Delivering the one liner


I’ve been asked the same question many times by people who have read my novels – how do you write a successful one liner?

The first question to answer is, what exactly is the one liner? To me, it’s something  a character says or thinks which evokes a strong emotional response from the reader; usually laughter or shock.

Is there a secret formula? Not really!

However, there are five things you should consider when you’re  attempting to write that great one liner:

Know your characters intimately –  an obvious thing to say, yet the most crucial. In order for the line to have the desired impact it needs to be believable. The line can reveal a side to your character that the reader hasn’t seen before, however you need to keep that change going so it doesn’t jar with the character’s development.

Be natural – the best one liners come naturally, when you’re in the moment and writing. Don’t over think, if that gut instinct says to put it in, do it. It can always come out later if it doesn’t work and you can save it for another time.

Keep a list – leading on from the last point, the one liner can come to you at a time that you’re not writing. You may hear it from someone else, deliver it yourself, or most likely think it in your head, wishing you’d said it! Make a note of these, whether that be in a notebook or on your phone. You never know when they will come in handy. To keep it as natural as possible when you write, you should review your list before you get started so they are in your head, or add them to your character bios. That way, one of the great lines from your list will make it in to your story in a more natural way.

Don’t force it – it is possible to insert a one liner during a later draft, however proceed with caution. I recently tried to add a line to my third novel which I thought could be funny in the right context: “Is it rude to throw a breath mint is someone’s mouth whilst they’re still talking?” In the end I took it out as it just didn’t work with that character, or scene. It’s back on the list for another time. No matter how funny or shocking it is, if it jars the natural flow of the writing then take it out; saving it for another day.

They’re not mandatory – I know some writers will sit there for hours thinking of how to deliver that knock-out blow that ends a conversation, scene or chapter. Procrastination is your enemy – stop thinking and move on. When you come back to that particular scene in a later draft read it aloud; if there’s a great one liner it’ll come to you. If not, then it wasn’t to be – don’t force it. Not everything requires an exit line…

About Nick Lennon-Barrett

Originally from North-West, England, moving to London as an adult and carving out a career as an HR and L&D professional. The writing bug was always there as a child, yet it wasn't until my 30s that I finally did something about it. The joy of working in HR is that you're never short of character inspiration! I'm an enthusiast of both crime and comedy fiction so when I decided to write my first novel my aim was to combine these two genres tackling topical issues in a dark comedy murder mystery. This was the start of the DCI Fenton Murder Trilogy.
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