Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
“Frankly, my dear…” Everyone knows the rest of that line, even if they’ve never seen the movie. The American Film Institute rates Rhett Butler’s last words to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind as the most memorable quote in the history of cinema. It’s become part of the cultural lexicon. The original line from the novel was “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” Sidney Howard, the screenwriter, added “frankly” to give it a bit of zing. Some writers believe that of all the parts of speech, the adverb is the banana peel that’s sure to trip us up. But there are times when it’s the extra zing that makes a sentence unforgettable.
Jane Austen had a knack for the ironic adverb. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” A truth universally acknowledged both elevates the tone and undermines the significance of the truism that follows. That clause has become one of the most famous in the English language. In the two hundred years since it was written, it’s been adapted and repurposed in thousands of ways.
Scott Fitzgerald decorated almost every page of The Great Gatsby with adverbs. At Gatsby’s parties, the guests drank unsparingly, the girls laughed exhilaratingly, and an actress danced tipsily. Nick Carraway is the first person narrator and the descriptions express his point of view and judgments. Fitzgerald saves Nick’s best line – and most essential adverb – for the iconic last sentence. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
For those of us on a lesser literary plane than Austen and Fitzgerald, we are well advised to keep our adverbs to a minimum. Too many “ly” words clutter the prose and annoy readers. But however thick on the page they may be, adverbs don’t make a sentence grammatically wrong. Chopping off the tail of an adverb now, that’s an abuse.
“Do not go gentle into that good night?” Hold the phone! Shouldn’t it be gently? You can’t modify a verb with an adjective and get away with it, can you? What was Dylan Thomas thinking? Or Elvis, for that matter, when he crooned “Love me tender, love me true”? Elvis probably didn’t give it much thought, but Dylan would have known he was committing an enallage (pronounced eh NAHL-uh-jee). Enallage is a deliberate grammatical mistake that makes a sentence stand out. Some of the most striking and memorable phrases in literature and music are grammatically wrong. “I can’t get no satisfaction” wouldn’t stick in the mind without that arresting double negative. And Joe Jacobs, the manager of a prizefighter who lost a match on points, achieved linguistic immortality when he grabbed the mic and shouted, “We was robbed!”
Playing with grammar isn’t the only way to create an indelible idiom. In 1961, Joseph Heller submitted a manuscript titled Catch 18 to his editor Robert Gottlieb. The number 18 didn’t work. Leon Uris had just published Mila 18 and Gottlieb wanted to avoid any confusion. He and Heller mulled a series of alternative possibilities. Eleven was out because of the movie Oceans 11. Back and forth in letters and phone calls, Heller and Gottlieb proposed and rejected a multitude of numbers. 27? Nah. 539? Too long. 26? Didn’t feel right. 14? Not funny. And then inspiration struck. “I’ve got it!” exclaimed Gottlieb. “Catch 22.” It’s hard to say why 22 is funnier than 18, but it is. That plus 4 was a tweak of genius.
All writers aspire to pen something extraordinary, words that will live on after we’re gone. To help us in that endeavor, computer scientists at Cornell University believe they’ve cracked the code of what makes a phrase “catch” and linger in the public imagination. They researched dialogue from 1,000 films, analyzing pronouns, articles, verb tense, word choice, word sequence, and sound. The sound of the language – the bang, the fizz, the snap – enhance memorability. Brevity, simplicity, and originality of expression also help. But it turns out that re-usability is the key factor. If a catchy phrase can be applied in different contexts and situations, chances are it will be.
“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” That line (delivered over the rim of a martini by Bette Davis in All About Eve) is both distinctive and general. It’s the perfect warning to one’s friends or significant other should you find yourself in a turbulent mood. That’s no doubt why it ranks ninth on the American Film Institutes most memorable quotes list.
As we writers strive to put captivating dialogue into the mouths of our characters, we can test our ability to recognize a line worth remembering by visiting the Cornell researchers’ website: http://www.cs.cornell.edu/~cristian/memorability.html. Sometimes all it takes is a tweak.