comically/tragically) moving.  You get the same effect from a nonsense line in The Day the Earth Stood Still with "Klaatu barada nikto!"

My guess is that a story that creates a line that works only within the story has to be working pretty well on some level.  Aspiring to create an opportunity for lines to have this interesting and surprisingly resonant life is one of my goals.
Can you think of other lines from literature (film or printed) that have this peculiar quality about them?




( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 17th, 2007 01:20 pm (UTC)
That's interesting. Why does a particular line stick? I can't remember the exact line but the one that sticks for me is from the movie of Flash Gordon when the girl says, "We have only fourteen minutes to save the world" It's actually quite funny.

If I'm allowed, from my current wip 'The Games of Adversaries' and I don't know why this one sticks but it does, with other people too. "These pigeons seemed to have an inordinate amount of room on their legs," It just made people laugh and stuck in their brains.
Apr. 17th, 2007 02:01 pm (UTC)
LOL!! That's perfect, and it's exactly what I'm talking about, a line that needs the story to make sense.

Although there are probably a lot of stories that don't have lines like that, it seems clear to me that the story ought to at least elevate a line so it becomes more important than it might be without the story around it.

Don't you think a story would be a failure if there were NO lines that didn't rise up like that (even if they weren't as funny as "These pigeons seemed to have an inordinate amount of room on their legs")?
Apr. 17th, 2007 02:21 pm (UTC)
I'd never thought about it until you mentioned it :) But I did see what you meant straight away. And, yes, I do think a story would be a failure without those gems. It's what sticks in the mind long after other stuff has faded. Like pictures and scents. In the Pirates of the Caribbean, it isn't a line but the picture of Johnny Depp on that beat up craft sinking right up to the moment he steps on the jetty. That's what I remember most from the movie.
Apr. 17th, 2007 02:36 pm (UTC)
That's a perfect visual counterpart to the memorable line. From PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN I also like the single word line, "Pirate," as an explanation for why Jack cheated in the sword fight, and the multiple and interesting uses of "Parlay."
Apr. 17th, 2007 01:59 pm (UTC)
It's a bit mushy, but there's the scene in The Princess Bride where the grandfather says, "As you wish." Or, less mushy but harder to talk about without spoilers, in A Wizard of Earthsea when Ged says the shadow's name (or vice versa, earlier in the book). Le Guin specializes in the single word or phrase that hits you like it was dropped from a mile up.

My favorite lines in my own stories are always bits that are flatly descriptive but would have to be metaphors in another universe. "He peered through the empty footprint." "His vomit was burning." "It's nothing." I'll think of them as vanpelts from now on...
Apr. 17th, 2007 02:07 pm (UTC)
The "As you wish" line is a good example! The line that really works for me (for different reasons) is "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!" and, "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father prepare to die."

Don't you think that any author would love to write lines that become a part of the collective consciousness? Oh, to be quotable.
Apr. 17th, 2007 02:03 pm (UTC)
When Harry Met Sally. "I'll have what she's having." As a punchline to that scene, it could happen in another movie, but the scene uniquely resonated with their characters.
Apr. 17th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)
Ha! I'd forgotten that one. My wife and I have seen that film numerous times! For me, the film revolves around the line, "Of course, you know, men and women can never be friends."

Other romantic comedies have good lines too. That last line of WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING (which is "Peter once asked me when I fell in love with Jack. And I told him, 'It was while you were sleeping,'" is a perfect last line.

FRENCH KISS has "For me, bullshit is like breathing," and "When people tell me they are happy, by ass begins to twitch," and "Why weren't you the one, Charlie? The one who turned on this big shiny Kate-light that burns so bright?"

SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE has the single word, "magic," but also "Marriage is hard enough without bringing such low expectations into it."
Apr. 17th, 2007 02:18 pm (UTC)
From Parke Godwin's BELOVED EXILE:

"God is good. Sometimes he's an absolute dear."

The context is that Guenivere has just learned that a rival for Arthur's affections had died of the plague.
Apr. 17th, 2007 02:42 pm (UTC)
In Pirates of the Caribbean: "And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules."

The way he said that line summed up the whole movie for me.

Oh, and in Aliens:

Ripley to Burke: "They can bill me." (about destroying a multi-million dollar installation)

Apr. 17th, 2007 02:52 pm (UTC)
One of those popped up just the other night for me while talking to some friends. It's fairly obscure, though. "More complex than Brown." It makes no sense outside of Robert Bloch's script for the original Star Trek episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of?"

It's a dialogue between Ruk the android (played memorably and quite ominously by Ted Cassidy) and Kirk. Kirk says something like "so you're an android, like Brown?" And Ruk answers as above.

Apr. 17th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)
Great topic!

It's not an add measure of story quality at all - nw that you've laid it out for us so clearly, I'd say that it is a central quality.

One of my favorite lines from a movie as to be from Star Wars Revenge of the Sith, when Palpatine is in full-on seduction mode and reassures the hapless future Vader that what he is looking for is "a life of significance and conscience." I laughed out loud the first time I heard it and every time afterward. It's ALL about context.
Apr. 17th, 2007 03:42 pm (UTC)
I'm actually seeing two separate, distinct types of lines in this discussion.

One is the line that makes little or no sense outside the context of the story ("More complex than Brown", "I didn't know the meaning of fear until I kissed Becky", and my all-time favorite in this category, Jim's own "Willard was daydreaming about Elsa when the shark caught Benford, the new mail boy, directly in front of Willard's desk." (I love that line. I am stupid for that line. I bought a whole book based on needing to know what happened next.) They none of them make a lot of sense outside the confines of the work for various reasons (one's not a full sentence, love does not usually involve fear, and sharks are rarely found in the workplace*).

The second type of line is one that makes sense, and is even in some way resonant on its own outside the work, but that inside the work takes on a different or additional layer of meaning ("As you wish", "I'll have what she's having", "We need a bigger boat.") They're perfectly intelligible sentences you'd hear outside a work, but inside the work in question, take on additional, transformational meanings.

I'm just saying. Two different beasts.

*Marine biologists, please close your email clients. We're just sort of taking that as read.
Apr. 17th, 2007 03:59 pm (UTC)
Good point! A line like the second one comes from THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, where Stevens (the Anthony Hopkins character) says, "I'm a little tired." He says it first in the movie while he's serving at a party in the house. His father is dying upstairs, and someone comes down finally to tell him his father died. Stevens goes on serving. Someone (who doesn't know the situation) asks Stevens a couple moments later if there is anything wrong. He says, "I'm a little tired."

Near the end of the film, he passes up his chance for personal happiness by failing to go with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). In the next scene, he's preparing the house for the new master, who asks him if there is anything wrong. He says, "I'm a little tired."

The line becomes a way to show huge emotional turmoil in a character who is almost absolutely stoic. I thought it was a great piece of dramatization.
Apr. 17th, 2007 04:08 pm (UTC)
Although with that line and "As you wish" there's also the element of repetition being used to add a layer of semantics. Which is interesting, and may qualify as a subcategory of the second, but I'm just not going there.

Btw, just after I posted that, I read the following first type line in jamesenge's journal:

"Are linguists terrible people who want to kill our ill and elderly over their weeping protests?"

Is it even physically possible not to read the rest of his entry? Classic.
Apr. 17th, 2007 05:05 pm (UTC)
One of the things I love about the Complex Brown quote is when it's SPOKEN out of context. I love the sound of it.

Sometimes in the midst of conversations, or while listening to others talk, something will come babbling up out of my own subconscious. I love the sound of words; I think a writer needs to be aware of them. So I was standing with some friends who were talking about some technical computer thing and my thoughts drifted away and I mumbled -- I did not try to interrupt, as I was sort of lost in the sound of what I was thinking -- "more complex than brown." Instantly I had their attention.

"What's that? More complex than you are brown? What is that supposed to mean?"
Apr. 19th, 2007 02:06 pm (UTC)
Your musings on writing always get me thinking, sir. I think this one would count as a line that's perfectly intelligible outside the story, but inside it, it takes on a whole new meaning. The opening from Fahrenheit 451:

It was a pleasure to burn.

Once you get a little further along, you know the exact context and it makes that much more sense. That "Oh now I get it" moment.

P.S. I accidentally posted this in the wrong thread, so please delete it accordingly. Sorry about that!
Apr. 19th, 2007 03:39 pm (UTC)
Hi, Matt. I saw that other post. I thought I'd lost my mind for a moment *g*.

Thanks for reminding me about Bradbury's first line. That is a good one.
Apr. 21st, 2007 05:16 am (UTC)
How can you leave out, "Be nice to him, he's been mostly dead all day.?" Actually, Princess Bride is one of my all time favorites and became even more delightful during the years Dylan and Sam quoted from it constantly. Just the thought makes me smile. On an odd note, the phrase "mostly dead" found its way into my Easter sermon. I didn't even realise that I had used it and couldn't figure out why one of the college students and his Dad were snickering :-) Another line that fits this category is from Hoosiers, "The sun don't shine on the same dog's ass every day but you ain't seen a lick of light since you hit town." It fits that movie perfectly and has become a descriptor for a BAD day with some of my counseling clients. "Not a goat. Not a goat" from Zathura speaks of a similar reality. There are dozens from Star Trek too..... Janet
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )